“In every problem is an opportunity so large that it literally dwarfs the problem."

 

It has been a pleasure watching NC Education evolve since I first began teaching in 1998. One of my most rewarding yet challenging assignments was during the time I taught high school math and science at our county’s alternative school. I was one of three teachers to pilot the new Cleveland County initiative and during my time there, I fell in love with one of our director’s favorite quotes which stated that “In every problem is an opportunity so large that it literally dwarfs the problem. I’m not sure where this quote originated but since the first day I heard it, I embraced it.  I refuse to see problems. I choose to see growth opportunities. I choose to see catalyst for creativity.  There are no problems with NC Public Education; however, I do see limitless opportunities and possibilities.

 

During the 1997-1998 school year our school district had 92% of the market share when it came to public education; however, there has been a steady decline while the private, charter and homeschool markets have been rising steadily. In Cleveland County current data suggests that there are well over 1,500 homeschool students. According to Public Schools First NC the 2017-2018 per pupil expenditure for students in NC was $9,528.  If we were to take 1,500 homeschoolers and multiply that by $9,528 per student, that’s a whopping $14,292,000. What school district couldn’t use an extra $14 million? This number doesn’t even account for the students who made the exodus to private and charter schools. For some counties and districts the graduation rates are increasing while overall student enrollment is decreasing. Many school districts are experiencing a decrease in ADM for a plethora of reasons and on top of that some counties have an aging population, low birth rates, increasing under and unemployment along with stagnating economic development.  In the midst of all of this, the glass is still half full!

Effective education leaders must remain optimistic.  We must be optimistic idealists. I am extremely allergic to pessimistic realists. The late Author Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can!”  I have an Atrium Health Care poster in my office that reminds me constantly to GET INSPIRED, GET INFORMED, GET UNCOMFORTABLE AND GET ACTIVATED! Cleveland Early College High School is one of over 120 Cooperative Innovative High Schools in the State of North Carolina.  We are a non-traditional Cleveland County high school situated in Shelby, NC. Our students are concurrently high school and college students and graduate in 4 or 5 years with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Contrary to popular belief our school population consists of students who are:

 
  • At-risk for dropping out of school before attaining a high school diploma

  • Students whose parents did not continue education beyond high school and

  • Students who could benefit from an accelerated program of academic instruction

 

 

Admission into Cleveland Early College High School is by application and random lottery. During my four years as principal we have consistently maintained a 95% or above graduation rate.  We have been consistently rated as an A school. For three years in a row we have exceeded or met growth and the U.S. News and World Report has ranked us as one of America’s Top High Schools.  I applaud our amazing staff constantly and I am proud of our accomplishments. There are; however, some other statistics that I am also extremely proud of. Since the 2016-2017 school year over 400 students have expressed interest in Cleveland Early College High School but what has been most interesting is that the number of homeschool, charter and private school applicants have increased every  year. During my first year as principal we had 3 students in our school that had come from a home, charter or private school. Today, we have quadrupled that number. 12 students may not seem like a large number but when you consider the size or our school, it actually is significant. Cooperative Innovative High Schools are small by design. Per CIHS legislation, the cohort/class max is 100 students.  Since 2010 the Cleveland Early College High School cohort/class cap was set for 55 students. Our current CECHS enrollment is 214 students. Of those 214 students 12 were enrolled in a charter, private or home school prior to their 9th grade year.  During the 2015-2016 school year our total student enrollment was 200 and 3 of those 200 were enrolled in a charter, private or home school prior to their 9th grade year. I have been pleased with the increase in interest in the academic program at Cleveland Early College High School over the past four years. In four years our number of charter, private and home school students has increased by 75%. I believe that if you build it, they will come!

 

I do not believe that the conversation with regards to school choice is going to cease. I do believe that there are many things that school leaders can do to help make their schools THE choice for parents! At Cleveland Early College High School our staff has done a tremendous job at creating and maintaining a school climate and culture that has become increasingly attractive.  As a former science teacher I firmly believe that anything that is not evolving is dying. As Dr. Stephen Fisher, our district superintendent says, “We CANNOT allow our schools to become museums.”  If our schools are not evolving, then they are dying and if our schools are dying then ADM will continue to dwindle and we will perpetuate the mass exodus from public schools to charter, private and homeschools. I’d like to take a few moments and share 5 nuggets of knowledge that will help you in your efforts to make your school THE school of choice in this age of school choice.

 

 

Establish your “why” with your vision and mission statement: At Cleveland Early College High School our vision is to provide rigorous, real-world learning experiences and meaningful connections between students and staff in order to prepare students for advancement in college, career and life. Our mission is to provide a challenging, student-centered program of study that fosters academic excellence, an understanding of higher education and work in the 21st Century and to encourage the collaboration and professional development of all students to become responsible and productive global citizens. In Andy Stanly’s award winning book VISIONEERING, he states in so many words that vision and mission statements are not for the walls but are meant for the halls. Our vision and mission statements are visible.  Our school is full of systems, structures and protocols that give them life. Let me give you a few examples. Our school was founded on Expeditionary Learning principles. While we are not currently a part of the EL Network, we still incorporate many of the EL principles into the fiber of our school. At CECHS we are CREW! According to the eleducation.org CREW is a ritual, a coming together, and the creation of a close-knit student community; an integral part of the EL Education model. Also, according to the site, Crew is always two things:

 
  1. It is a structure. A group of students, faculty and staff who meet together to support and push each other in school, and life.

  2. It is a spirit, a way of being. To be "Crew" means to pitch in to help each other, to step up and take responsibility for everyone's well-being around you.

 

According to eleducation.org CREW isn’t only for students. The spirit of Crew can be observed among school leaders and teachers. Now remember, our vision is to provide rigorous, real-world learning experiences and meaningful connections between students and staff in order to prepare students for advancement in college, career and life. This is one example of a structure that makes our vision real! As mentioned earlier, our mission is to provide a challenging, student-centered program of study that fosters academic excellence, an understanding of higher education and work in the 21st Century and to encourage the collaboration and professional development of all students to become responsible and productive global citizens.

 

Make students better: During the 2015-2016 school year Cleveland Early College High School exceeded growth. Since then we have met growth each year and are working diligently and intentionally with hopes of exceeding it this year.  As mentioned earlier, the target population for Cleveland Early College High School are students at-risk for dropping out of school before attaining a high school diploma; students whose parents did not continue education beyond high school and students who could benefit from an accelerated program of academic instruction. During the 2016-2017 school year out of 202 students 60 had never scored above a level II on any EOG or EOC assessment prior to 9th grade. Our school was ranked as an A+ school and we met growth. Of those 60 students who had never scored above a level II on any EOG or EOC 42 of them scored a level 3, 4 or 5 on Math 1, English 2, and/or Biology EOC exams.  Our school culture and climate along with our “out of the box” expeditionary learning style of instruction catalyzed high levels of student engagement and increased the probability of success for all students. Of those 60 students 18 did not score a level 3, 4 or 5; however, 100% of that 18 exceeded their expected growth. If we look at the 2016-2017 freshman cohort of 55 it is also interesting that of that 55 fifteen of them came to us with 8 or more Power School incidents. Those students are currently juniors and as a whole that cohort has less than 10 office referrals, incidents and /or suspensions. We firmly believe that there is an inverse relationship between anxiety and student achievement as well as discipline and student engagement. A decrease in anxiety will lead to an increase in achievement and when students are engaged they behave. Parents are able to see the evolution of their students. Students must prepare for and facilitate student led conferences during their freshman and sophomore years.  This is strategic because from the beginning of school in August to November freshmen parents are able to witness the evolution of their students. Parents see the growth. They see the maturity and they see their students evolve. We make students better!

 

Market and brand your school: There is nothing worse than good news untold. We must do a better job at telling our story. I recently attended the 2019 NCTIES Conference in Raleigh, NC.  One of the conference keynote speakers was Mrs. Onica Mayers, an awesome principal from Houston, Texas. She refers to herself as the lead learner in her school and she said that “in the absence of telling your story, people will make one up!”  Are you controlling the narrative as it relates to your school? Who knows who you are and what you are about? Who knows what is going on inside the walls of your school? It is our responsibility to let the world know that OUR SCHOOL IS THE CHOICE! A few things that we’ve done include being purposeful and intentional with regards to our social media presence. There are people who will never enter your building but will spend 4 hours “trolling” on their phone. I know this to be true as there is an awesome app for Android and IOS devices called “Quality Time” that measures the time a person spends on their smart phones. It is imperative in this season that we maximize the use of social media to let the world know our story.  Our school’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages are all attached to our school website and I encourage all faculty and staff members to share the content that comes through our school social media accounts to their personal accounts.  Here are a few other nuggets that I took away from the 2019 NCTIES Conference breakout session led by Nick Anderson, Tech Facilitator at Isenberg and Morgan Elementary, and Kendel Cozart both educators in Salisbury, NC that I have immediately implemented:

 
  • Make sure there is “CONTEXT” with every social media post. Do not post just to be posting. Be sure to give context to every image

  • Take pride in every upload as it represents you and your school

  • Designate a school-staff photographer

  • Use available tools to enhance images

  • Use videos… Use videos… Use videos

 

According to them we have to be the biggest advocates for our schools share our story. Lastly, in regards to marketing our schools, I had the opportunity last year to participate in a year-long leadership program hosted by our local chamber of commerce. The program was called Leadership Cleveland County. As a 2018-2019 program participant I had the opportunity to partner with a few colleagues to plan a day session for the 2019-2020 cohort. We hosted a Leadership Cleveland County Education Day and OF COURSE we showcased and highlighted Cleveland Early College High School. Community leaders, professionals and entrepreneurs were exposed to “our world” and were able to see what we were all about.  

 

 

We must remember that rarely do people leave school systems, they leave schools. There are people who literally hate the systems but LOVE their school.  Our superintendent purchased a copy of the book “Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service” by the Disney Institute for every leader in our school district. This book highlights the simple truth that it is THE EXPERIENCE that makes people visit Disney and return and not only do people visit but they leave and tell others and convince them to visit as well.  When people encounter your school what is their experience like? If you haven’t entertained that question then please take a minute and do so. In our schools every day is an opportunity so large that it literally dwarfs every problem. In our schools we must create experiences that parents long for. If we build it, they will come!!!

 

Written by Titus Hopper

Principal, Cleveland Early College High School

2018 Wells Fargo NC SW Region Principal of the Year

Follow on Twitter @Missionmyndid