A Culture Shift Transforms Achievement in West Virginia

Article excerpt


In December 2010, Richwood High School in Nicholas County (W.Va.) Schools was identified as a low-performing school by the U.S. Department of Education for failing to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) under NCLB. In addition, a survey completed by the school staff in the spring of 2011 found that Richwood High had a "balkanized culture with toxic tendencies." It meant, in part, that the school's teachers had problems with collaborating, and the school staff, including teachers, resisted change and had a sense of hopelessness and pessimism. The school identified three main areas of concern: shared leadership, instructional practices and school culture.


So in the spring of 2011, the leaders at Richwood High focused on changing school culture as the foundation for school improvement. To revitalize the staff and get them excited about change, the faculty studied the book Our Iceberg Is Melting by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber, which offers an eight-step process for leading change in any organization. A transformational process was put in place.

"Once it was revealed that we were low-performing, we were given harsh choices," says Carter Hillman, Richwood High's principal. "We knew we needed to change or we were going to get taken over by the state. Being rock bottom is sobering, but we realized that we are a team and that change is possible."

Committees Uncover Problems

Five subcommittees comprised of teachers--for communication, raising expectations, morale, policies and collaboration--were formed. As an example of their work, one subcommittee found a lack of student interest with a state test that doesn't affect grades or show up on transcripts. In response, says Hillman, the subcommittee created a "unified school effort focusing on what Richwood High means to the students and what are they are doing to show such."


There were also inconsistencies in teachers supporting one another professionally, so the subcommittee created a program called Accountability Partners. An individual teacher and another staff member hold each other accountable with tasks such as updating grades or keeping accurate attendance records. "Just a simple layer to remind everyone that we are all part of a team and need to support the school policies and procedures for us all to be effective," Hillman says.

New Attitude, New Culture

Around the same time, the high school partnered with EdVenture Group, a company that offers a multiphase program called Who Took My Chalk?, which helps schools adapt to cultural changes that the school needed to address. The school was able to fund it with federal School Improvement Grant money. …