The Real Stuff of School Reform

A middle-school principal reflects on the Developmental Designs approach

For Middle Level

Paul Cuffee School is a public charter school that serves a diverse community of students in Providence, Rhode Island. From the time its doors opened in 2001, Paul Cuffee has grown by adding a grade each year. By 2013, it will be a K-12 school. School administrators have systematically created and maintained a school culture that uses Developmental Designs practices. In 2007, middle school principal Nell Sears and several of her school staff participated in Developmental Designs level 1 training (DD1). Nowadays, Paul Cuffee educators participate in DD1 and DD2 every year, and Origins consultants visit the school to coach trained teachers in their classrooms.

Each winter, when the results from the Rhode Island standardized tests or the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAPs) are published, our typical response is to smile briefly at our progress and then start asking what we will do to improve even more. Inspired by the emphasis on the need for reflection in the Developmental Designs approach, I took some time this year to reflect on our accomplishments with our seventh and eighth graders over the six years since we started our urban public charter middle school.

Reading improvements:

  • The number of seventh graders who scored "proficient" in reading has increased from 39% to 69%.
  • In 2006-2007, the first year our school had eighth graders, 33% were proficient in reading; this year, 69% are proficient.

Math improvements:

  • Seventh grade proficiency has more than doubled, from 25% to 59%.
  • The percentage of eighth graders who are proficient in math has almost tripled, rising from 22% to 64%.

Growth in the scores of our seventh and eighth graders has significantly outpaced statewide growth. And when we disaggregate the results, the news is even more exciting. Our seventh and eighth graders of color and economically disadvantaged students outperform those groups of students across the state in each subject.

Beyond standardized tests
As we all know, standardized test scores are a single, imperfect measure of the strength of a school, but I submit that deep, authentic, rigorous learning in our school has followed a similarly successful trajectory. Students are more excited to learn, more engaged in their subjects, and enthusiastic about being in school.

To what should we attribute our success? Did we lengthen our school day? Adopt a new math program? Cut out recess to increase instructional time? Although our school day is a bit longer than most, we are strong advocates of recess. In fact, students spend much more time each day in community-building activities than in most middle schools. The structure that undergirds our academic process has been our steady commitment to strengthening the social and academic community of our school through the use of the Developmental Designs approach.

Importance of community
The centrality of a strong school community is intuitive for most of us, but research also supports its importance. Statistics show that a strong connection to school predicts stronger academic outcomes, lower rates of risky behavior, and stronger mental health and emotional well-being in adolescence. Longitudinal studies (Monahan et al, 2010) suggest that these effects last for years. Our academic results mirror this progress.

Early days
We struggled during the first years of our school’s existence. Conflicts and fights among students were a regular occurrence, and learning time was often disrupted by student behavior. We had few tools to support students’ internalization of self-control and were frustrated over our inability to assist them.

Teachers from Paul Cuffee attended Developmental Designs 1 for the first time in the summer of 2007. This training helped us establish strategies for creating the kind of culture we wanted for our school, and it gave us language to use concerning those strategies. The first results we saw were socio-cultural: Students developed better self-control, and there were fewer power struggles. Students began to solve social problems with little or no adult intervention, and there were fewer fights. These changes set the stage for changes in our academic culture, as well as in quantitative achievement scores.

Steady, daily work
There isn’t a quick or easy prescription for strengthening a school culture. It takes teachers who are truly invested in their students and their work. It takes daily rituals—Circle of Power and Respect (CPR) advisory meetings, problem-solving meetings, and consistent acknowledgments that celebrate kindness, hard work, and intellectual curiosity. It takes attention to the language we use with one another, and it takes lessons and units that draw students into deep intellectual engagement and help them to experience the satisfaction of learning.

The improvements we’ve made in our test scores are exciting, but what is most thrilling is what I see every day when I visit classrooms: Eighth graders get excited about structures of atoms and solving systems of equations; seventh graders discuss their analyses of works by W.E.B. DuBois and work with graduate students to refine models of fish; sixth graders organize food drives and write analytical essays on themes of conflict in literature-circle books. Academic excellence is an outgrowth of a community where students feel safe, valued, and known. This is the real stuff of school reform, and I feel so privileged to be a part of it.

Nell Sears is Principal at Paul Cuffee School in Providence, Rhode Island.

This article first appeared in Developmental Designs: A Middle-Level Newsletter, Fall 2011