When Jessica Valsechi first arrived to teach in Denver, she saw one word problem written on the face of every kindergartner who entered her classroom:
If you have ten kindergartners, and five of them graduate high school, how many go on to earn a college degree?
When Valsechi found that the answer was one, she spent two years helping University Prep (U Prep) turn one of Denver’s most daunting statistical equations into a 10-10-10 Revolution that would lead 10 out of 10 kindergartners from elementary school through college.
Then one day she was asked to solve a new problem: turnaround a school that ranked 166 out of 166 schools.
In honor of National Principals Month, I caught up with Valsechi on the day she and her school community celebrated moving from last place on the district’s School Performance Framework to 16th place—in just one year.
Whether she realized it or not, Valsechi has been preparing for this day for years.
9-3 = 6 to some kids
Despite growing up in a family of educators, it wasn’t until Valsechi reached grad school and began mentoring young students that something hit her.
“I remember very vividly doing homework with one of the 11-year-olds, and she was struggling with basic subtraction, like 9-3, and she was in fifth grade,” Valsechi said. “I was just like, oh my goodness, this is a really big problem. Sure I was giving her a lot of the social-emotional support, but she wasn’t getting very much of the academic support, so that’s when I started thinking about teaching.”
Valsechi looked to Teach for America to help parlay her social-emotional training into a teaching career. After spending two years in a traditional school in North Carolina, she began exploring charter schools in Denver.
It was at U Prep where Valsechi, who was never very good at math as a kid, embarked upon a phenomenal journey that would one day lead her students to achieve the highest math growth scores in the state.
Those who can’t do, learn…and then teach
Ironically, Valsechi’s students taught her more about math than she ever learned in school herself. Seeing their brains come up with different strategies to solve problems is what changed her own understanding of math and opened up a whole new way of learning for her students.
“Math is about problem solving in your own way and so when kids can develop their own strategies to solve a problem and make it their own, that’s when the real learning of math happens,” Valsechi said. “It’s about letting kids grapple and find their own access point and strategies that makes sense to them.”
It didn’t take long for Valsechi to abandon the traditional step-by-step approaches that she grew up learning herself. Putting herself into the minds of her students developed a passion for math that led to Valsechi becoming U Prep’s math content lead, dean of math curriculum and eventually the principal of a turnaround whose students had some of the lowest math scores in all of Denver.
The numbers didn’t lie, and neither did Valsechi
When U Prep’s founder and CEO applied to turnaround then failing Pioneer Charter in 2015, just 7 percent of students in third through fifth grade were at grade level in math, and only 6 percent were at grade level in English.
When Valsechi was asked to become principal of the turnaround, she knew what she was getting into and where she needed to take her students. But, similar to her approach solving math, she steered clear of the traditional step-by-step approaches, giving herself and her team freedom to explore multiple routes to achieve the same answer, which was growth for her students.
“It’s interesting because you do all this work planning, but you don’t actually really know anything until you start teaching,” Valsechi said. “So we had this scope and sequence of what we were going to teach and when we were going to teach it, and then once we started the year, we realized ok, we have to change course here.”
That’s because the state’s testing data only provided Valsechi baseline insights on where kids were with proficiency, but it didn’t tell her exactly what they needed help with. Once she began instituting regular assessments, she started to see a knowledge gap for fifth-graders that stretched as far back as second grade.
That was a gap Valsechi couldn’t hide from her staff, her students or her families.
With teachers, she made it clear that everything they thought they were going to teach would need to change. In many cases, it meant those hired to teach fifth grade would rapidly need to learn how to teach the content that students should have learned in second, third and fourth grade. In order to teach the students, Valsechi and her academic leadership team had to broadly teach new content to teachers, while also working collaboratively to provide individuals with coaching and development unique to their needs.
“We wanted to be ambitious, but realistic at the same time, and we were 100 percent committed to doing whatever we needed to do as teachers and leaders to make sure we could catch kids up as fast as we possibly could,” Valsechi said. “And, we were honest with the kids, too. We said, hey, this is where we’re at; this is what we’re going to start with and we’re going to get you where you need to go, but this is where we’re going to have to start first.”
As she worked to gain the trust of her families, Valsechi used Back-to-School Night and early family conferences as her first opportunities to be as open and honest with families as possible.
“It’s was about creating informed parents,” Valsechi said. “And that was something that I don’t think our parents had previously…and so that was something we wanted to make sure we were always really transparent about. But at the same time we were saying, if your kid is below grade level, it has nothing to do with their abilities. It’s all about the opportunities they were given to showcase their talents. We always just wanted to frame it in what kids have as far as their assets, not what they’re lacking.”
It’s wasn’t about keeping her priorities straight
For Valsechi, it was never about having a straight line approach to helping kids improve. As a leader, she knew setting priorities would give her staff the focus they needed to make a real impact, but getting there would require collaboration, flexibility, and a willingness to do things differently.
This out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new approach started by moving teachers’ desks from their isolated classrooms to more collaborative workspaces that encouraged teachers to problem-solve together.
Even Valsechi did her best to stay out of the principal’s office.
“I think leaders just have to be so ingrained in the classroom and classroom practices,” Valsechi said. “You have to be just popping in and doing observations all the time. That should be one of your main priorities as a leader. And, it makes an impact on kids because they get excited when they see the principal and other leaders constantly in their classrooms knowing what they are learning…it creates more buy-in from them because they see everyone in the building cares about them.”
Gathering these insights helped Valsechi set specific, incremental goals that would move kids toward proficiency, while giving her staff key wins to celebrate along the way.
Setting quarterly goals helped keep teachers from feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to achieve a huge amount of growth all at once.
“I just wanted them to be able to say: This is what we’re focusing on right now and there may be other things that I want to do or can improve on, but if I’m focused on improving in this one area, then the other things will kind of come as well.”
And, while many growing charter schools face criticism for using a cookie-cutter approach to opening new schools, Valsechi wasn’t afraid to create norms based on the needs of her community rather than the need to replicate a charter model. One of those adjustments included giving her students a longer math block during the day.
“Too many times we try to take one thing that’s working from one place and try to implement it in another place and it doesn’t work, because you’re not taking into consideration what needs to happen based on the needs of that community.” Valsechi said.
“It’s not just a plug and play—you have to constantly be reflecting on what’s working and what isn’t working and problem solve and potentially veer differently from what you thought you were going to do in the first place.”
Multiple Routes from Red to Blue
Ultimately Valsechi’s willingness to explore multiple avenues, combined with her staff and families’ willingness to follow her lead, pushed her students out of the district’s lowest performance rating straight to the top of the district’s highest rating.
By the end of the 2016-17 school year, Valsechi’s students had grown 36 percent toward math proficiency—the most any students had achieved in Colorado.
While she’s taken on a new role at the network, Valsechi left her principal’s office the same way she arrived in her classroom five years ago: knowing there’s no one way to solve any problem.
“I learned that there isn’t just one thing that leads to success with a school,” Valsechi said. “It’s a bunch of different systems and people really working together to produce results. And, those systems can look different in different types of communities.”
As I watched this community celebrate what worked for them, the one thing that stood out even more than the sea of “Red to Blue” shirts worn by every student, parent and teacher, was the humility of a leader who always believed in her community’s ability to succeed.
“When we stop viewing communities as deficit-based we can make a lot more progress, because we can look at what talents they already have that we just need to adjust our systems to in a way that meets their needs,” Valsechi said.
“The success came from them,” she said. “I don’t want this to be about me as the leader, because the success came from all of us. It came from the teachers, it came from the families, it came from the kids, and they’re capable of continuing that success with or without me.”