An excerpt from CREATIVE SCHOOLS:

Dr. Laurie Barron would have forgiven her students and colleagues if they’d fitted her office with a revolving door before her first day as principal of Smokey Road Middle School in Newnan, Georgia. After all, the school had been open for only five years, and it had already seen four other principals. “It wasn’t that we had poor or ineffective leaders,” she told me. “In fact, most of those leaders who preceded me were very successful, older principals. Three of them became superintendents. It was the lack of stable leadership. They weren’t there long enough to make anything happen.”


This was especially problematic in Smokey Road, where the numbers were not in the school’s favor. Located about thirty-five miles from Atlanta, nearly 20 percent of Newnan’s population are living below the poverty line, and more than 60 percent of Smokey Road’s students qualify as economically disadvantaged. When Laurie arrived at Smokey Road in 2004, the school consistently had the lowest academic achievement of the five middle schools in its district. It also had the highest number of absences, the highest number of discipline referrals, the highest number of charges filed with the juvenile justice system, and the highest number of students placed in alternative education systems because of discipline problems. Smokey Road needed help at a variety of levels, but Laurie decided that what it needed first was a sense of stability and safety.


“I spent that first year jumping over tables breaking up fights. People would ask me what kind of data I had, and I would tell them that I jump over tables; I don’t know anything about data. I’m very organized and data driven, but when I look back over my notebooks for my nine years there, I realize I don’t have any notebooks from that first year. The only thing I did that first year was to try to establish safety. None of the students felt comfortable, because there were all kinds of confrontations going on.”


Laurie spent a great deal of time in her initial year getting kids out of each other’s faces and, more often than she wanted, sending them home on suspension. It was necessary. Laurie realized that learning was nearly impossible when students were either picking fights or worried about getting into a fight. By the end of that first year, she’d put enough ground rules in place for the students to begin to understand what kind of behavior was expected of them. Most important of all, she came back for a second year. This put a halt to the revolving door and allowed the school to get to work on a productive long-term plan—a plan that had to break the habits that had become ingrained in the school’s culture.


“Our school wasn’t perceived as a good school, but this was just accepted. No one was disappointed in how we were performing. It was almost like, ‘Hey, you’re doing a good job with what you’ve got.’ It was fine to be what we were. That second year was when we really started to think about what we wanted to be about. We needed to get the kids to the point where they wanted to be here. We spent the whole year developing our mission and vision. That’s when we realized that we needed to get to know these kids. It was a very long process with involvement from teachers, students, business partners, and community members. We organized a parent-teacher organization. I believe a lot of the teachers believed in the kids, but holistically as a school, I don’t think we believed in the kids, and our community didn’t believe in the kids. I think some of the teachers did, because we had some quality teachers there who are still there today, but we didn’t have a big-picture mission.”


This vision evolved into a four-step plan. The first step was making sure that the kids came to school in the first place. Smokey Road had a very poor attendance record, and Laurie realized that the school had not created a culture where kids felt that it mattered that they were there—and that she was part of the problem. “I was suspending them all the time for fighting,” she said, “so I certainly wasn’t showing them that I wanted them to be there.”


Next, she and her team needed to make the students feel safe while they were at the school. The confrontations at Smokey Road rarely got to the point where anyone was getting seriously hurt, but the regular outbreaks had to stop if the kids were going to feel secure and undistracted.


After this, the next step was to help students feel valued as individuals. The true turnaround came when Laurie and her staff realized that they needed to deal with every student based on the needs and interests of each individual. (More on this in a moment.)


The fourth step was teaching the appropriate curriculum that the students needed for future success. It’s notable that Laurie saw this as the last of the four key steps. Curriculum was important, but only once the other objectives were in place. The same was true with evaluating her teachers.


“We really didn’t focus on teaching, because we had been teaching all along. I didn’t feel that the problem was that teachers didn’t know how to teach. It was that there were so many hindrances to teaching curriculum. I felt that if we could give them the kids for seventy-five minutes, they could do something with them. Once we had those other things in place, then we could look at the teachers. Before then, we couldn’t tell if the teacher struggled or not, because the problem could have been safety and classroom management or building relationships with kids. We were in every classroom every week. I had two assistant principals, and the three of us would visit every teacher every week. We couldn’t do that when we had seventy kids in our office every day for disciplinary reasons.”


Only when Laurie started to think about what mattered to her kids did things start to change at Smokey Road. “Whatever is important to the student is the most important thing. Nothing is more important than something else: football, band, math, English. We weren’t going to tell the students that football wasn’t important, that math was what was important. Our approach was that if football was most important to you, then we were going to do whatever it takes to keep you in football. When we started taking that approach, when kids started seeing that we valued what they valued, they started giving back to us what we valued. Once we started building relationships with the kids, they’d feel guilty about letting us down. They might not like math, but they didn’t want to let that math teacher down. Then the teachers could finally teach, instead of writing discipline referrals.


“I’ve got some teachers who couldn’t care less about football, but they’ll go to the football game and cheer on Bobby and then use Bobby in a science equation the next day. Bobby will do all the science in the world for that teacher.”


This kind of approach required Laurie to forgo the models she was getting from the state and from the federal government, and to let go of any elements of “we’ve always done it that way” thinking that might have remained. And it worked brilliantly with so many of the students. One of her students was a good athlete, but he failed sixth grade, largely because he’d received thirty-three discipline referrals. When Laurie finally got him to see that she agreed that athletics were the most important thing in his life, the discipline problems abated. “He had two referrals total in seventh and eighth grades. And he passed every standardized test. He was black, special education, free and reduced-cost lunch—he was a statistic waiting to happen. We told him that football could be more important than anything else he did, but we would have to help him get through that.”


She gave me another example. “We have a girl in chorus: white female, special education, economically disadvantaged. Her father died when she was in fourth grade. She shut down, didn’t want to do anything. She was failing sixth grade. My chorus teacher saw something in her and gave her a solo. She sang the solo in November and made all A’s the rest of the year. She would have never made it, but the teacher said that all she wanted to do was sing. You’ve got to listen to what’s important to the child.


“Our teachers don’t get in front of the class and say, ‘You all have to pass the math test.’ They go to each kid: ‘Hey, you want to be in band; you want to play first chair? Doing well in math is going to help you.’ You can get anyone to do you a favor. You can’t get groups to follow a mandate.” The change in Smokey Road was obvious to everyone, and the stats improved dramatically as well. Test scores were up in every subgroup—special education student test scores improved 60 percent in math and reading—and there was a dramatic increase in attendance and a significant drop in discipline referrals.


The turnaround at Smokey Road was so profound that the school was named a Georgia Title I Distinguished School and a 2011 MetLife Foundation–NASSP Breakthrough School for being high achieving while serving a large number of students living in poverty. Laurie Barron herself was named 2013 MetLife/ NASSP National Middle Level Principal of the Year.1


What Laurie Barron saw at Smokey Road was a school in desperate need of reform—not the kind of reform that comes from state mandates or federal standards, but the kind that comes from the ground up when you truly understand your students and your educators. Laurie embodies the kind of reform so necessary in our schools. But, as we’re about to see, “reform” has different definitions for different people.