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First grade teacher Nathan Lober remembers the 2000s at Rod Kelley Elementary in Gilroy as “the good soldier era.” The district encouraged teachers to stick to the book, marching through every item in a prescribed set of curriculum standards.

And they did, except they never made it to the end. They always ran out of time during the school year, and students were left with a shaky understanding of a broad range of concepts.

In hindsight, the problem seems clear. But Principal Luis Carrillo said it wasn’t at the time. “We were frustrated because we kept trying different things,” he said. “They didn’t work. Our scores were flat. Some groups of students weren’t improving at all.”

Carrillo is a big fan of something called the Leadership and Learning Matrix. The idea is that success means you not only have good results, but also a clear understanding of why you’re getting them. If that’s where you are, you’re leading. If you have poor results and don’t know why you’re getting them, you’re losing.

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Carrillo and the staff at Rod Kelley had a sense of the problem, but they didn’t yet have their finger on the problem, much less a solution. At the time, the state ranked schools against their peers with similar student populations. Rod Kelley consistently ranked in the middle of the pack at best. In 2008, the school was a five out of ten. In 2009, it dipped to four.

That was the year Carrillo got to know James Dent. Dent was principal at nearby Eliot Elementary School, which had shown remarkable growth under his leadership. At a meeting of Gilroy’s principals, Dent explained that the school had begun “deconstructing the standards.”

Instead of taking the district and textbook plan wholesale, they picked apart the state’s standards and then mapped out how they would teach each one over the course of the year. Instead of racing to cover textbook material that wasn’t in the state standards, Eliot separated the wheat from the chaff, leaving ample time to ensure that students had a firm grasp of all the key concepts.

In its essence, this is the approach that’s come to be known as standards-based teaching. The idea is to tie everything that happens in the classroom to an explicit set of items that students should know and be able to do.

“The focus has been on high expectations for all kids, but also for us. That’s the culture that’s evolved here.” – Principal Luis Carrillo
Carrillo grasped the broad strokes, but wanted to hear more. So he visited Eliot Elementary with a team of teachers, including third grade teacher Jennifer Evans. “Our excitement was contagious,” said Evans.

She and other teacher leaders began implementing Dent’s approach at Rod Kelley. “It’s complex and it takes a lot of time,” said Carillo. “You need to figure out what is the skill, then how do you assess that skill, then how do you teach that skill. But we just ran with it.”

At the same time, the school developed a new instructional method. Walk into any classroom and you’ll see students fully engaged, pumping their fists or wiggling their fingers in response to questions in line with a set of hand signals that are used in every classroom.

The results have been nothing short of astonishing. Three years after the meeting with Dent in 2013, Kelley was awarded a nine out of ten on the state’s similar schools ranking.

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** Data for 2014-15. From California Department of Education (CDE) downloadable research files for 2014-15 at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/dd/.

Kelley was prepared for the shift to the Common Core standards. In the first year of the new Common Core-aligned state tests, it ranked among the top schools in the San Francisco Bay Area for underserved students.

As so often with school transformations, Kelley’s was not just a matter of flipping a switch. No less important than the strategies the school chose was the fact that they were driven by teachers with a deep sense of urgency. Teachers continued to collaborate with each other and with other schools — first at Eliot, then nearby Gilroy Prep Charter School, which Dent co-founded in 2011.

“We’re holding everyone accountable,” said Carrillo. “The focus has been on high expectations for all kids, but also for us. That’s the culture that’s evolved here. Everyone really wants to do better.”

This article is part of our report, “How World-class Schools Deliver for All Students,” which includes our framework outlining six key practices that drive the success of the highest-performing schools. Explore the report to read more school profiles showing what these practices look like in action.