Elementary school students at Dyersburg City Schools might find themselves, in the middle of the day, removing scuff marks from a hallway or helping walk a dog.
Dyersburg City Schools Director Neel Durbin says these responsibilities bring out the best in students of all ages, academically and otherwise. And apparently, the kids like it.
2015 SCORE Prize district finalist Dyersburg City Schools does an exceptional job of preparing students for college and the workforce, starting with kindergarten and continuing through graduation. A rigorous, career-focused curriculum combined with comprehensive, age-appropriate development of soft skills ensures that students graduate with the academic preparation and personal focus needed to succeed after high school.
The northwest Tennessee district has maintained a trajectory of increasing academic expectations for many years, netting strong gains in math over the last three years and ACT test scores above the state average. But it’s only been in the last five years that district leaders worked to connect this academic growth with development of other skills needed for college and career. This effort began in community conversations with various local industry leaders, the Dyersburg/Dyer County Chamber of Commerce, and downtown development associations.
“We asked them, ‘What do you need? What do our students need to be successful in your particular workforce?’ That can mean any industry, including various higher education settings,” Mr. Durbin said. “We reverse-engineered this. We started at the end and then worked toward the beginning.”
District officials learned that soft skills are a critical component of post-graduation success. Students must know how to take responsibility, function on a schedule, and communicate well and appropriately with others.
In response to these insights, the district adopted and expanded several recognized leadership development models in a multi-school character development initiative. At Dyersburg Primary School, a Positive Behavior program for K-2 students encourages kids to be respectful, responsible, and ready for learning. The Leader in Me program implemented for grades 3-5 at Dyersburg Intermediate gets kids thinking early and often about goal-setting and personal development. Further character education happens in many dimensions for older students at Dyersburg Middle and Dyersburg High schools.
Part of the process for younger kids is adoption of responsibilities ordinarily taken on by adults. Elementary kids take ownership of keeping classrooms and hallways clean. Many classrooms have a designated “greeter” – a child responsible for immediately hopping up for an introduction to any visitor to the room, taking time to explain what’s happening, get a bottle of water for the visitor, and checking to see what the visitor needs. School therapy dogs can provide a range of services to students, from spending time with high-need kids to providing a non-judgmental ear for children practicing their reading skills, as well as another outlet for development of student responsibility – kids are charged with various dog care needs.
“It’s unbelievable what it does for the attitude of students and teachers when you walk in with a dog,” Mr. Durbin said. “It is the cheapest, most effective intervention that we have.”
At Dyersburg Intermediate, all fifth-graders attend a leadership class taught by school librarian Kari Bernier for a total of four weeks during the school year. Kids learn about interpersonal communication, getting along with others, and public speaking. Presentation skills are explored for speaking to groups and individuals. Students consider what it might mean to have a professional or social persona. The underpinnings of responsibility and leadership are developed and reinforced.
“It opens doors in any number of ways, in all sorts of fields. When they get older and into those leadership roles, they’re ready,” Ms. Bernier said.
At Dyersburg Middle and Dyersburg High schools, students are responsible for aspects of school operations including management of message boards, production of presentations and ads, and district-wide technical support. Designated middle and high school ambassadors guide visitors around the schools. All older students face big consequences for being late to class. If they aren’t in their seats and ready to learn when the bell rings, they aren’t permitted to attend the class. Instead they complete the work in an alternate setting until the next period.
“Our kids understand the importance of being on time. We’re extremely successful with that,” Mr. Durbin said.
Senior seminars provide the opportunity to consider personal values and long-term goals. Many students have cited the seminars as their most important high school experience, providing direction and focus for life after high school, Mr. Durbin said.
The results that character education delivers are difficult to measure. The impact of interventions in the early grades won’t be measurable for several more years. But in the meantime, positive results are readily apparent and closely tied with academic gains. Teacher feedback to the district reports that kids now interact with one another and instructional materials at a more mature level, a result that Mr. Durbin notes is “braided together” with the state’s academic standards requiring kids to think, write, and express themselves well. Mr. Durbin is proud that his district his ranked 15th highest in the state of Tennessee in its percentage of economically disadvantaged students, while maintaining a district-wide average ACT score in the state’s top 20.
“We think that we do a pretty good job on the academic set. Our data shows that we grow kids quite well,” Mr. Durbin said.
At Dyersburg City Schools, ACT preparation and thinking about post-graduation decisions start very early. At Dyersburg Intermediate, which serves all districts students in grades 3-5, college is always part of the conversation. Combining this academic focus with Leader in Me goal-setting and leadership instruction for fifth-graders helps empower kids to meet high expectations.
Principal Lenita Click estimates that 65 to 70 percent of her students’ parents received no postsecondary education, so teaching kids that other options are possible requires early communication. With the Tennessee Promise program in place, Dyersburg Intermediate students are hearing now that they can attend Dyersburg State Community College for two years free of charge. Kids hear exactly how much more money such a decision can bring later and learn about the benefits of setting themselves up to make their own choices.
Two years ago, the school used one of its two annual Title I-funded Family Nights – which are well-attended, drawing hundreds of parents and kids without any kind of door prizes or “bribes,” Ms. Click said – to educate families about college. Fifth-graders wrote to different colleges and set up presentations about different options. A classroom was temporarily converted to a makeshift dorm room for families to tour. A high school teacher spoke to families about preparing for the ACT, and local investment bankers provided information about saving for college. There was even a session on studying abroad. At the end of the night, faculty and staff donned their own regalia and offered an abridged graduation ceremony as “Pomp and Circumstance” played.
“Unless you’ve gone to a college or high school graduation, you haven’t seen that,” Ms. Click said. “We’re telling kids, ‘You can go to college.’”
Learn more about this SCORE Prize district finalist by watching this video: