It was a classic case of foreshadowing.
As teachers drove to East Wake High School Tuesday morning for their first official day back at school before classes start on Monday, they ran into a traffic jam on the roads around the school.
When they finally arrived at the school, they were greeted by signs marking all kinds of construction zones.
The school’s new principal, Stacey Alston, greeted the cafeteria full of faculty and staff shortly after 9, dressed in a neon yellow workvest like the member of a road construction crew. He introduced himself as a project foreman and his assistant principals as project managers.
The elaborate play on words was a visual success, but Alston says it really represents what students, teachers and administrators are going to face this year as the school opens as a single unit for the first time in 10 years.
The Wake school board agreed last spring to dismantle the small schools concept that had been in place for the last decade, citing a lack of improvement in student achievement and social splintering among students.
Alston said teachers, parents, students and administrators can expect some bumps along the way as the school reinvents processess and focuses on new solutions for achievement shortfalls.
Tuesday began with a breakfast and activities throughout the day were centered around getting the faculty and staff excited about the new year and spelling out the expectations for all the staff.
“As they start planning this week, we want to make sure that everyone understands the expectations. A lot of times, it’s not that people don’t want to meet your expectations. It is that they don’t understand what the expectations are,” Alston said Tuesday night. “I wanted to make sure everyone got the same message.”
Those expectations, he said, begin with the school’s administration and filter through teachers and down to students. He said he expects teachers and administrators to be on the same page when it comes to issues such as enforcing the rules and that the things teachers and administrators do are focused on helping the student be smarter.
“You have to push people to find things in themselves they didn’t know they had. You have to be able to push people almost to the point where they doubt themselves,” Alston said. Along the way, celebrating success is important too. “We have to know what motivates them,” Alston said of students. “We can’t measure the success of every child in a linear way. We have to celebrate that one who grows a lot even when there’s a lot more they can do.”
And that, Alston says, is where the pushing comes in.
Aiming for improvement
“We can’t settle. People get in a comfortable place and sometimes I think they settle. We’re not comfortable with where we are. From a kid’s perspective, they always want more money. We have to get them to want more of school,” Alston said.
The changes coming to East Wake are more than just talk, the new principal points out. New rules will trim the use of cell phones and students will be limited in the parts of campus they can visit before and after school. Time will be set aside on Wednesday afternoon for remediation opportunties or for students who are ready, to work ahead of their peers. Alston says he also plans to communicate with the community in new ways.
He pointed to a newsletter recently sent to parents and families ahead of the start of school. “We wanted to start communicating with students and parents early and we think the newsletter is one way to do that. As far as I can tell, this is the first time something like that’s been done at East Wake,” Alston said. He also has higher expectations for parents. After school sessions will be offered four days a week and he expects students to attend.
“We get our children to the mall and swim practice and the movies. We can get them back to school, too,” Alston said. “We have to explain to parents that their child has to be at this lab. Not that he can be. We have to change our language.”
Alston and other school officials know that not all the changes will be well-received and some, he said, might fail. Administrators have to adjust to those issues. But he points out, for every new rule students might not like, there will also be rules that students said last spring they wanted to see implemented. And, when academic efforts go awry, teachers and administrators will need to be flexible, but they must stick with the larger plan in place to grow achievement.
“It’s like Fortify (The Interstate 40 rehabilitation project). Right now, it’s a big mess. But we know that when it’s finished, we will have a really nice, smooth road to drive on.”