First Annual State of the School Address

Madame Interim School Leader, Honored Board Members, Faculty, and Staff:

Inspire Academy is a place of belonging, a place where we unite around a shared mission and work to ensure all students are empowered to achieve more than they dream possible. We are now in our sixth year of providing gifted education to everyone and aiming to empower students on the margins to be at the center of the educational endeavor in this country. We started this school to provide an inquiry-based option in contrast to the prevailing educational norms, which often seek to conform all students to a uniform way of learning, to iron out diversity.

We have faced many challenges over the years. Many assumed that another educational option would never open in Muncie, that a grassroots organization with a shoe-string budget and big dreams could never make a genuine impact in the educational climate of our community, that a diverse body of educators and students would not rise to the challenge of exceeding expectations and sowing seeds of hope. However, in every challenge, whether in regard to facilities, enrollment, staffing, finances, or leadership, we have not only risen to the challenge but we have exceeded expectations. The same is true for this transitional season right now. We are so thankful to Bridget Duggleby for her leadership during this season and to all of you for your commitment to this mission. We are not going anywhere. We are re-upping our commitment to this unique and important mission.

Inspire Academy has never been stronger than we are right now. I have watched Inspire Academy grow over the past year from feeling dependent on one person to mobilizing independently and steadily, able to weather the storms of life. As a team, we have increased our student retention rate from 62% to 80%. Our ability to keep students with us longer is foundational to our students’ academic success, as our approach is aiming at long-term improvement, not quick fixes, and I congratulate all of you who have worked hard to improve this retention rate through improved family communications and higher quality educational practices.

Our students continue to create complex, authentic products for authentic audiences. Within the past year, we have seen students create stationary, informational pamphlets, seed packets, public service announcements, and representations of real-world data, to name a few. Our students continue to engage in meaningful work, work they will encounter in the professional world, work that fans the flame of their natural inclination toward curiosity, discovery, and adventure.

We have implemented several systems to facilitate continuous improvement of the educational programming at our school. We have added Kickboard, a program that holds us as adults accountable to give more positive feedback than negative feedback to students. The evidence and research are clear – instances of affirmative feedback must outnumber instances of corrective feedback if we are going to be able to hear the corrective feedback and be able to translate it into positive improvement. This is true of adults and children alike! With data from Kickboard, we are learning how to use more positive feedback for improvement.

We have implemented the EL Curriculum and Literacy Block, both foundational to our students becoming effective readers, writers, and researchers who can contribute to a better world through expeditions, projects, and products. We are meeting learners where they are in their literacy journey and prioritizing time and space for students to receive the literacy support they need, with learners of various ages. We have implemented Bridges in Mathematics, a more user-friendly curriculum for elementary. We have identified Power Standards, standards that, if focused on regularly and prioritized, have the power to move student outcomes both on standardized tests and high quality work.

And most recently, but certainly not most insignificantly, we have added the Apex Virtual Learning platform in middle school, a platform that will facilitate students becoming leaders of their own learning through core curriculum with the support of teachers as guides in the learning and exploration process. The system provides immediate feedback in the form of grades and progress monitoring for teachers, students, and parents…a much needed piece for students to grow and make visible academic gains. We have also very recently added event coordinating as a separate duty, with additional compensation, to ensure that family and social activities continue to grow as a priority to build a sense of community and belonging as students get older and are looking for more school events.

The work we have chosen is not easy work, and there are challenges that lie ahead. We are committed to solving problems that our nation has never solved – namely that we have a public education system that values all young citizens having access to a free education while often not disrupting patterns of marginalization and the prioritization of some students over others. These are not easy problems to solve, but I know that we are up for the challenge. My goals for Inspire Academy for the coming years are simple but not easy:

  1. We will fill our school to capacity and beyond.
  2. We will increase test scores until we are above average.
  3. We will ensure that every student has a user-friendly portfolio that is filled with complex, authentic work.

How we accomplish these goals is anything but simple:

  1. We will fill our school to capacity and beyond. Elements of our school that increase enrollment must be prioritized. Enrollment is our bread and butter, as well as the way we reach more students with our mission. Financially speaking, at about $7,000 per student, we cannot afford another year of low enrollment. Missionally speaking, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are well beyond 50 more students in Muncie who would do better at Inspire than elsewhere. Prioritizing enrollment will include:
  • Consistent communication of events and achievements
  • Improving and expanding our sports and arts programming
  • Adding predictable cycles of fieldwork and summer adventure trips that make kids yearn to participate
  • More social family events
  • Decisions based on the felt needs of families and students
  • Flexible class sizes

We must become an organization built with systems and structures that do not change based on who is in the organization in a given year. As a people-centered organization, we have taken a lot of hits as people come and go. Life is hard, mobility is regular part of the technological age, and people are fickle. (Sometimes we need to just jump in a bus-turned-RV and drive away for our own sanity!) In the following months, we will create and adjust positions and structures to meet the needs of students rather than the needs of adults. Then, we will find adults who want to plug into those positions and structures, and we are hoping that all of the adults in this room choose to do just that!

  1. We will increase test scores until we are above average. Leadership structures must improve. The addition of an Executive Director position was a good start to increase efficacy and sustainability, but additional shifts need to be made.

What will this look like?

  • When hiring a replacement for our Interim School Leader, we will change the title to Principal and limit the duties of the position to those more typical associated with a principal position, directed and guided closely by our Executive Director.
  • We will dissolve what was previously called “School Leadership Team,” a team that is unclear on its role and, as a result, tries to fit too much into short, limited meetings. We will replace SLT with two different teams, an Executive Advisory Team and a group of Professional Learning Community (PLC) Team Leads. Members of the Executive Advisory Team will be appointed by the Executive Director for one year, renewable terms. This team will serve as a sounding board for big picture decisions and shifts made by the Executive Director of the organization. PLC Team Leads will be appointed jointly by the Executive Director and Principal (Interim School Leader for now) for one year, renewable terms based on academic outcomes as measured by standardized tests and/or student portfolios of work. This team will lead the work of instructional improvement in classrooms.

In order to meet our goal of increasing test scores until we are above average, we must also codify and improve our multi-tiered systems of support. This is a large part of our work plan this year and will continue into next year. Bridget and I have mapped out a 30-week process for deep implementation of academic support and intervention to ensure all students meet growth targets. Through PLCs, led by PLC Team Leads who follow a focused calendar of planning and implementation, we will spend 30 weeks improving our multi-tiered systems of support and making sure we do it well.

  1. We will ensure that every student has a user-friendly portfolio that is filled with complex, authentic work. In order to ensure students are achieving at competitive levels academically, identifying agreed upon standards of academic outcomes is necessary. In an organization that is working toward educational reform and continuing to pushback on standardized tests as the definition of all student achievement, we often fail to define what we will honor as accurate and reliable measurements of student achievement. We need to define clear expectations for complexity, craftsmanship, and authenticity as a supplemental measurement to standardized test data. Replacing a mono-dimensional measurement of student achievement with no measurement of student achievement is not in the best interest of kids. We must define these things, and we must ensure teachers achieve measurable outcomes with students.

Empowering a diverse body of students with an internationally competitive education by fostering students’ natural inclination toward curiosity, discovery, and adventure is a monstrous mission, a mission we believe is tremendously important for the success of our students, the health of our city, and the progress of our world. We have been doing this hard work for several years now, and the growth is evident.

One example of this growth is the story of Kara Baugues. She joined the Inspire Crew as a parent on day one of year one, and then she joined us as a staff member for year two. She saw in our school an opportunity for her children to receive an education they can receive nowhere else in Muncie, one that honors critical thinking and deep discussion, one that honors growth regardless of disability, one that teaches habits along with facts, and one that values all students as equals in deed, not just words. As a parent, Kara now has her oldest earning a 4.0 at one of the most esteemed high schools in Muncie and 3 girls developing into young ladies who can read and write with impact. As a staff member, Kara has gone from managing a room well (she has always had a knack for this piece) to doing it with confidence and fewer self-doubts. She has gone from focusing primarily on behavior to focusing primarily on academic outcomes, and her students’ are benefitting from this shift, surpassing average growth targets on NWEA and moving toward closing achievement gaps.

Another example of the growth and impact of our organization can be seen in the Pickett family. Brittany Pickett joined our organization months before opening this great school as my administrative assistant..formerly a bank teller. Brittany and I were the ONLY administrative positions – imagine running a school not much smaller than it is today with just Brittany and Bridget – no Paul, no Emily, no Emilie, no ED. As you can imagine, she and I both grew very quickly in this sink or swim environment! Over the years, Brittany’s responsibilities and leadership have grown, and her title and position have followed. Her family has also grown in size and in mission. By year 3, Harry Pickett joined the team as a TA while working on a degree in education, becoming a Teacher Fellow by year 5. The mission is contagious. Also in year 5, the little guy who had been at our ankles when we opened was now coming to Inspire in uniform for his big kindergarten debut and has been thriving here ever since.

The list could go on simply from families represented in our staff – the Oldfields, the Carpenters, the Stouts, the Drapers, the Dugglebys, Julie and her kiddo and Veronica and her kiddo joining us recently – each of these families will testify of belonging, of the foundational difference in thinking that our children have gained from their time here at Inspire, time that we wouldn’t trade for the world! And there are all the examples of kids and families not in this room – from a student who came with an IEP with an accommodation of “not requiring him to speak” and Inspire shattering those low expectations, paving the way for that same student becoming a presenter in front of a large audience of strangers before he left us – to the student who has grown from the 2nd percentile to the 25th percentile in reading over the course of his years here. These students exemplify Inspire’s journey – we’ve come a mighty long way…and we have a long road ahead if we are truly going to shatter glass ceilings for our students!

Join with me today and into the coming years! We must be unified. We must up our commitment to ensuring our students achieve more than we dream possible…or we must change professions. This means hard work. This means confronting improvements head on and not gossiping about challenges. This means long hours. This means non-profit pay scale. This means planning a lifestyle of healthy habits to keep ourselves at our best for the sake of those we serve. And this means doing it all joyfully because we chose this work!

This also means making a tangible difference in the lives of families and children. This also means having a role in dismantling systems within public education that devalue those with less privilege. This also means going home every night knowing you’ve done all in your power to make the world a better place. This work also means great feelings of pride when you see a child share meaningful content in a professional way at Exhibition Night. This work means being involved in student projects that restore the natural world. This means being an advocate and an ally. This means you get to speak into people’s lives and watch them grow and achieve more than they dreamt was possible.

Lives are at stake…the lives of the children we serve, and we cannot let them down. I hope each and every one of you will rally around these next steps in continuing the momentum and upping the quality of this important work. We are Inspire. We have high expectations, and those high expectations with adequate supports in place to meet those expectations are what will propel our students forward to experience deeper and broader success. Thank you for your service, and thank you for being fully present this afternoon. We will now open the floor for questions. Please text your questions to Emily Franks. She will take your texts and organize them into consolidated questions in the interest of covering as much as possible in the time available.

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