The Long Road to Success – Extreme Schools

Madison School

Our featured “Extreme School” is an elementary school in St. Cloud, Minnesota. This high-poverty school had struggles for years. From 2006 – 2009 the school struggled to make annual yearly progress every year, missing in four and sometimes eight academic areas. Today, the school is different; it’s a high achieving school that does well in every single content area. The kids are the same, but the school is different.

How did they do it?


The principal, Dr. Henry, supplied me with a great deal of insights on the change process that the school used. Here are some of her thoughts…

“A school change framework of shared leadership, collaboration, learning cohorts focused on instructional practices, student data, and action steps that support teacher and student growth is a model and solution that has been embraced by Madison Elementary School Pre K-5. The key piece for teachers is applying research into daily instructional practice to ultimately impact student achievement.”

The school’s key elements:

1. Improved student learning has been cited as an overriding priority in effective schools [shared dialogue].

2. Strong building [principal] leadership has been consistently cited as a key factor in effective schools [instructional leadership; shared dialogue].

3. Strong staff collaboration has been highlighted in studies of effective schools [teacher teams; time to reflect, talk, learn; relationships; supportive conditions].

4. Studies of effective schools have stressed ongoing professional development and the implementation of research-based practices [application].

5. Teachers in effective schools systematically share student assessment data [which informs instructional practices].

The staff worked with Dr. Barbara Taylor and the Reading First program in Minnesota. They learned to “build the bridge as they walked on it.” The staff made a commitment to success. They prioritized student learning needs through a Response to Intervention (RTI) model, rebuilt relationships, implemented Responsive Classroom and Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS), collaborated 2-4 times per month in Learning Cohorts focused on student achievement, and used assessment data to inform core instruction and interventions for each and every student. They became a more data-decision making group. They use assessment that is informative and meaningful.

They began with getting people on board the team to escalate action for change, setting objectives and action steps, rewarding successes, revisiting goals, embedding change system-wide, supporting excellence from within, and celebrating successes. The school used best practices from theories of organizational change.


Dialogue was critical to this first step as the school worked through the process of implementation, coming to shared understandings through ongoing conversations. Strong principal leadership was key, as well. Without principal leadership to begin the process by examining the data and initiating reform, change may not have happened.

In addition to strong principal leadership, teacher leaders speak to certain action steps being critical to implementation: forming a leadership team, communicating the message to the whole group, studying the requirements of change, setting high expectations, commitment, focusing on a vision and keeping an end in mind, overcoming fear and resistance, reaching consensus at times, dialogue, collaboration and people working together; all facilitated through strong building leadership.

As Madison continues to work toward an effective school change model, tough stands need to be taken by the principal and leadership team. Accountability needs to be in place for all staff. The leadership team dialogues and addresses additional concerns regularly. Monitoring and adjusting plans assists in moving the Madison team forward. Collaboration and celebrating successes helps to overcome resistance to change. Establishing a sense of urgency, articulating the vision, and maintaining a shared understanding that change takes time supports all staff in moving ahead. Effective leadership fosters a sense of shared beliefs and a sense of community and cooperation. Principal and shared leadership work to overcome many issues and will facilitate school change efforts at Madison over time.


The school continues to meet and exceed standards. Here is what the principal reported for What Worked and Works at Madison School:

  • Focus on improved student learning
  • Strong building [principal and shared] leadership [leadership team]
  • Strong staff collaboration [key piece]
  • Ongoing professional development [teacher study groups focused on research-based instructional practices]
  • Systematically share student assessment data
  • Literacy Coach
  • Engaging Families

The school’s path is evidence of how one school can change. It can begin through an urgency to improve student learning. Title 1 schools (high poverty) can, and do, succeed all over the world.

THIS SCHOOL IS: Madison Elementary, St. Cloud, Minnesota. Contact: Dr. Paula Henry, Principal through 2011-2012 school year. She has since left on a one-year leave of absence.


Now, you’ve read about another “Extreme School” success story, we have a question for you. How many school successes do you need to see and hear about before you BELIEVE that it can happen at your school? And, if there’s anyone on your staff that does not think it can happen, please forward these monthly posts to them. Second, what can you learn from the true story mentioned above? The only good that happens in this world is when you move things from inside your brain to the outside world. What ideas, principles or strategies were either affirmed OR were new to you? Could this be a topic of discussion at your next staff meeting?

Miracles do happen every day. Are you ready to be one of them?

FINALLY: If your Title 1 school has an “Extreme School” story to tell (whether you have moved up or are currently struggling), please email me your story to: In the subject line, put “Extreme School” story. Thanks.

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning,
the Leader in Brain-Based Education

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