Culture In Action: Oregon principal flattens school walls

25 Apr

Often, it seems all too easy easy to find a public school where teachers and students are floundering in a toxic culture.  That is the sad, but undeniable, truth.  On the other hand, many schools are shining examples of the power and impact of a positive school culture.  That’s why we love profiling Culture In Action–where principals and teachers are taking charge of their classrooms, their hallways, their students and their outcomes to cultivate a culture that produces learning and growth for every student. 

That’s the kind of culture that Oregon principal Tom Horn is shaping.   A self-described “hippie kid from Eugene,” Horn has transformed a troubled alternative high school—not to mention his teachers’ job descriptions—by introducing a radical project-based learning model.  And, as is almost always the case with a positive culture, progress at the Kennedy School of Sustainability began with Horn’s transformative leadership.

Here are some excerpts from an Education Week article profiling Horn’s success.  A link to the full article is also included below.

  • Transformative Leadership: By many measures, Horn’s leadership style—and his emphasis on beyond-the-classroom learning—appears to be working. The attendance rate at the 100-student high school…has jumped from 23 percent in the fall of 2006, when Horn took over, to a current rate of about 90 percent. The dropout rate is now at 12.5 percent, down from 20 percent in 2004-05. Test scores, though still below par, are on the rise. The once-stigmatized alternative school now has a 180-student waiting list. And for the first time ever, students from Kennedy are going to college. 

    This leadership doesn’t start and stop with Horn.  The district superintendent is also engaged in effort.  She notes: “One of the criticisms of the old alternative high school, and any alternative school, is that the standards have been watered down.  You lower the bar and that’s how kids are successful there. We had to fight that perception and make sure the rigor was present.”

  • Extreme Teaching: The teachers at Kennedy have an extraordinary—even potentially overwhelming—amount of responsibility. In addition to the overnight trips and projects that require much out-of-school planning, they are working with a demanding population: According to Horn, 38 percent of Kennedy students are homeless, 14 percent are teen parents, many have dealt with addiction issues, and all are at risk of dropping out. The school has a full-time counselor, but teachers need to be tuned into students’ mental health and emotional needs, too.
  • Project-Based Learning:  Horn determined that the students needed a unique curriculum to keep them engaged and in classes. Because of the natural resource-rich surrounding area as well as his own interest in green technology, he chose project-based learning and the theme of sustainability. He divided students into five cohorts, each of which would complete projects related to a subtheme—agriculture, energy, forestry, architecture, or water.  All of the projects were aimed at having “tangible positive effects on the entire community,” he explained. “We’ve flattened the walls of the school.” Since many Kennedy students had been demoralized in the traditional school system, Horn hoped getting kudos from community members might help restore their feelings of self-worth. In addition, he figured, the projects themselves, visible in the surrounding neighborhoods, could serve as a source of pride.

Click here to learn more about Principal Horn and the Kennedy School of Sustainability.


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