The following story was published on the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) website on Wednesday, Dec. 18.
LEAD Cameron: A Community Growing Together
Middle school: An emotional rollercoaster of angst and confusion coupled with increased academic challenges that causes most of us to exhale a sigh of relief that those days are long gone. Yet LEAD Cameron, a middle school in Chestnut Hill, has instead created a learning environment that brings these common difficulties to the forefront—addressing them head-on – and is seeing remarkable gains in the process.
LEAD Cameron—traditionally known as Cameron College Prep—was founded through a unique partnership with Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) in which the LEAD charter network took over chronically underperforming Cameron Middle School in 2011. As a public charter school—one of six schools in the LEAD Public Schools network—Cameron has governance structures that allow the school to operate with autonomy around staff roles and schedules, professional development calendars, curriculum, and other decisions while still held to state accountability standards. And while most charter schools in Nashville have open enrollment policies and attract students from across the district, Cameron is one of the district’s only zoned neighborhood charter schools. The student body matches the diversity of its neighborhood and of Nashville as a whole, with over a third of the students being English language learners, and collectively speaking over 17 languages besides English at home. The school is the first successful district–charter partnership to turn around a struggling school in Tennessee, consistently receives awards for teaching and instruction, and is a three-time Reward School for top student growth in the state.
So how exactly does a middle school become a place where students feel safe, loved, happy, and thriving? How do teachers—in a profession where burnout is common—report exceptional levels of support and opportunities for professional learning that keep them in the classroom and developing their careers at Cameron? And how does a school do all of this while academically growing students at the highest rate possible to catch up with their peers? Consistent routines and systems create a culture at Cameron that fosters curiosity and wonder while paving the way for engaging, rigorous instruction. School leaders abide by the premise that, in order for students to thrive, teachers need to thrive too. And everyone in the school—school leaders, teachers, staff, and the students themselves—strives to develop and sustain a rich and supportive community driven by a simple belief in what’s possible.
Creating Learning Environments that Foster Student Success
At the heart of every LEAD school is a focus on ethos and culture. Five “I lead because …” statements line the walls at Cameron emphasizing commitment, courage, discipline, service, and self-reliance. These expectations are intentionally reinforced in every aspect of the school day, manifested through consistent beliefs, structures, and systems. From classroom to classroom, teachers use the same call-and-response phrases, students use the same signals to show agreement or disagreement during discussions, lessons have a similar flow and sequence, students enter and exit the classroom using similar routines, and teachers have the same rules and expectations for student behavior. These consistencies lead to an environment that is calm and eliminates confusion and create the types of academic spaces where teachers can more easily deliver high-quality instruction and help students to reach their highest academic potential.
This consistency can be particularly beneficial for students who are new to the United States. Cameron has a significant population of students new to the country, many of whom are entering school having had inconsistent or late-starting schooling experiences and speak little or no English. Cameron serves these students through its Newcomer Academy, designed to support the transition to attending school in Nashville, similar to programming in other MNPS schools serving similar populations. Students are in classes with their newcomer peers, with the goal of exiting the Newcomer Academy to join the rest of their classmates once they have demonstrated readiness. The classroom culture and systems that exist schoolwide at Cameron are part of what makes students in the Newcomer Academy so successful—the consistency and clarity create the context to allow them to rapidly access a large amount of new content and accelerate growth.
The consistent beliefs and systems ultimately create the types of trusting spaces where students feel comfortable asking questions and taking risks in their learning. “Teachers, counselors, adults are always looking out for you,” explained one Cameron student. “It makes you feel ready to be you and to be responsible.” A science teacher, recalling how a lesson was momentarily diverted when a student organized an impromptu class vote on the impact of lighting on learning, reflected on how the school’s culture empowers students to ask questions and investigate curiosities. Student survey data shows that students overwhelmingly feel that Cameron is a good learning environment, that high expectations are consistently implemented by their teachers, that it is OK to make mistakes in the classroom, and that their teachers believe in them.
Growing Students Through Community
While achievement data—showing students’ absolute scores on the annual state test—hovers right around district average overall, Cameron’s growth data—which measures student academic progress from one year to the next—is among the highest in MNPS middle schools. Out of around 50 middle schools in MNPS, only eight earned the highest growth score possible, not only overall but for every student subgroup as well for the 2018–19 school year. This means that not only did students on a general basis grow tremendously at Cameron, but specifically students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners, and students who are economically disadvantaged—students who often do not share equitably in the growth that some schools see. This level of high growth, consistent for all students, is not new for Cameron. The school has received similarly high results in the past six school years, scoring among the highest for middle schools for academic growth, which has earned them Reward School status in 2014, 2017, and 2018.
Part of the excitement about what’s going on at Cameron is that, while students are undoubtedly growing academically, the first thing they talk about is often the connection and belonging they feel in the school. “Cameron is a school that does things together,” shared one student. All students are part of a “crew,” a group of peers led by a school staff member who meet during dedicated times each week to discuss issues facing their lives, learn conflict resolution and other interpersonal skills, and gain support from their peers and staff members. Asking students what their favorite part of school is, the quick and enthusiastic answer we got was “Crewlympics!”—the “pep rally meets field day” celebration held at the end of each quarter. During Crewlympics, crews compete in freeze dance, tug-o-war, and relay races, all for the coveted spirit stick, which goes to the crew that is able to demonstrate the most crew spirit. In addition to the rigorous instruction and expectations occurring at Cameron, students are having fun, building community, and taking a break from academics to just be kids.
Teaching With Rigor and Love
When Cameron principal Kate Ring was a teacher, she recalls feeling a lack of support from her principal and how hard it was to be on your own in your classroom. Now, as the leader in her own school, she wants to make sure her teachers always feel supported. Her efforts to assess the needs of her teachers and use this information to strategically allocate resources, design professional learning, and individualize teacher development have made a significant impact on school culture for educators at Cameron. According to a recent staff survey, 97% of teachers at Cameron report liking the school’s culture, 86% feel communication is consistently clear and transparent, 82% believe they’ll be able to reach their full potential as educators at Cameron, and 97% report that they trust school leadership.
At the beginning of each year, Dr. Ring leads her staff in refining and agreeing upon a vision for effective teaching. “Effective teaching at Cameron,” the vision states, “is facilitating data-driven, student-centered work that is balanced by both rigor and love and is supported by a strong classroom culture and high expectations.” Teachers at Cameron are clear about what they want for students—an environment in which they feel physically and emotionally safe and academically challenged, where they can ask questions and make mistakes. They are clear about what attending school at Cameron should feel like—an environment that pushes you to be your best but supports you along the way. And they are clear about what actions must be taken in order to make this vision come to life—working collaboratively, implementing structure consistently, and making sure above all else that students know they are cared for and loved. By revisiting the vision for effective teaching each year, Cameron’s learning culture is intentionally cultivated and nourished to ensure that not just some, but all students will receive a high-quality instruction, and not just some, but all teachers will grow professionally and do their part to contribute to Cameron’s success.
Setting goals for growth as a path to achievement
For two weeks during the summer before the start of each school year, Cameron’s staff comes together to prepare for the school year—something they are able to do with their flexibility as a charter to set their own professional learning calendar. In addition to refining the vision for effective teaching, the team works together to set specific academic goals for what they want students to accomplish. Should the school prioritize absolute achievement scores, meaning how a student performed on a given test in relation to their peers? Or prioritize growth, meaning how a student shows progress from year to year? The answer is ultimately both, but in a school—and a district—in which students are chronically performing below grade level, student academic growth becomes a particularly telling metric as an indicator of the progress necessary to move closer toward achievement goals that may seem more long-term. Dr. Ring looks at past performance by students as well as how students are achieving in other middle schools across the district. The key is to set goals that are rigorous and challenging, yet still realistic and informed by the challenges being faced. It’s a delicate process, but a necessary one, as these goals are used to inform instruction, teacher coaching, and progress monitoring throughout the course of the year.
Developing highly effective teachers
Just as teachers have high expectations for students to constantly push themselves to grow academically, school leadership at Cameron expects—and supports—the same in teachers. “We have a really clear sense of what actions are needed from a high-performing team,” Dr. Ring said. Professional growth is a daily commitment at Cameron, and leadership has a structured plan to help teachers reach their full potential. “Everything is rooted in why we are here and why what we are doing is ultimately for the benefit of students,” Dr. Ring explained.
To understand how to chart this path forward, one of the first things the staff does every year is complete a process called Base Camp. This process, which takes place during the first two weeks of the school year with a follow-up in the first week of the second semester, involves coaches and instructional leadership going into every classroom, observing teachers, and providing feedback around a consistent set of processes. Base Camp, which is completed school-wide, is intended to norm teachers at Cameron on the same expectations and structures—similar language, routines, classroom management—that create the consistency that benefit both students and staff and make up such a large part of Cameron’s school culture. This also allows coaches to ensure they are providing feedback and suggestions in a consistent way, and provides vital information around teacher strengths and needs to inform the coaching that will take place year-round. In addition to this, Cameron’s staff is continually taking surveys throughout the year, to check that needs are being met and that feedback is intentionally sought on a regular basis. Surveys are given after every teacher professional development session, after every school event, at important milestones, and as needed during the school year. Data from these surveys is used to make adjustments, inform areas of focus, and keep lines of communication open.
Continuous improvement through shared ownership
When a teammate is falling short of an expectation, it can be very difficult—and sometimes awkward—to confront them about it. And when you are the teammate who is falling short, it can feel personal or like an attack when a colleague points out what you are doing wrong. This is a situation that everyone inevitably faces, and Cameron works hard to tackle it before it happens. By ensuring everyone is committed to the same vision for student success, and aligning expectations for every team member—teacher and admin alike—in a way that is publicly visible and constantly reinforced, Cameron creates a culture of shared accountability that gives teachers the tools, opportunity, and trusting relationships required to be able to have difficult conversations. The traits of a model LEAD Cameron student—disciplined, committed, self-reliant, courageous, serving others—are also the expectations for teachers and school leadership. It has been clearly delineated what a self-reliant teacher does, for example, or a committed administrator, or a coach serving others, not only grounding the team in a common purpose and a vision for success, but also providing the starting point to frame feedback in a solutions-oriented, mission-focused way.
This trusting community is earned through open, honest conversations, providing staff with wht they need to be successful, and follow-through. When school leadership shows time and again that they are not only listening to teachers, but enacting changes that value their time and work-life balance as professionals, teachers feel valued and more comfortable continuing to provide feedback or ask questions in the future. At Cameron, Principal Ring started “sustainability meetings” in which teachers can opt in to attend—rather than every meeting being mandatory—to provide space for teachers to give and receive feedback and discuss solutions on a range of topics as a group. Not only were teachers given autonomy to choose what they needed most, but the nature of the meetings—the fact that teachers attended solely because of a desire to collaborate, and the availability to do so—has proven very productive. One solution designed in a sustainability meeting, to alter the academic intervention structure of the school allowing more teacher planning time and an increase in the benefit to students, has since been implemented school-wide.
Administrators work to reinforce a trusting community among faculty and staff by consistently sending the message that “we are all in this together.” Teachers at Cameron appreciate the lack of hierarchy at the school—when they see administrators subbing in classrooms, helping to take attendance, or other typically teacher-designated tasks, it creates a working environment in which teachers are seen as equals, and administrators are approachable and supporting teachers to be their best.
While significant growth is occurring at Cameron in all aspects—growing students academically, growing teachers professionally, growing together as individuals part of a community—it is by nature an incremental process that takes intentionality and time. Cameron leaders recognize how small successes add up to big wins, and the significance of taking the time to celebrate them. Dr. Ring explains that these moments are the necessary milestones and building blocks for reaching high academic gains. When a student brings up their score on a math test just a few points, for example, it’s a big deal and is celebrated as such. It seems intuitive—this recognition of the incremental growth process—but it’s easy to forget in the swarm of every other responsibility and stressor in the frenzy of the school year. By actively pointing them out and celebrating these moments, not only does it help teacher morale, but students see how great progress can happen with each step of the way.
What’s happening at Cameron is by no means easy, and by no means by chance; but it is not overly complicated either. It is the combination of across-the-board high expectations, consistent structures and systems implemented with fidelity, a growth mindset and supports for both students and staff, and a belief in what’s possible. Teachers at Cameron speak passionately about the school, about their colleagues, their leadership, and most of all their students. “Everyone is committed to pushing kids to be the best they can possibly be.” “At the end of the day, everything is in service of students’ being better learners and better people.” “Teachers at Cameron know what it is like to move mountains.”