Turning Around a Troubled School: Lessons from a Principal

Patricia FryWhen Patricia Fry interviewed for the principal’s job at Plymouth High School a decade ago, she didn’t really know what she was getting into. She hadn’t even been actively looking for a new job, but she liked the idea of living in Cape Cod, and the historic town was in easy driving distance.

But as she quickly learned, the school was in disarray. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges had given the school several warnings for not meeting standards. In addition to the school’s accreditation being at risk, it was overcrowded by some 400 students; behavioral issues were rampant; and academic performance was subpar.

And while she wouldn’t have said it at the time, Fry now admits, “It was kind of a disaster.”

How things have changed. NEASC’s latest assessment is full of praise for Fry’s leadership in turning around the school’s culture and academic performance. In 2014, Plymouth High was recognized as an AP Honor Roll district. The Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association honored her as the state’s Principal of the Year; in the fall she’ll travel to Washington, D.C., as one of three finalists for the 2016 NASSP National Principal of the Year.

Change the culture, change the school

As Fry puts it, the old school culture had lots of cooks, but they weren’t cooking from the same recipe. “It was a tremendous team, who wanted to be led,” she says.

When Fry arrived, teachers stayed in their classrooms, while students ruled the hallways. Teachers with planning periods first thing weren’t even in their classes when school began in the morning. Student smoking in the bathrooms so permeated the school culture that all but one central restroom was locked. Disrespect and rudeness had become norms without real consequences.

Among the first things Fry addressed head-on were behavior and accountability — no more tolerance for students or teachers behaving badly.

“You have to handle the little things so that they don’t become big things,” says Fry. Today, students know that if they swear in class, they face suspension.

“By February, I got teachers on board,” says Fry. “I met with every teacher, went to every English course.” Asking faculty and students alike for input about the best and worst things in the school helped build a collective vision of how to move forward.

Great expectations

Many Plymouth teachers were in the habit of leaving as soon as the final period ended. With 25 faculty meetings scheduled per year, Fry decided to eliminate three meetings — and in exchange, teachers instead had to attend any three extracurricular events, such as a freshman football game.

“They loved it,” says Fry, who adds that getting to connect with the kids in different circumstances led many teachers to build and maintain the practice.

Too many students and buildings in disrepair meant that teen schedules often included multiple study halls each day — hardly a recipe for academic success. Under Fry, the school began adding student-interest driven electives to get kids out of study halls.

As the social climate improved, and consistency became a norm, staff could focus more attention on academic success.

Most dramatically, the school has significantly built its Advanced Placement program, a classic indicator of college readiness. A decade ago, 80 students out of Plymouth’s 1,600 participated in AP classes. Students are enrolled in a record 420 classes for 2015-2016 (despite a radically reduced student population overall, due to redistricting).

By 2013-2014, 71 percent of students scored 3 or higher on their AP tests, on a scale of 1 to 5. Most colleges give credit to incoming students with scores of 3, 4, or 5. Amongst low-income students — about 3 in 10 students at Plymouth High receive free or reduced lunch — the rates were nearly as high, with 66 percent receiving a 3 or higher.

“Some people don’t believe all kids should be exposed [to AP]. I think there’s an AP for everyone,” says Fry. Students have scored well in history, math, psychology, and other classes.

To boost awareness and spirit, teachers have led initiatives such as a special AP breakfast, and a T-shirt design contest. Students who earn 5s have their names put on plaques and receive a balloon. “They don’t do AP for the balloon,” Fry says with a laugh. “It shows them how much I value it. I’m kind of obsessed with it.”

Advice for educational leaders

Some of the problems Fry identified were easier to spot because she was an outsider. For example, school-wide announcements could happen at any time of day. Limiting announcements to scheduled times mean less disruption, supporting the flow of lesson plans. Here are some of her tips for educational leaders:

  • When bad things happen, rather than ignoring it, Fry sends a “rumor control email” to her staff that explains what has happened, and how they’re tackling it. “Administrators cause more problems for themselves when they don’t communicate,” says Fry.
  • Use your resources. Some of Fry’s biggest initial critics turned out to be allies, as they began to trust her and her approach.
  • You can’t sit in meetings if you want to know what’s really going on in school. “I walk the whole building every morning,” she says.
  • “Kids are kids no matter where you are. I never came in and said, ‘This place is a mess.’ Focus on the positive,” says Fry. “Find and talk to your positive colleagues. It’s hard. But work is supposed to be hard.”

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.