Filling the Gaps

When Lyons Creek Middle School last year received its first A grade since 2010, Principal Horace Hamm and his team of teachers and administrators started the school year celebrating.

But something gnawed at Hamm: The latest student data showed more than a third of the school’s nearly 2,000 students weren’t performing at grade-level.

“We wanted to celebrate and be happy about the achievement,” says Hamm, who became principal in 2014. “But we also wanted to look back and say, ‘There’s still work to be done.’”

The work is the continuation of the changes that Hamm has implemented in the last three years. In the contemporary educational environment, data drives constant improvement, as assistant principal Thomas Howard explains.

“[Our professional learning communities] spend a great deal of time looking at data and student work and having a conversation about best practices,” Howard says. “They use assessments to see which teachers are succeeding and share ideas on what’s working.”

These communities speak to just one improvement initiative among the many Hamm has instituted. The lengthy list includes: beautifying the campus; implementing a positive behavior program; providing teachers with student Florida Standards Assessments data; starting a “help academy” that acclimates students to middle school; and offering good customer service to parents (“It comes down to treating the students how you would want someone to treat your child,” Howard says). And, perhaps most notable, offering more than a dozen programs (chosen based on a student survey) such as robotics, biology, debate, yoga, financial literacy, computer science, street law and more, some of which can be taken for high school credit and offer industry certifications.

The school became the top-performing middle school in the district, rising from the 20th percentile (in 2013-14) to the 97th this year based on students’ performance in Florida Standards Assessments data and other factors. Twelve teachers were recognized as high-impact teachers by the state, and the school received Florida’s Five Star Award. It also was one of five middle schools in the state to receive the Exceeding Expectations Award from the East Coast Technical Assistance Center.

“When the Exceeding Expectations group came [to assess the school] … one of the things that permeated the conversation was that they saw the love for our kids and they saw the family atmosphere among the teachers,” Hamm says.

That love is part of the restless driving force that Hamm has channeled into success. When he and Howard speak of the philosophy behind his methods, they often talk about looking for “gaps”—finding out what’s missing.

“We never rest on our laurels because we want to make sure we’re helping every single student,” Hamm says. “So I guess I’ll never be satisfied, but that’s our mentality. We want to make sure to continue to do what’s best for the kids.”

It’s an atmosphere Hamm says he will miss as he departs the school this month to work for the district coaching future principals on the nuances of the occupation. He’s not too worried about the transition. He’s confident that teachers and administrators such as Howard will continue to carry on what was started, and he hopes the community notices as well.

“I want to make sure this school is better than when I came,” Hamm says. “We want to make sure the brand is going to continue to have a positive name, because that’s only going to benefit the community and the students.”

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