By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
In the 33 years since its inception, no elementary school principal in Alexandria had won the Virginia Distinguished Principal of the Year award from the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals.
That all changed earlier this month as Brandon Davis, principal of the Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology, was honored for building student success and meeting performance targets.
Of the approximately 357 students currently enrolled at Cora Kelly, 87 percent receive free or reduced lunches while more than half speak English as a second language.
That has not prevented widespread achievement at the school, as it saw percentage point increases of between 8 and 12 percent in Standards of Learning pass rates for the 2014-15 academic year in English, Math, Science and History.
Davis was honored at a surprise ceremony at the school on March 16, where he was joined by fellow ACPS principals, Alexandria City School Board members and staff from Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley’s leadership team. He was nominated by a colleague for the award. VAESP is a professional organization with 1,100 members that represents elementary and middle school administrators.
“I feel most excited and happy for the students and the teachers, because they deserve it,” Davis said in an interview. “I feel happy that it’s another example that poverty does not restrict kids from learning and growing, and I’m hoping that as people see and hear this story, the expectations for kids in poverty and minorities are raised to the level that they can achieve like everybody else.”
A big point of emphasis at Cora Kelly is individualizing the learning of every student, so that they take responsibility and have a say in their education. Davis said it enables faculty to see the weaknesses of every student and where they need extra work, and it has enabled the school to make big strides. The 2014-15 academic year was the fourth in a row in which Cora Kelly met every federal and state educational benchmark.
“What we’ve done is being very intentional about what we do in that everything we do is focused on getting the students to college or something beyond high school,” Davis said. “Every moment of every day is built around that belief that we have to put things in place for them to make sure they get to the next level. We don’t do a lot of things that are not focused on the next level. We progress monitor every child as an individual to make sure that they’re making progress and doing well.”
Within that individualized learning, students and teachers follow the Play-Do-Study-Act model for learning, principles that take their lead from the Malcolm Baldridge Education Criteria for Performance Excellence, created in 1987. Named for the former U.S. secretary of commerce and originally pioneered to help business and industry, the educational model has each student involved in goal-setting and strategizing to improve academically.
“[Students and teachers] come up with a strategic goal for the year in reading and math generally, and with that each unit or each week or each lesson, they sit down and talk with the kids about the goal for lessons and they talk about what the plan is and talk about what they’re going to do, then study the results and go back and tweak whatever they need to do from there,” Davis said. “It’s a continuous improvement model. How are we going to get there, plan out how we’re going to get there, the steps that we’re going to take to get there?”
In addition, Cora Kelly has made use of inquiry-based learning, especially in science. The laboratories at the school help students learn through hands-on activities, while an outdoor classroom called The Habitat helps implement lessons that touch multiple parts of the curriculum. Davis said inquiry-based learning has other benefits, too.
“It’s useful to see the kids have hands-on and it helps to build the language background too and their vocabulary,” he said. “It is kind of challenging as far as implementing it as much as we would want. Inquiry-based instruction takes a lot more time than explicit instruction, but it also requires a lot more background knowledge, so we try to mix between. Some kids need to see it, some kids need to actually have hands-on instead of just verbally talking about everything, actually engage in things.”
As for the future, Davis said he and his colleagues will continue to stay focused on their overall goal of having every student stay in education past high school.
Schools officials were fulsome in their praise of the progress that has already been made at Cora Kelly.
“Mr. Davis’ leadership has contributed to Cora Kelly being a high-performing school by every measure,” said Lisa Piehota, executive director of elementary school instruction, at the ceremony. “Mr. Davis deserves the credit for the commitment, dedication and hard work of his team and the results that have been achieved.”