“Mom went to work the 3am shift and thought her boys had gone to school,” Principal Sheryl Mosley tells me.
“One of the brothers showed, the other didn’t. I always check up on them because of her work schedule. The third-grade brother said he thought his brother was behind him on his way to school, but he might have turned back. My secretary went to the house. He had gone back home because he wasn’t feeling well and was throwing up. She brought him to the school and Mom left work to come get him.
“I told him if mom’s at work and he’s not feeling well to come to school. Just come straight to my office. I’ll take you to the nurse. He has no way to reach mom in the house alone. We will call her to come get you. Just last week he was sick and came to school. His dad came to pick him up.”
Mosley, the newly appointed principal of Hilltop Elementary, told me story after story like this. Almost like it’s no-big-deal that the staff taught 20 weeks of afterschool programs for free because she didn’t have the money to pay them; or that they babysit the younger kids so the older ones don’t have to go home early to watch them; or that they drive them home if that’s the only way to get them there. “Our teachers stay in the trenches, and I’m there with them,” she says.
Keeping close tabs on kids, asking one brother why the other didn’t show, sending the secretary to pick up a sick boy, and working with parents to come up with better strategies to meet the needs of each child demonstrates the level of care that Mosley and her staff have for their students. But it’s more than simply “feel-good stuff.” The staff is more than just nice and loving. It’s the difference between going easy on a student because you don’t want them to feel stress, and holding them to high expectations because you love them enough to let them struggle a little now so they can struggle less later. It’s the kind of care that propels students to better academic success for the kids.
The largely Spanish-speaking migrant population of Hilltop Elementary arrives in October every year to work the fields after picking apples in Michigan. This means kids lose about 6 weeks of instruction every year. Every single student qualifies for free or reduced priced lunch. These facts alone would typically signal that these kids will struggle academically, that they’re at a disadvantage. But don’t tell them that. Hilltop has an “A” rating and they’re thriving compared to schools with similar challenges.
We don’t wait for interim reports
Mosley had been running the school for years without the principal title and made changes based on what the data was telling her. She noted that students performed best in subjects their teachers really enjoyed teaching. So, she created subject area tracks, allowing teachers to teach the subjects they loved. 3rd, 4th and 5th grades now rotate through math, language arts and science/social studies teachers. Student results skyrocketed.
“We do it together…all of us. We look at each kids’ data every week, not just when interim reports are due. We talk about what we are seeing for each kid. What more can we do? What extra can we give?” said Mosley. “And, just because one person teaches math, doesn’t mean they are not responsible for reading. There is no longer “your kid, or my kid”. They are all our kids. Every teacher in that hallway can tell you about any child.”
In a district with five elementary schools Hilltop consistently sits on the top of the pile, even over the schools in the more affluent areas. They have a waitlist for their 389 slots, of which over 150 kids request waivers to attend. There is no real PTA to speak of yet, and they have to host open houses extra late so families can get home from the fields and clean up to show up. Babysitting and a hotdog dinner helps with the turnout.
Mosley’s embrace of data-driven instruction is the beginning of her belief in accountability. “When teachers, administrators and school support personnel are held accountable for student success, we look at it more closely at everything from the data, the materials being used, who is teaching and the child as a person. We are accountable for every aspect of that child’s education.”
Why Hilltop Elementary?
Hilltop Elementary is not perpetuating the cycle of poverty or any stereotype in education.
I visited because I was simply frustrated by the onslaught of negative chatter in the school-reform conversation. Poor kids, brown kids, underperforming schools, teaching to the test…There are not enough images or stories of everyday poor families who work hard (sometimes manually) and create a home life of love and structure, with a powerful respect for education.
Their stories are NOT abnormal. And, not telling them is a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads us to falsely believe all poor kids fail and all white kids succeed.
What is sadly “abnormal” is Hilltop Elementary, in Hardee County FL expecting audacious things of their students. “They can handle it. Expectations…that’s one of the thing the kids will tell you about. Expectations. If you teach it, they will rise to the occasion. I tell them I’d put them up against any kid in any school in the state of Florida. They can do it and they have. They outperform the whole district on every benchmark.”
Mosley credits the a combination of good “old school teaching”, non-excuses “extra” for EVERY student, and ongoing individualized strategies and assessments for their long-term success.
Whether she will say it or not (and she wouldn’t) she’s created a culture of dedicated staff and hands-on leadership, supported by parents who do anything for their child’s education, including show up when they are called.