How National Board Certification Helped Me Turn Around a Failing School

Note: The following guest post comes to us courtesy of Dr. Kiela Snider, who has served as an educator in California for over 23 years and has held her current position as principal for Palm Springs Unified School District for the past 12 years. In 2000 she joined the ranks of National Board Certified Teachers (Early Childhood Generalist).  She believes that children learn best when they are in a learning environment that has been shaped by best teaching practices. This was evident in 2007/2008 school year she led 100% her staff in completing either the National Board Certification or Take One! program.  The results of this ongoing commitment resulted in school wide reform at Julius Corsini Elementary that included exiting Program Improvement Year 5, decrease in teacher turn-over, and increased parental involvement.

In the summer of 2005, I was named principal of Julius Corsini Elementary School. It was a tough assignment for a first-time principal. Located in Desert Hot Springs, CA, Corsini was the lowest performing school in the state’s third most dangerous city. Few expected me to last longer than a year – let alone completely turn around the school.

Desert Hot Springs is exactly 100 miles outside of Los Angeles, and the low cost of living has made it attractive to many gang members looking to escape scrutiny from the LAPD. Like the town, Corsini did not have much going for it either. There was so much gang activity that the local news station used images of the school became every time it reported on gang-related crime even if the students and the school had nothing to do with the incident. A housing boom more than doubled the school’s population from 500 to 1,100 students almost overnight, and parents grew weary of an unproductive and unsafe school system they saw as swallowing their children.

Teacher turnover was a staggering 75% each year, and few of the remaining 25% truly wanted to continue working there. Corsini became known as a dumping ground for ineffective teachers, and many teachers in the district considered placement there tantamount to punishment.

During my first two years, test scores continued to drop.

I may have been only 32 years old, but I did not lack preparation. I joined Corsini shortly after completing certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. With a decade of experience educating students from low-income communities under my belt, I chose to pursue the advanced teaching credential because no one else in my district had completed the rigorous peer-reviewed process. I was looking for a challenge. Board certification forced me to articulate exactly what I was doing in the classroom and, more importantly, why I was doing it.

While Board certification improved my teaching practice, I found that my training helped me coach and support my teachers—the perfect skills as I transitioned to my role as administrator. It also emphasized a continuous analysis of one’s teaching practice so that teachers can identify and replicate what’s working and what’s not.

I used this approach at Corsini, and I included all of my teachers in the process. To be honest, it wasn’t a skills issue. Only the best teachers can do well in this type of environment. Through observation and evaluation, I concluded that low morale among faculty was the primary source of the school’s problems. They were simply tired of feeling like they were struggling—both their students and themselves.

Working with my teachers, we determined the best professional development option to address the faculty’s needs. The main complaint from the faculty was that typical teacher training does not make connections between theory and practice. However, I knew of one program that fully focused on practical application.

In the spring of 2007, every faculty member agreed to pursue their own professional growth program through the National Board. It generated immediate results.

Within one year, Corsini student test scores on California’s Academic Performance Index increased 13% percent by an average of 55 points. The following year, scores rose an additional 30 percent in reading and 16 percent in math. Teacher turnover rate dropped to nearly zero.

Attendance at parent-teacher conferences more than doubled from 45 to 95 percent. In 2010, Corsini was one of only six schools nationwide to receive the prestigious National School Change Award from the National Principals Leadership Institute.

I give all of the credit to the National Board Certification. Teachers didn’t see the process as a chore—but as a tool for building a true learning community. Corsini’s story is not a fluke. Nearby Joshua Tree Elementary School tried the same approach and achieved similar results. The school’s principal is Daniele Snider—my sister.

This was more than enough proof for the school district to transfer me to Desert Springs Middle School in 2011, a feeder school for Corsini, and where I was able to see the fruits of my efforts first-hand from the well-prepared students arriving from my former elementary school. I took a slightly different professional development approach at Desert Springs than I did at Corsini. Veteran teachers have the option and support to pursue National Board certification, but it is not a requirement for all new hires.

Like Corsini, Desert Springs Middle School has seen a dramatic jump in test scores. Last year, we saw a 40 API point gain and math scores doubled in proficiency. The school moved from the bottom 20% of similar schools to the top 60%. We make it very clear that there is a standard of excellence that is not an aspiration–but an expectation–for all teachers.

In the three years since I have left Corsini, I am happy to say the school continues to excel academically under new leadership and the foundation I help to lay nearly seven years ago remains strong.

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