Lunch Power Hour: How the 2015 National Principal of the Year Jayne Ellspermann Transformed the Lunchtime Routine

Jayne EllspermannPrincipal Jayne Ellspermann empowers her students to take responsibility for their own success – over their hourlong lunch, each school day. The aptly named Power Hour encourages West Port High School students to participate in a variety of creative activities on campus, with teachers and peers alike.

Students at the Ocala, Florida, school achieve remarkable feats: impressive student enrollment rates, immaculate campus conditions, high test scores, and loyal school attendance rates. Ellspermann, principal of West Port High for 11 years and running, credits Power Hour for the unique college-focused school culture at the school.

Looking at student success factors across the board, it’s not surprising Ellspermann has been named the National Principal of the Year for 2015. But how did she do it?

We caught up with Principal Ellspermann for her candid thoughts about the innovative and daring changes she leads at West Port High School. She shares why communication, engagement and trust are among the chief influencers of school-wide achievement. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

The Power Hour program has showed immeasurable success at your school. Such change can often be overwhelming for all parties involved, especially the leader. How did you set your priorities when you were designing it?

Power Hour developed out of a need to provide students with additional time for academics and empower them to have control over part of the school day. It was designed collaboratively with our teachers. The priority was to create an opportunity, not a program.

Teachers, students, and parents were all frustrated due to the lack of opportunities for students to get extra help in the classroom and to participate in extracurricular activities. My priority was to focus on why we were developing it and to maintain that focus so that we would meet the needs of our students.

The programs you have initiated at West Port High must have required effective communication with teachers, students, parents and beyond. How do you effectively communicate with different populations?

Communication is essential to everything that I do. There are so many great communication tools now it makes effective communication much easier.

We have a school portal for our teachers that is updated throughout the day with everything that is going on at West Port each day. We have West Port Weekly, a weekly newsletter that is emailed out to the staff that includes school and personal information to keep us in touch with each other. We have a Weekly Reader that our instructional coach writes every week to provide follow-up and instructional strategies for our staff.

Our website is a great source of information for our parents, and we also use Twitter and Facebook to let our parents and students know what is happening at school. Our teachers have classroom websites to let their students know what is going on in the classroom. We also use Connect 5, a phone message system to let students and parents know about important information. Teachers often use Remind to communicate with their students.

It is not about what you are going to do, or how you are going to do it, but why you are doing it that will determine your success.

The biggest source of communication for our teachers and staff is our weekly Friday Faculty Focus.  With 180 teachers and support staff, it is important to gather together and learn together. Friday Faculty Focus is a fast-paced, instructionally driven, and collaborative 30 minutes we spend together each Friday.

I do not send school-wide emails. I try to send only one school-wide email a week with the West Port Weekly attached to it. Procedural information can be found on the Portal, and everyone’s web browser goes directly to the Portal. To me, it is an interruption of instruction to have teachers reading and having to keep up with information in multiple emails. I want them to be focused on their students and instruction, not reading emails from me.

My door is always open, and I make a point to respond to every email I receive from individuals the day it is sent. Parents, students, and staff members appreciate my availability for drop-in time and prompt responses to emails.

In the article you wrote for NASSP, you stated that the Power Hour program was at first a ‘risky experiment.’ How did you help your teachers, faculty, students, and community consider your proposed change?

Any time you are going to propose letting 2,000 students — now 2,600 students — out on campus for an hour, it is definitely a risk. Teachers were involved in the planning of Power Hour, which helped them work through the details of the change. Students were not briefed until we implemented Power Hour.  Their introduction was provided as an opportunity to maintain the straight “A’s” every student has when they start the year. Parents quickly embraced the change because of the support and opportunity it provided to their children. The risk was minimized with input and careful implementation.

What advice do you have for other educational leaders hoping to lead similar programs that advocate change?

Always start with why you are starting the initiative. If you don’t have a concrete reason to start the initiative, really think about your reason for making the change. It is not about what you are going to do, or how you are going to do it, but why you are doing it that will determine your success.

Know what you want to change to improve your school. In our case, we were looking at course failure and the involvement of students in extracurricular activities. We wanted to engage students in our school culture, knowing that student engagement leads to higher attendance, which leads to improved course pass rates.

The most important thing to remember in the development phase is to think every angle through to impact. Have the biggest naysayers on the development committee so you know what they are thinking and use their concerns to eliminate these potential roadblocks in the development of the idea.

If you were implementing Power Hour this year, what would you do differently?

I have been asked this questions numerous times. Conceptually, I would not change anything.

One thing that we had not considered when we first started was what students would do that first day. We didn’t consider what would happen when 2,000 students hit the lunch line that first day. I realized that we needed something that first day to occupy some of the students and stagger the lunch line. This prompted a quick brainstorming activity for the staff.

The 11th- and 12th-grade teachers volunteered to hold back their students for 15 minutes or so to go over the responsibility and opportunities of Power Hour. The other teachers came up with an Activities and Athletic fair for the students to attend to acquaint them with clubs and sports they may want to participate in for the year. We have kept the Athletic and Activities fair as an annual part of our first week of school during Power Hour.

What are the necessary steps for educational leaders to promote an engaging school culture for both student and teacher?

Relationships are the key to an engaging school culture. Teachers have to like the students, and students have to like the teachers. Students have to trust the teachers, and teachers have to trust the students. Students and teachers have to have a vision for student success. Strong school-wide procedures are important so that students know the boundaries, and teachers promote and support the procedures.

Personalization of instruction lets students know that the work they are doing is important and the teachers want them to be successful. Students have to own their learning and feel responsible for their own success. When these components are in place, you will see empowered students and teachers, and an engaging culture for everyone on campus.

What issues do you think educational leaders should pay more attention to? What should they pay less attention to?

School climate — how folks feel about your school — and school culture — how we do things at our school — are important to pay attention to, so you can adjust to make sure that your school keeps moving forward.

Educational leaders need to pay attention to the school data. You have to be aware of student performance so you can identify opportunities for improvement. Don’t be afraid of ugly data, and don’t hide it. Face the truth about your school performance so that you can change it. Let the numbers do the talking, and it will be easy to motivate your team to improve. Don’t spend too much time celebrating what you do well. Applaud it and move on to opportunities for improvement. It is easy to spend time basking in the glory of your success.

I try to spend as little time as possible looking at the success and quickly look for what is next so that we can identify our next challenge. Until 100 percent of our students are proficient, 100 percent are here every day, 100 percent have no discipline referrals, 100 percent graduate on time, and 100 percent are entering college with as little debt as possible or are secure in the workplace with a career — not a minimum wage job — there are a lot of opportunities for improvement.

Proposing dramatic change that involves many different people can present challenges. How did you handle challenges from your teachers when you were proposing the Power Hour program?

The most important part of change for me is determining the challenges that others see. I embraced the challenges from the teachers as an opportunity to look at the viability of Power Hour. You can’t be afraid of challenges: They are an opportunity for dialog. Challenges can secure that those who start in opposition, embrace the change when the implementation occurs.

Having a climate of trust where opposition is encouraged as part of the change process provides great positive energy. People have to know that you listen and their perspectives are important. Challenges can’t be perceived as “negatives;” that creates winners and losers. When challenges are seen as part of the process, everyone wins.

The Power Hour program presents your students with both freedom and responsibility.  How do you inspire your students to challenge themselves while staying accountable?

I start every year letting our students know that they start each year with straight A’s, and we are going to work with them to help them keep those grades. During our first week of school assemblies for each grade level, I challenge the students to exceed their own perceived potential and take advantage of all of the opportunities we have at West Port High School.

I tell them that graduation is not a destination; it is the threshold to their future. I let them know that this is a special place where they are empowered to reach their dreams with the support of the best teachers and staff that can be assembled in one school.

They are reminded that Power Hour is an opportunity and a privilege, and they need to demonstrate the responsibility to maintain Power Hour as part of our culture — respect our school and each other and use it for their academic success.

If students are not taking the personal responsibility to use Power Hour to help their academic performance, I meet with the student and the teacher in an “Academic Success Chat.” This is a structured conference where the teacher outlines why the student is not being successful in the classroom and what the teacher has done to help the student before we meet. In the meeting, I ask the student how they are doing in the class, and have the student develop a plan for success. The student, teacher, and I sign the academic plan. The key is the student taking responsibility for their academic success.

In your 11 years at West Port, you’ve implemented some sustainable changes. Looking back, what has been the biggest takeaway during your time at West Port High School?

The key to our success is creating a college-going culture where students are empowered in the classroom and given leadership opportunities throughout the school. To make this happen, teachers have to be provided support, and there has to be strong communication with everyone on campus.

Our students are our future, and we need to equip them with the tools and experiences to make good decisions in a safe and encouraging environment. Next year, I start my 12th year at West Port High School, and I continue to look for opportunities to enhance learning for the next 700 students who will join our school community. When I look back, I see how far we have come, and looking forward, I see the tremendous potential we have to impact the lives of the 2,600 students who will be with us next year and those that will join us in the future. It is truly an honor and a privilege to serve as principal of West Port High School.

For more details about Power Hour, follow the link to the NASSP website in the Learn More section.

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