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Sandy Grove Middle School: Heading North, B-Bound

“It looks good on paper.”

In my experience, this sentence is usually closely followed by, “but it’s too good to be true.” Whether it’s the diet fad that didn’t help you lose those five pounds fast, or that new movie that got rave reviews but didn’t make any sense to you, that old adage is somehow true more often than not.

But we’ve learned that’s not the case in Hoke County.

Settled in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, Hoke County is a rural district where every school in the 2015-16 school year met or exceeded expected academic growth; a claim that no other district in the state can make.

For several years, we have been watching impressive improvements develop in Hoke County schools. Just three years ago, more than half of Hoke County schools received a D or F letter grade. Today, not one school is below a C, and most of these schools exceeded growth on their latest assessments. And of the 13 schools in Hoke County, two of them have exceeded growth for each of the last three years — Hoke County High and Sandy Grove Middle School. We decided to tour the latter.

It looked good on paper.

But, what we found when Principal Tommy Jacobs met us at the door was not what it looked like on paper.

In fact, it was better.

Walking into Sandy Grove Middle School is like walking into a textbook example of a “Good-to-Great” for education. Students, regardless of their challenges outside the classroom, are all held to the same high expectations and benefit from personalized learning. Teachers feel valued and supported while making data-driven decisions using the latest technology. The principal and assistant principals (as with all principals I spoke with in Hoke County) feel empowered and supported by the Superintendent. And the Superintendent — who, by the way, was 2016 NC Superintendent of the Year — is given support and latitude from the Hoke County Board of Education.

From the moment we entered the building, there was a buzz.

The entire school is motivated — you can feel it. They have a schoolwide motto, which reminds both students and teachers of their mission to improve their school grade: “Headed North, B-bound!” In one of the main hallways, a beehive is stapled to a poster board, surrounded by pictures of bees. The school’s mission is obvious to everyone in the building.

In order to move from a C grade to a B grade, teachers are rolling up their sleeves and looking for ways to enable every student to rise to their highest potential.

We personally watched as teachers gathered around laptops to review interim assessment data and determine which students needed extra supports or a ‘double dose’ of their coursework. But while teachers are looking at data, the students are clearly not just numbers. These teachers clearly care about each student and are developing individual strategies for each of them according to their needs and strengths.

We visited Sandy Grove Middle School because of its extraordinary academic improvements but another surprise that was not evident in the data is that the building is one of the most innovative K-12 buildings in the country. The rooftops are covered in solar panels and every aspect of the school was designed to eliminate energy costs. Over the lifetime of the school, Hoke County expects to see $16 million in energy savings. They also received special tax credits for the construction, so the net cost for the building and maintaining the school is half the cost of the elementary school right next door.

The fact that one of the most innovative buildings in the country is sitting right here in Hoke County would normally seem out of place. In talking with school board members, you can tell that taking a chance on this school building was a difficult decision. It was cutting edge technology that no one else had tried, and that carried an inherent risk. And yet, the board agreed to do it for the same reason that other initiatives are doing so well in Hoke County — because they have a great Superintendent that the Board trusts to make the right decisions for their students.

While Sandy Grove Middle School is a textbook example of great management, data-driven decision making, and high expectations with a heart, they still face challenges. For one, of the school leader has little funding flexibility; a symptom of outdated funding mechanisms that have been in place for decades. For example, their ‘double dose’ program to boost math and English classes for struggling students is funded by student chocolate sales. Summer remediation programs are funded with doughnut sales.

I believe much of Hoke County’s success is attributable to great leadership, which is difficult to influence and scale through policy. But, we did take some policy and programmatic inspiration from our visit. For example, the 1-to-1 student-to-laptop ratio enables teachers to really personalize learning for their students. The devices make it possible to get real-time data from formative assessments, regroup students according to their knowledge gaps, and then provide solutions that work to close those gaps.

Also, while teachers have historically had to develop their own formative assessments, English and math recently moved to standardized formative assessments. The teachers we talked with said that this move was very helpful. It allows them to focus on teaching and not spending their time creating assessments.

But amongst all these inspirations, what sticks with me the most is the learning I witnessed with my own two eyes. Classroom after classroom of energetic, motivated and engaged students; row after row of raised hands; curious question after curious question.

And for me, that’s what this is all about. Innovation is useless unless our students are benefiting. And thanks to the leadership in the classrooms and offices of Sandy Grove and Hoke County, we can see what our schools can do in capable, confident and empowered hands.

I believe Sandy Grove Middle School is indeed heading north … B-bound!

Brenda Berg

Brenda Berg is the president & CEO of BEST NC (Business for Educational Success and Transformation in NC). She has over thirty years of experience as a business owner and public policy professional, including education policy research and in the education office of the U.S. Senate Labor & Human Resources Committee (now HELP). Her two children attended North Carolina public schools.