Jim Fossett is in his second year as the principal at Tonopah High School, working to transform the school 210 miles north of Las Vegas into a collaborative environment, where teachers meet weekly one-on-one with each of the school’s 115 students.
Tonopah is an old Nevada mining and military town that suffered a significant economic loss with the closure of an Air Force Base during the 1980s.
Fossett has taught and been a school administrator in inner-city Los Angeles and rural Wyoming, and was drawn to Tonopah by Nye County Schools Superintendent Dale Norton, who was seeking to transform the high school into an educational environment that embraces a high-performing academic culture and encourages teacher collaboration in pursuit of student excellence.
Fossett, who is a devoted acolyte of the late-Richard DuFour, one of the best-known advocates of Professional Learning Communities, spoke with us recently about the changes in climate and culture Tonopah High School has experienced since his arrival:
Question: How do your teachers work with students under this model?:
Fossett: When the staff sits around the table they’re looking for student success. We can’t call it a policy but it is our practice to make sure that everyone succeeds, no one fails, a zero-failure practice. When they sit at the table, they discuss, “OK, what are we going to do with these guys?”
So, every Thursday each student works with a teacher and there’s tutoring and counseling going on with the student about work they need to make up, tests they need to redo, things that they have to do to succeed.
Question: What are the early results?
Fossett: Last year we shrunk the “F’s” from a typical 82 to 86 down to 2. That’s in one semester, and now they’ve done the same thing. They’ve begun with a staff that’s mostly new, starting with something like 49 students in the mix have shrunk that down to half of that… and you get down to students that aren’t motivational issues. They have true needs for tutoring. They need more help and because it’s a smaller group they get more time. As all hands get on deck and work toward student success even a short amount of time makes a huge difference.
Question: Describe the composition of the school.
Fossett: There are 115 students in the school across four grade levels. There are 10 teachers here, and that’s including the JAG (Jobs for America’s Graduates) teacher. She actually joins us for the tutoring.
It includes anybody who isn’t passing. Now, if you’re not passing because you’re not dressing out or you’re not passing because you’ve got an attitude we still have work to do with you. With your attitude. So whatever they need to work on, they look at it with an adult. They set a goal with that adult, and the questions they answer are three:
What’s the data telling you and the student?
Then, the teacher will ask what are you going to do about that? And they talk about that.
And the last question is: “What’s your goal for the week?” And they write it down in a folder. It’s very simple, and next week when they meet again they’ll ask: “How did the goal go? What do you need to do this week and where are you at?”
Question: Is it a complicated process?
Fossett: It’s very direct, pretty simple. If you have all hands on deck doing this, you have every student who gets an adult conversation, and what we try to do is set it up so it’s the same adult having the conversation every week. It builds relationships, trust and motivation because if they know they’re going to have to check and answer for their goal it changes their feeling about school.
Question: How has this transformed the school’s climate and culture?
Fossett: The thing is it looks like it’s a Wednesday meeting with teachers and a Thursday meeting with students, but it starts to impact the middle of the week. Kids will come up to the teacher who isn’t their math teacher, but they were talking with him in math and they will say, “I just want you to know that I got my grade up not just to a “C” but a “B.” And they get excited.
It’s a celebration really because what they’re looking for is success, and they have somebody to celebrate that with, somebody to share that with. If that don’t have it at home they have that here. That’s really the function that we’re creating here, a check-in point, a place where they feel like an adult cares about me, and what I do really matters.