“F” stands for FAST, not Failure
Fessenden Elementary School in Ocala, Florida has had its fair share of challenges over the past 150 years. Opened in 1868 with the original mission of educating freed slaves, Fessenden provided educational opportunities for African American students during a time when racism and racial segregation were the norm.
Today, Fessenden Elementary School, a racially integrated school that is part of the Marion County School District, continues its quest to serve students who live in poverty. And, once again, it has overcome its latest challenge—a school grade of “F” issued from the State of Florida in 2018. As one of only twenty-five elementary schools in Florida with such a designation, Fessenden found itself in the lowest one-half percent of schools in the State. However, by embracing the mindset that “F” represented Fessenden Fast, not failure, the historic school demonstrated significant growth and earned a school grade of “C” after only one year.
To effect this growth, a team of committed teachers, staff and school administrators, along with support from the Marion County Public Schools, the State of Florida School Bureau of School Improvement, and external school turnaround support from Ro Educational Leadership, Inc., helped Fessenden take its next step towa the prominence deserving of its history.
To begin the journey, a new principal had to be hired, a team of committed teachers and staff had to be put in place, and a turnaround plan had to be designed and put in place—fast.
Identifying a Leader
The first move that Deputy Superintendent Jonathan Grantham and Area One Director Melissa Kinard had to make was the hiring of a new principal—Lacy Redd. An experienced Florida administrator, Ms. Redd had experience in multiple districts and multiple schools where there were large number of students who lived in poverty. Fessenden would become her newest challenge.
Building a Team
The next step was for Ms. Redd to build a cohesive team out of the returning staff members and replace multiple teachers who left the school through normal attrition or through mandated transfers dictated by the State due to performance. Hiring a quality staff when qualified teachers were limited and the stigma of being an “F” school was ever-looming proved to be a challenge. Over the course of the year, the churn of teacher turnover remained constant with numerous teachers being hired, many classes having multiple teachers throughout the year, and some classrooms being staffed by substitutes.
To help provide support to the instructional staff, Ms. Redd and her assistant principal, Ms. Lisa Coy, rebuilt their leadership team to include instructional support personnel. By the end of the first semester, three instructional coaches—Ms. Courtney Hauck (Math), Ms. Angela Slagle (English/Language Arts) and Dr. Suzy Colvin (Multi-Tiered Support)—were added to the team.
Phase One: Fessenden Fast
Ms. Redd realized from the onset that strong instructional processes had to be in place for Fessenden to be successful. To assist with this task, Ms. Redd turned to a partner with whom she had worked before—Mark Rolewski from Ro Educational Leadership, Inc. Having served as a turnaround principal himself and working with turnaround schools from across the country for the past twenty years, Mr. Rolewski helped Ms. Redd design and implement Phase One of the turnaround process—Fessenden Fast, where the “F” grade represented “fast,” not failure.
Fessenden Fast combined a results-oriented, collaborative, standards-based instructional approach in which teams generated common laser-like goals and used common short- and mid-cycle formative assessments to determine the effectiveness of their instruction. Recognizing that only one out of every four students at Fessenden was reading at grade level and armed with data generated from the frequent assessments, teams were able to make timely instructional decisions and provide additional opportunities to learn—within and outside of the regular classroom—for students who were struggling.
Teachers remained focused and diligent throughout the year by engaging in ongoing, team-centered professional development that strengthened skills in collaborative planning, instruction, and reflection, and created a culture of mutual accountability centered on results. Teams were also provided with opportunities to develop high-quality student tasks aligned with the standards and learned brain-based instructional techniques designed to engage all students—particularly those who live in poverty—in learning.
Phase Two: Fessenden Forward!
Of course, building a school that lives up to the reputation of its past requires more than a one-year commitment. Therefore, formal planning for 2019-20 began in January 2019, long before the results of Phase One were known. Phase Two—Fessenden Forward!—is designed to build on the strengths of Fessenden Fast and further lay the foundation for continued improvement at the storied school. The five components of Fessenden Forward! focus on the school team strengthening their ability to know their students, teams, standards, instruction and results.
Fessenden is a school that was created to beat the odds. A committed group of people with clear goals and path can continue to create a school that is deserving of its history. As third grade teacher,Ms. AJ Vereen stated, “I’m excited about the 2019-20 school year. Let’s go!” Phase Two—Fessenden Forward!—is already underway!