A Public School Leader’s Lesson in Creating a Culture of Excellence
Lindsey Burke /
We’re all used to hearing about the public school that is underperforming. But there are, without question, pockets of excellence throughout the country. Prince Georges County, Maryland, has one such pocket in Crossland High School—a public school with a passionate and respected principal at the helm.
But it wasn’t always so. Less than a decade ago, Crossland was unsafe, underperforming, and shunned by the surrounding community. Parental involvement was low, and parents were even hostile toward school administrators and teachers.
Enter Principal Charles Thomas in the fall of 2004, a time when Crossland was known as one of the worst schools in the county. Thomas says at that time, relationships with the neighborhood were bad, nearby businesses complained that the school didn’t control students, and it was nearly impossible to recruit quality teachers. The culture of the school was poor, says Thomas.
But upon his arrival, Thomas began focusing on school climate, which he argues was one of the single greatest factors in turning-around the once troubled school.
One of the first reforms Thomas put into place seems common sense: a strict prohibition on profanity. But according to Thomas, it was controversial. Any student caught using profanity is suspended for five days—no exceptions. It took several years, but teachers are now enforcing the policy. According to Thomas, it’s all part of creating a culture of excellence at Crossland.
Thomas also began holding honor roll assemblies every quarter, which have become one of the most honored traditions at the school. The band plays, the choir sings, and all students earning a 4.0 receive a plaque. All in all, the expectations of the teachers, students, parents, and community have risen.
The renewed focus on academics has paid off. Nearly half the students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch, but 90 percent of seniors apply to four-year universities, and 70 percent are accepted. Crossland’s seniors, Thomas says, “expect to go to college,” even though the majority will be the first in their families to go.
Crossland also focuses on the skills necessary to be successful in a variety of careers. The school has a remarkable technical academy, which includes a nursing assistant program, a culinary arts program, an electrician program, and programs in masonry, cosmetology, and drafting. What’s unique about Crossland’s approach, however, is that a cosmetology student is still required to take an Advanced Placement course.
While there is still room for improvement, academic achievement and college readiness at Crossland have increased significantly in the past few years, earning Crossland accolades in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and elsewhere. And for good reason: The percentage of Crossland students passing the Maryland state algebra assessment has skyrocketed from 15 percent in 2004 to 75 percent in 2010. The passing rate for the English high school assessment has risen from 22 percent to 78 percent.
In order to begin moving the academic needle in the right direction, Thomas had to make some significant changes in his teacher workforce, which was no small feat in unionized Maryland. Over the course of two years, Thomas has replaced half the teachers in the school. He replaced only seven teachers the third year and replaces four or five annually now, much of which is due to normal attrition.
So how did Thomas reform the teacher workforce in such a significant way? He instituted constant classroom observations and held teachers to the same standards as students, closely monitoring attendance. A majority of the teachers that were replaced over that two-year period left on their own volition after the new changes were implemented. Now, 70 percent of the teachers who work at Crossland were hired by Thomas himself.
Thomas says he took three basic tenants for managing Crossland from his time at IBM: (1) respect for the individual, (2) the best possible service, and (3) the pursuit of excellence. They are all tenets he works to impart in his students, and at Crossland, it shows.