Sugarland Elementary: A Model for School Improvement

More than five years ago, average student scores at Sugarland Elementary School for the reading portion of the Standards of Learning test reached a low of 63 percent.

That earned the school the designation of focus school, meaning it qualified for additional program support to help bring the scores up. Fast-forward to today, and the solutions have worked and then some, explained school leadership during an April 23 presentation to the Loudoun County School Board.

After receiving word of the reading results in 2013, Sugarland Principal Gail Brady said she told her staff: “We cannot continue to be a focus school.” That led to a series of targeted improvements at the school, complete with a social media hashtag: #AllIn.

“The first thing we had to do is get the right people in the right seats on the bus,” Brady said. “We believe in transforming schools, not students.”

School staff members then started to build on its culture and “our why,” she added, including “let’s talk” sessions—frank discussions about what’s working and what’s not. Staff members also adopted a four-point objective for teachers, started leaning more on data-driven decisions and required additional objectives when it comes to student goal-setting.

Next, the staff got to work on improving student scores by including in the curriculum project-based learning, authentic learning and deeper learning techniques, reading and writing workshops, a STEAM lab for applied learning, small-guided math groups and stations, library makerspace, and community partnerships with organizations such as Riverside Presbyterian Church and the Washington Redskins.

Sugarland also expanded its extracurricular learning opportunities after normal school hours to include activities like garden club and chess.

The efforts paid off, as Sugarland improved from 63 percent in the 2013-14 school year to a three-year average score of 92 percent for 2017-18. Math scores also showed improvement, going from 58 percent in 2012-13 to 91 percent for 2017-18.

Earlier this year, the International Center for Leadership in Education named Sugarland a model school, along with Park View High School, also in Sterling. Both schools will share best practices at the 2019 Model Schools Conference June 23-26 in Washington, DC, where Park View Principal Kirk Dolson will be a featured speaker.

School board members praised the efforts of the staff to turn the school from a focus school to a model school in such a short amount of time. “The culture that you’ve created needs to be duplicated and spread throughout the county,” said Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles).

Joined by Assistant Principal Gregory Mihalik, librarian Kim Grim, reading specialist Teresa Blondin and fifth grade teacher Jennifer Clouden at the April 23 meeting, Brady told school board members there’s nowhere to go but up.

“We believe that working together and our culture has gotten us to where we are,” she said. “Why not make 100 percent in these categories?”

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