The word of the year in Lawrence Township Schools: Collaboration.
There’s no other word that comes closer to identifying the plan of action which the new principals of Lawrence North and Lawrence Central high schools have chosen to adopt. Collaboration between the two leaders, between the schools, between teachers and administrators, between teachers and students, between educators and business leaders….
The partnerships go on and on.
Both Brett Crousore, 38, and Thomas Oestreich, 34, were hired as principals in July. At the time of the interviews, neither knew which school he might lead. Crousore, who’s been at LN since the fall of 1996 and has been the freshman principal since 2006, was tapped to replace his mentor, Steve Goeglein, who moved up to the administration office as executive director for secondary education. Oestreich replaced Kevin Brown, who’d been LC’s principal for one year and moved to Washington Township in July as director of human resources. Last year, Oestreich was an assistant principal at North Central High School.
The new leaders have made a commitment to work together to take these high schools well into the 21st century.
“What Tom and I have been able to do since Day 1 is to communicate with each other,” Crousore said.
They didn’t know each other before they were hired and were surprised to learn they’re practically neighbors. “When we were given the task to come up with a draft for what the professional development and PLC (professional learning communities) time would look like, I walked around the corner to Brett’s house and we met in his basement for a few hours and started the work,” Oestreich said. “There’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t pick up the phone to call Brett or he calls me.”
Topics of their discussions have ranged from staff development to test scores to student behavior. The intention is to have the two high schools on the same page in their academic philosophy, geared toward the 21st century.
“Yes, we’re two separate high schools,” Crousore said, citing programs such as athletics and music where the schools often are rivals. “But academically we’re one.”
And academics are seeing a higher profile. A major push has been to reduce teachers’ non-teaching duties to maximize instructional time. As an example, each school has a new Tardy Room. If students are not in the classroom when the bell rings, they know they are to report to the Tardy Room, where personnel other than teachers take care of record keeping.
Another major change is the increase of time in the teacher day. Last year the high school teachers were to report to their buildings at least 15 minutes before the 7:30 a.m. start of class. This year the mandated before-class teacher time, Monday through Thursday, is an hour and five minutes before the new 8:50 a.m. start of class. Most of that time is spent in small teacher meetings, principally PLCs. An example might be the English 12 PLC, which brings together the teachers of that subject.
The idea is to encourage teacher collaboration on a greater scale. Last year, PLCs met twice a month during the school day; teachers consigned their classes to substitute teachers to gain that common planning time. This year, PLCs meet before school, several times each week.
“We have master teachers in our schools, but a lot of times they teach in isolation,” Crousore said. “They have great ideas but only the kids in their classrooms get that knowledge. We have empowered our teachers to share.”
That sharing encompasses more than lesson plans or instructional delivery modes. It provides time for teachers to also discuss the focal point of education, the students.
Oestreich said, “Students aren’t just numbers to us. We need to put a face to their education and show them that we care about their education. We’ll do everything we can to make them successful. And PLCs allow that to happen.”
Both touted what they see as their schools’ strengths – great teaching staffs, the desire as well as the ability to work together, a strong IB (International Baccalaureate) program, renowned programs in fields that include music, world languages, journalism and athletics. “And a phenomenal group of kids,” said Crousore.
The schools’ diversity is also a source of pride to the new leaders. “It’s special to be able to walk into a diverse setting and have a diverse conversation on every topic,” Crousore said. “That education alone prepares students for the next level. They feel prepared because of the environment they’ve been in for four years.”
Both concede there are also negatives. While standardized test scores have gone up, particularly in math, greater improvement is needed.
Oestreich said that both schools would have had an ‘A’ grade according to the state evaluation system if they had passed AYP (annual yearly progress). He continued by saying that not many schools in the state of Indiana are passing AYP with all the different sub-groups you have to pass.
The number of students in AP (advanced placement) classes needs to increase; AP test scores need to rise. There’s a desire to raise graduation rates and attendance rates. Oestreich said, “We need to make sure all students are in class on time and are learning. We’re not going to improve test scores if our students are not in class.”
The result is a restructuring of the attendance office, providing time for the school to call parents in a more timely fashion about their children who are not in class.
Calls to parents, in fact, have become a priority from not only the attendance office but also from teachers. They include calls about positive behavior and work as well as calls that signal a need for the student to improve.
Another negative is the public perception that Lawrence Township schools are not up to par. People talk about realtors pushing schools in Hamilton and Hancock counties rather than in Lawrence.
“We’re taking over two high schools that earned superior grades last year,” Crousore said. “Although a lot of people want to think we’re entering into two troubled high schools, we’re entering into two outstanding academic institutions. We want to take good schools and make them great – make them nationally renowned for educating a diverse population at the highest level.”
Both said they need to do a better job of promoting the positives taking place in their buildings. They encourage people to talk to families who have sent their children through Lawrence Township schools. They invite community members to come in and walk their hallways.
There’s also a plan to better tie education to the working world. “We have to be educated about the skills our students need before they leave high school,” Crousore said. “Kids need to understand what’s going to be expected of them next.”
That means critical thinking. “One of our goals is to make our students critical thinkers,” Oestreich said. “If you have high expectations for your students, they are going to rise to those expectations. No matter what they decide to do, they’re going to be successful. Education is the key to success.”
And that success, Crousore said, can be reached because “they want to be something.”
The public is invited to the high schools’ open houses coming up this fall. Designed for parents of students in grades 5 through 12, attendees will be able to meet the teachers, learn about their respective curriculum, and get tours of the schools.
Lawrence Central: 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30
Lawrence North: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7