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Editorial columns

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Five-point plan key to elementary’s success

I walked into Fairfield Elementary School casually sporting my Principal for the Day title. I anticipated an informative and enjoyable experience. I was not prepared to be astonished.

Fairfield Elementary is a hothouse for learning. Every moment is focused on our children, on their achievement. The school is no caretaker institution. The goal is student transformation. Rest assured, great care is taken with each child, but the business is learning.

Making the rounds with the real principal, the seeds of Fairfield’s growing success began to emerge: relationships, metrics, accountability, time management and professionalism. It made me wonder whether there are any companies in our area as consistently and effectively implementing the management tools that I was witnessing at every turn.

Relationships

As it is throughout Fort Wayne Community Schools, the focus at Fairfield is on relationships.

The principal and I kicked off the day by greeting the children. He spoke to each one individually and differently – a high-five here, a kind word there, even a constructive admonishment to the tardy ones. His “Good to see you” was a way of saying, “I know you’re late, but we’re glad you’re here.” Stories were shared of nudging neighbors to volunteer and parents to stay who had planned to find a new school for their children, all because of the spirit at Fairfield.

In the business world, it’s called corporate culture. At Fairfield, it’s building relationships, fostering pride and respect, and creating an environment that sets the expectation bar high while developing the skills to soar. Put simply, it’s the beating heart of this school.

Feedback and metrics

Relationships thrive on constructive communication. At Fairfield, continuous feedback is woven into and through the school. It employs metrics, or performance indicators, that rev up enthusiasm and unite the Fairfield team in its drive toward progress.

Leadership sets the pace. Along with staff, Fairfield’s principal is a constant presence in the classrooms, conducting three to five visits in each per week. These might be only one- to two-minute walkthroughs, barely noticed by the teachers or students, but they yield valuable ongoing assessments that are sent directly to individual teachers.

Students are equal partners in this effort. For math and language arts, each has a personal data book. They know what they’re learning, why they’re learning it and how they’re doing.

Colorful data walls have supplanted outdated bulletin boards. Measurements are everywhere. They trumpet Fairfield’s accomplishments and school targets. They communicate unequivocally that this is a serious place for learning – how we attain our goals.

Accountability

These metrics aren’t for show. They’re about building momentum. Just as in any sport, knowing the score motivates the players. Metrics are Fairfield’s scores for learning, and they form the foundation for accountability.

I was astounded by how concretely, how present, how invested each teacher and each student was in their performance. And because the information flows so quickly, it means every day is a new chance to discover, to become more.

Time management

Squeezing more time into the day to explore and gather knowledge is a Fairfield obsession. Here learning time is all the time.

Classes no longer stand idle waiting for everyone to use the bathroom or enter a room. Instead, teachers coach or quiz students. It’s known as “hallway learning.” Pickups and drop-offs have been reorganized to save 17 minutes per day, adding up to six more class days of instruction each year. And teachers rarely use desks because classroom time is time to interact.

Professionalism

Professionalism, grounded in ethics, permeates Fairfield. It is displayed by teachers ready to put aside any personal discomfort and use accountability to achieve more, start the day early to expand the learning envelope and take on the distinct challenges of their urban school.

Aren’t these precisely the role models we want for our children?

This is the return our community and its taxpayers are getting for the deep commitment and real sacrifices made by our teachers and staff. This is what it means to relentlessly strive toward excellence, to be student-centered in all aspects of education.

Let me remind you, Fairfield is no elite prep school. It is an incredibly diverse public school, with all of the demands of multiple languages, limited funding and burgeoning mandates. Just three years ago it was labeled in need of corrective action. Today, in spite of the state’s mercurial attempts to “grade” our schools, according to Public Law 221, Fairfield is a school showing “exemplary progress.”

What is happening at Fairfield Elementary is not unique. It’s happening all across FWCS.

You bet; I was blown away by what I encountered, and I walked away filled with pride and admiration. Oh, and I’m cribbing everything I gained to strengthen our law firm.

Learning – it’s lifelong.

Tim Pape is managing partner of Carson Boxberger, LLP. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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