As 2020 rolls in, BirminghamWatch looks back at its biggest stories of 2019, highlighting a different one each day.
When Dr. Terrell Brown took over as principal at Birmingham City’s Minor Elementary School, the school had a failing “F” grade. By the time he left three years later, Minor had improved to a “C.”
Over at W.E. Putnam Middle School, where Brown is now, the goal is to do a repeat.
Brown is taking his best practices from Minor and his time at Midfield City Schools — which included focusing on the marginal performers, creating individual learning plans and increasing parent buy-in — and is applying them to his efforts to turn Putnam around from its “F” report card grade and five-time appearance on the AAA failing schools list.
Brown’s commitment to changing Putnam’s path goes deep. He gets personally involved, riding buses home with students, meeting with parents in their homes and at neighborhood meetings, creating forums where students’ voices are heard. Also very important to Brown is that he build a culture of excellence and rewards, where no achievement is too small to be publicly celebrated and every student is recognized for their gifts.
In 2004, after completing his student teaching assignment at Glen Iris Elementary School and graduating from UAB, Terrell Brown began teaching sixth grade at Martha Gaskins Middle School, which is now Martha Gaskins Elementary School, and remained there for six years. Brown left Birmingham City Schools for an assistant principal position in Tuscaloosa and later took over the principal role at Rutledge Middle School in the Midfield City School district.
In 2015, Brown returned to BCS as the principal of Minor Elementary School, where he remained until the end of the 2017-2018 school year.
Brown, currently the principal at W.E. Putnam Middle School, attributes his successes in turning around student performance at Minor, as well as at Rutledge in Midfield, to setting high but attainable goals, creating individual plans for each of the 437 students and including parents and children in the formulation of those plans.
“It started in the summer before school started, putting a plan in place,” said Brown. “We had goal-setting for each student. We had an individualized plan for each student making them aware of what proficiency looks like.”
“We doubled what the state required for the goals,” said Brown about setting high academic performance standards. “The kids didn’t know, but I doubled the score.”
Brown calls Minor a true community school — one where most of the students live within walking distance to the campus. He took advantage of the close proximity, walking students home at times and touching base with parents.
“This school is in a neighborhood. If I had a kid who had a bad day, I literally would walk them home,” he said. “I would say ‘Come on, I’m going to walk you home and talk to Mom or Dad.’”
Brown would use those informal visits to check in with the parents on the student’s progress and to elicit support for the student’s learning.
“It’s nothing scientific: just sit down and talk to them,” he said. “I would show the parents the data binders (charting the student’s testing scores) and show them without using high terms.”
Using a strategy to first target the students and their parents who scored close but not fully proficient, Brown asked the social studies teachers and reading coaches to collaborate so that students spent three hours on reading activities during the school day. Brown also set up after-school, intensive, small group study sessions.
“The year that we made the big jump (at Minor), we moved a lot of kids from partially proficient to proficient, said Brown.
“We told the parents, ‘Your kids are on the cusp, but it is only as good as your buy-in. Baseball, basketball, that’s a commitment, but this (after-school study group) is for a lifetime.’” he said.
Brown also used incentives to encourage the students to work hard, continually celebrating improvements. Rewards could be as simple as an announcement over the PA system, to points that accumulate for students to purchase small prizes, to large celebrations such as pizza parties or excursions to a venue. Rewards and celebrations were made possible through partnerships with and donations from private businesses and nonprofits.
Moving the Mission to Putnam
Brown has spent this 2018 -2019 school year as principal at W.E. Putnam Middle School. With a failing Education Report Card grade of F (58), the principal is addressing many of the challenges the same way he did at Minor Elementary School.
Brown started planning last summer, setting high goals and creating individualized plans. But there are some differences in some of the other approaches.
He still believes in celebrating the small and the big wins, but Putnam has required additional effort to set up rewards and incentives. Coming up with rewards wasn’t hard at Minor; Brown said the school already had strong partnerships, especially with Protective Life, to help fund that effort. At Putnam, however, there are few partnerships in place, so Brown must work to develop more relationships.
Brown says area churches have provided help. One church funded a trip to a bowling alley for 69 students who met proficiency on their math and reading scores.
“Some met other annual target goals like attendance and academic growth, and those achievements will be celebrated too,” said Brown.
Working with parents at the middle school grades also requires a different approach than when Brown was at Minor. “Connecting with parents is easier at the elementary school stage, Brown said. “You have kindergartners and Pre-K, so the parents are really excited about school and getting the kids started.
“I try my best to meet with every parent that walks through the door, whether or not they are trying to meet with me, to at least introduce myself,” said Brown.
Putnam students mostly arrive and leave by school bus, so Brown uses the school buses to his advantage – riding them to build deeper connections with students, especially those he sees as needing the most attention.
“I saw some of the kids angry or with other needs like backpacks or other things they needed,” said Brown. “I felt compelled to ride and to make sure when they got off the bus I was the last person to speak to them and to tell them something positive.”
Brown also holds monthly student-led summits, one for the girls and one for the boys, to allow them to talk about things that are concerning them.
In addition to the individualized academic components, developing the school culture is critical, he said.
“I put every kid’s name (on the walls) in the cafeteria. We have to embrace our differences. Everyone has something they can bring. Everyone isn’t a cheerleader or a basketball player,” said Brown. Whether the student is involved in sports, debate or art, Brown’s goal is to find a way to acknowledge their accomplishments.
Brown created a slogan, “Excellence is our only option,” to reflect his goal for the overall culture of the school. “That’s the message. It’s catchy for the kids. Everything we do is set at a standard of excellence. If I tell them they have to bring home a ‘C,’ then that’s what they will do,” he said. “We shoot for the ‘A.’”