From Lowest Performing to “Extreme School” Success

Blackburn School Florida

There are 1,862 elementary schools in the state of Florida. We are featuring another “Extreme School” and its name is Blackburn Elementary. Last year, it was one the lowest performing (5%) elementary schools in the state (one of the VERY, VERY lowest).

Now, when we see schools struggle like this, there are many possibilities. First, we can debunk the most commonly mentioned myths about low-performing schools…

First, we can debunk the most commonly mentioned myths about low-performing schools. Which of these 4 possibilities is actually correct?

Possibility #1: Most all of the kids share some common genetic defect, which prevents them from succeeding at school.

Possibility #2: There is something in the air, water, plants or food in this zip code which is hurting the cognitive ability of the students.

Possibility #3: The parents don’t care about education or their IQ is low, so therefore the kids can’t learn.

Possibility #4: The staff of the school can influence achievement by making some changes.

I am guessing you picked #4, which is correct. I have often shared success stories of schools, so you could see the end “product” worthy of high-fives. But, this month is different. I thought you might be interested in the process itself. In other words, how are the principal and the staff mapping out the changes to build a successful school?

BACKGROUND: This school was the winner of the “Extreme School” prize in early 2013. They were a struggling, very low-performing school. I presented to this staff in August 2013. This is a progress report after five months.


Before her school enjoyed the “Complimentary Staff Development Day”, Principal Kathy Redmond began sharing a clear and compelling vision of success with her staff. The bar was set sky high and she started by “seeding” the faculty with a new vision for the school.

By August 12, 2013 the following had happened:

1) A school team of eight attended the 2012 Poverty workshop.

2) The principal spent extra time observing her staff during the 2012/13 school year to help her make better decisions about staffing for the following year. Then she worked with school leadership to develop a tentative school improvement plan.

3) She got the state test score data and assembled it in a user-friendly format for her staff. She looked at student data carefully, and then they had a faculty meeting to review the data.

4) Her school was the random winner of the “Extreme School” contest.

5) Three months prior to my August presentation she held a telephone conference call with four of her staff and myself (Eric). Goals were set and staff were getting on board.

6) Summer arrived and the principal had decisions to make regarding whether to renew each teacher’s contract. Several staff (who had been quite hostile to change and thought “those kids” couldn’t learn) were not renewed for 2013-14.

7) Book study time: the staff read the book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, so the groundwork was laid prior to my visit.

8) Then, after all of this preparation, I arrived in August. The staff members were excited and ready to launch their plan. All I had to do was to steer them in the right direction and provide the missing strategies.

RESULTS? What is going on at the moment, 4 months after the “official launch” of the new school identity? I will let the principal, Kathy, give the update in her own words…

“It has been fantastic!”

“During the week that you (Eric) were here, we continued to build momentum.  We did several significant things… one, while working on our staff core values, a conversation evolved and our “Gaudy Goals” were brought up.

One of our leadership team members, at her table, suggested that we build core values that would drive us to become world famous.  Her group shared her idea and it has completely stuck.  We have shared it with parents, students and I even went on our local news declaring that our school will be world famous.  Of course, the superintendent, who was present during the interview, just smiled… and other district leaders think I’m crazy… but you know what, Eric? I’m not crazy. We ARE going to be world famous for the huge turn around we are going to make at this school!

And two, our second significant move that first week was creating a list of our most significant learning’s from our work with you…. and the purpose of the list is to put it in front of us as we do all of our work (especially our problem solving work) as we improve our instruction.  We now have a “Working Memory Activities” blog on our staff website.  I have added several of our learnings to the Prof. Learning portion of our school’s “Walk-Through” feedback form.  I have also added working memory activities as part of our lesson plan checklist.  Our monthly faculty meetings are going to have a short (less than 10 min. segment) on working memory activities.

Progress?  While working on our school improvement plan, we listed barriers to some of our goals (which we turned into Gaudy Goals… I can’t wait to explain that to our Florida DOE Differentiated Accountability Team!).  We identified the barriers we have no control over… like “that our kids get no support at home”… and “our kids come to us so low” and we cut those statements off the chart and I made a big deal about shoving them through a shredder.  We really have left those excuses behind…” (Principal Kathy Redmond).

(Eric speaking here). You and I know that it’s only a start… but it’s a GREAT start. There is, of course, no data at the moment, but this is the kind of excitement and momentum it will take to turn the school around. We will keep you posted on the progress. Remember this school is starting out at the bottom 5% of academic scores (among 1,862 K-5 public schools in the state). Let’s give it a bit of time before we check back in again.


Now, you’ve read about another “Extreme School” success story, and we have a question for you. 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 affirmed, OR, what was 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 are near the bottom or the top) please email me your story to: In the subject line, put “Extreme School” story. Thanks.

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

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