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Resources / Voices from the Field

Karen Thomson, Principal, Stroudsburg Middle School

September 2008

Karen Thomson, Princiapl, Stroudsburg Middle SchoolMs. Karen Owens-Thomson began her administrative career at Stroudsburg Area School District in 2005 as an Assistant Principal at Stroudsburg Junior High School. She became principal at the Middle School in 2007. Before that, Ms. Owens-Thomson was an administrator at East Stroudsburg North High School and Lehman Intermediate. Her teaching career began at JT Lambert Intermediate School in 1998, where she taught Middle School Science. She is also one of the few administrators who began their career as a school bus driver back in the early 90's.

She obtained her Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education from East Stroudsburg University and pursued her Master’s of Educational Leadership degree at Wilkes University.

Best Evidence Encyclopedia: What are some of the efforts you’ve been involved in to improve student achievement in your school based on research-proven practices and methods?

Karen Thomson: When I was first hired as pincipal, the school had only been open for two years. The day that I was hired, I was told that we were already on School Improvement 1*. The school was already behind before I started. Specifically it was IEP (individualized education program) students who failed to make AYP (adequately yearly progress).

We put into place many valuable supports and worked very hard towards helping our neediest students achieve. Unfortunately, we were not successful in math, and that is why I got involved with the concept of best evidence. We were using a program that the teachers told me was not working. When I asked around, I found that others were seeing the same results. It bothered me deeply that the only research available for the program was coming from the manufacturers. When I saw a flier for the Center for Data-Driven Reform’s (CDDRE) Summer Institute on identifying and implementing research-proven programs I said, “This is perfect.”

BEE: Was the CDDRE Institute flier your first awareness of the Hopkins effort with research in the field of education?

KT: Yes, and I wanted to stand up and clap once I got there. I come from the business world (my family owned and operated a franchise for twenty years), so I’ve had experience dealing with vendors and perks and the games people play when money’s involved. It bothered me when that type of business came into education. I’m purchasing things and a salesman will say to me, “Oh, we don’t do it that way.” So it really pleased me to find out that there was impartial research going on, because I think our kids deserve that.

BEE: What have you done since the CDDRE Institute to lead the educational reform effort at your school?

KT: I taught everybody. I was so excited. Right away I went down to Central Offices and I said, “I’d love to share what I learned at this conference.” And they allowed me to. First, I did a presentation with our administrative staff and turned them on to this idea of using evidence-proven programs. I gave them an overview that I broke into two pieces: half about programming and the Best Evidence Encyclopedia website and the other half about the principles of teaching and learning. Then I took the presentation back to my building and turned my teachers on to this idea of using research-proven programs. I said, “Finally this is occurring in our country in education.” I opened up the dialogue. That’s how I accomplished what I wanted to. I got other people involved. There were some that were more skeptical that said, “What are we going to do now?” A lot of them looked up their programs on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia and said “Oh, that’s not good.” And I said, “No, that’s not good. So what are we going to do about it?” I pretty much used the CDDRE Institute as a sounding board to start dialogue with my staff. I told them, you know what, we are professionals. We need to be accountable to our students learning and we need to begin with looking at how we do things and how we spend our money.

BEE: Have you gone through the process yet of setting goals, analyzing the data, doing root cause analysis, and then choosing an intervention?

KT: Yes, just within the last month we’ve developed our strategic plan as far as short-term and long-term goals. And our state, Pennsylvania, also requires that I do a school improvement plan that’s all about identifying the root cause and setting goals. And we’re certainly analyzing the data to a whole new level this year, which I am thrilled about. We had recently purchased a data mining system. We didn’t have one in the past and I bought it for other districts. Do you know how difficult it is to analyze the data when you don’t have some sort of system that can filter? We’re in a huge motion of change right now at Stroudsburg. And everything I learned at the CDDRE Institute is exactly what we’re doing.

As far as identifying the problems and adopting where we’re going, we’re figuring out what our weaknesses are and developing a plan to overcome them. I’m the shaker and the mover of the group because, like I said, the CDDRE Institute totally energized me. I know in my heart, we need to change.

BEE: Besides yourself, who is going to be involved in the decision-making on the direction to take and interventions to implement?

KT: My first contact was our current assistant superintendent. He was just as excited as I was. He actually had heard about this educational reform movement and he wanted to know everything. It’s great that he actually wants to be involved. He said, “Keep me in the loop with these folks.” He’s a big fan as well and he is supporting me on implementing, which is half the battle.

BEE: To help the students that particularly need to increase their achievement, will you have a group of people looking at interventions, comparing them, and then as a group coming up with new practices to adopt?

KT: Yes, and it’s already started, which I am excited about because, like I said, last year was my first year and I knew what needed to be done. I love teaching and I’m still a teacher at heart. To me, I’m very excited because now, all of a sudden, I have a team with my reading specialists, my math specialists, my assistant, and my guidance counselor. I feel like we’re strategizing. The dialogue is open. We’re trying to figure out how we are going to monitor the progress of these students. Little by little, we’re coming up with these practices to ensure that what we’re doing is working on a monthly basis. That’s never been done before here and it’s exciting because I have more people involved, more brains in the game. They are sharing and helping me establish groups of students that we’re tracking. We’re also reaching out to families for buy-in so we can have their support too. I feel like we’re moving in a new direction and I find it very exciting

BEE: Have you gotten to the point yet of looking up programs on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia, reviewing what has evidence of effectiveness, and then deciding what program would be a good fit for your school?

KT: Yes, we did that for math. The first program we reviewed didn’t fit us, so we didn’t choose it. But the second one we reviewed looked like a good fit. We did research on the program and we found out there were other schools in our area using it. My teachers opened up a dialogue with the other schools as far as special needs students and learning math. We’re changing our programming specifically for IEP students and math based on best evidence.

BEE: When will you be implementing the new program?

KT: We’ve already started. The program we chose (Saxton Math) has a very user-friendly website where you can download grade level testing for free, just to help you figure out where you’re students are currently. It’s sort of a little starter area to see everything about the program. At that point, I only had three teachers willing to do it. I had their buy-in and that sense of urgency for improvement from them. I wanted to pick teachers who were buying into it. So that part has already started. It’s not the entire population, but it’s three classrooms. We’re going to collect the data, compare, monitor, evaluate, and then go to the entire population next year, if the program has proven to be successful.

BEE: What obstacles did you encounter from your initial investigation into research-proven math programs to implementation of the program you chose in the three classrooms?

KT: The first challenge was finding a program with strong evidence of effectiveness that also fit the needs of our school. In our school, we tend to homogeneously group the children with disabilities. The first research-proven program we were looking at required more of a heterogeneous mix, so that was our first challenge. The programming didn’t fit our current makeup. We had to detour that and look for a program that had the evidence that also fit our organization.

BEE: Did you encounter any resistance from other teachers or administrators who haven’t yet bought into the movement toward research-proven programs?

KT: Yes, I could sense a lot of the, “yeah, yeah, yeah, same old whatever” attitude. I sensed a complacent attitude towards change. The bottom line is that I’m very excited and enthusiastic about change and I try to instill, at least in my staff, the fact that we need to change our thinking here. My superintendent’s line is, “The train has left the station. Either get on board or get off.” It was easy for me to follow suit with that kind of message. Like I said, we’re at a period of change here at Stroudsburg. I like change. I’m very pleased with the direction our district is moving.

BEE: Who actually did the research on the math program you chose?

KT: My special education teachers. I had turned to my special education director and she didn’t know which program to choose. So I turned to my IU (intermediate unit) and I didn’t get an answer from her either, and that bothered me. So I taught my special education teachers how to use the Best Evidence Encyclopedia website and we just ran with it. And then two weeks into it, the IU got back to me and I told her, “We looked at the Best Evidence Encyclopedia and we’re leaning toward this particular program .” I asked her what her opinion of the program was. She looked at the spreadsheet and said, “Listen, this program is having wonderful results.” She gave us additional information just to reinforce the fact that our thinking was good and on track.

BEE: What role does your IU play in choosing which programs to implement?

KT: The IU services a lot of school districts. They’re my experts that I rely on for things like this. I do have to tell you that I was very happy when I had gone to my last training in regards to writing a state improvement plan. The Best Evidence Encyclopedia website is listed as a suggestion for researching programs. I smiled when I saw that. I pointed it out to everyone I was sitting with. I was like, “Look!” To me that’s a step in the right direction.

BEE: Are you going to need special resources to implement the new math program you chose?

KT: I don’t think we do enough as far as resources go. It’s going to be a nice chunk of change to buy all of the resources for as many as 50 special needs students, but I want to have resources for them to take home. It’s going to be an investment, but I think it’s a good investment. We’re buying something that works. Time is of the essence here, so I’m pleased.

BEE: What are the implications for professional development and training?

KT: I would like to send my special education teachers to a school district about 50 miles away where they are implementing the program we chose in a middle school setting for special education kids. I would love to collaborate with the school and send my teachers there for the day.

BEE: It sounds like in your situation, rather than having a district choose a particular solution for you, that you have the autonomy to apply the resources you need and choose your own approach.

KT: I have that somewhat, but it’s another challenge. I will take some heat for using my own approach. But again, I’m lucky that most of the folks trust me and know that I’m not going to sit idle on a need. I’m going to address it. And I have all of the data in the world to prove to them that I should. That’s why they gave me this position. I’m sure I’m going to have to move some money around, but hopefully I won’t fall short. I‘ll be able to do exactly what I want to do, because I want to do it great and I want to prove that this is a worthy investment.

BEE: How are you going to evaluate the success of the activity and in what intervals?

KT: The math program we chose actually helps you with that. The program is so well-planned and with the progress monitoring that the staff already does, the assessments are already embedded in the content. It’s done on a monthly basis and it’s consistent and clear. That part’s easy.

BEE: Is there anything that you have developed in the way of a plan that might be useful as a model for anyone else?

KT: It’s still a work in progress right now. The bottom line is that I’ve used the CDDRE Institute and the Best Evidence Encyclopedia as a tremendous resource to help change the mindset of educators around me. A lot of people in education have never really thought about the fact that education is a business to manufacturers, publishers, etc.; that a lot of these companies are driven by profit. That’s the goal of business. However, we need to be more skeptical in our approaches and know that we’re in the business of helping children achieve the most they can. They deserve that. Our choices in programming and resources are huge.

Aside from that, one thing I’ve done that I can share with you is that I’ve set a goal to expose my teachers to different forms of technology. One way I’ve achieved this is by creating learning communities in the building through wikis. Wikis help us maintain our own internal knowledge portal.

BEE: How often are teachers posting to the wiki?

KT: Only once a month. It’s kind of like homework from faculty meetings. And to be honest with you, it shook their world at first because they thought, “What’s a wiki? I don’t even know what a wiki is.” But I have a computer facilitator that helped them get over the, “What the heck’s a wiki” hurdle and after they started learning about wikis, they embraced the idea.

BEE: How have you fostered the idea of having teachers coach one another and bring each other along in this process?

KT: I call it peer support because the bottom line is that our peers are our single biggest resource. That’s why I paired the teachers up with people they didn’t know; for example, people on different grade levels, or different curriculums. It’s such a big building that some teachers don’t even see each other. Sometimes I assume they know each other, but they don’t. So what we’re doing is opening up the dialogue regarding issues that affect achievement, how to identify problems, and what we should know about good teaching.

* “School Improvement 1” means the school has not met Adequate Yearly Progress two years in a row. See: http://phila.schoolnet.com/files/ayp/nclb/_School_District_of_Philly_2002_2003.pdf

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