How Waddell Elementary dramatically improved its academic performance

Principal's plan leads Waddell Elementary to most improved test scores in the school district

A key element in principal Tonya Douglass' plan was to move one teacher from each grade level into a classroom of students one grade younger. These teachers could pinpoint the skills that younger students were missing before moving up to the next
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A key element in principal Tonya Douglass' plan was to move one teacher from each grade level into a classroom of students one grade younger. These teachers could pinpoint the skills that younger students were missing before moving up to the next

During the spring of 2015, Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis told Tonya Douglass, then the principal of Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy for six years, he was moving her to Waddell Elementary School, where she would replace the retiring principal.

Douglass, now a 23-year educator, asked the superintendent, “Do I have to?”

Although he didn’t specify a reason, Douglass said, Lewis told her she is the right fit for Waddell. She responded, “I trust you.”

Fast-forward to this past week, when the Georgia Department of Education released the 2017 College and Career Ready Performance Index. The score, on a 100-point scale, summarizes how well each public school and district in the state educates its children. The CCRPI comprises data including the Georgia Milestones Assessment System standardized test results, graduation rates, academic growth and success in closing student performance gaps.

Waddell, with more than 80 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, leads MCSD in CCRPI improvement during the past year, increasing its CCRPI from 64.1 in 2016 to 77.7 — or about 21 percent — in 2017. This continues the progress under Douglass, who upon arriving at Waddell inherited a score of 58.1, considered failing because it was below 60.

Other Muscogee County elementary schools with high growth on the CCRPI included Forrest Road with 20.3 percent, Wynnton with 13.6 percent, Johnson with 12.6 percent, and Davis with 10.9 percent.

Midland Middle School had 19.8-percent growth. Carver High School led the way for most-improved high schools with 8.4-percent growth.

When the latest scores were released Lewis called and congratulated Douglass. Recalling part of the conversation, she told him, “Thank you so much for trusting me,” and Lewis replied, “I see my trust was well placed.”

The Ledger-Enquirer visited Waddell on Friday to learn how the school made this improvement. Douglass summed it up this way:

“It is the hard, hard, hard work of our children and our teachers and the support of our parents and our community, which I believe has propelled this success.”

The reasons can be divided into three categories: programming, people and place.


Comparing 2016 to 2017, the percentage of Waddell’s students passing the Georgia Milestones increased from 40.7 to 52.6 in English language arts, from 50.0 to 55.7 in math, from 45.5 to 51.5 in science and from 51.4 to 59.8 in social studies. And on the indicator called “Predictor for High School Graduation,” the percentage of Waddell students scoring at Proficient or Distinguished, the top two of the four levels, increased from 25.0 to 30.0.

Waddell staff members credit last year’s implementation of Achieve3000, an online reading program, and its companion program for grades K-2, Smarty Ants.

In October 2015, 13 of MCSD’s 53 schools implemented Achieve3000, which delivers differentiated instruction in nonfiction reading and writing. The district will spend $630,000 over three years for the program in those schools.

On a computer, students in a class read the same content in news articles from the Associated Press and National Geographic, but Achieve3000, headquartered in Lakewood, N.J., tailors the complexity of the text to each student’s reading level.

For an additional $940,000 over three years, MCSD added 24 more schools in July 2016 to Achieve3000, including Waddell.

“We dove in,” Douglass said. “Our teachers embraced it. Our parents embraced it. … It speaks to the quality of the program, the fact that children were willing to engage in it after school and on the weekends.”

Last school year, 77 percent of Waddell’s 462 students logged in to Achieve3000 after school, on weekends or during holidays, totaling 3,491 log-ins. On one of the walls in the school, Waddell displays for each grade level each month the average reading level attained and the number of articles the students read and correctly answered at least 75 percent of the comprehension questions.

Students and classes compete with each other within the school, district and state for weekly honors in Achieve3000 rankings.

Third-grade teacher Ann Marie Wiley, a 14-year educator in her second year at Waddell, gives prizes such as fidget spinners or chocolate to students who score 75 percent or higher on at least 10 Achieve3000 articles in a week. She requires them to read at least two articles at home each night.

“I push it,” she said with a smile. “I try to aim high.”

When she saw Waddell’s dramatically improved CCRPI score, Wiley thought, “Wow. It’s amazing.”

The significance, she said, is that “it lets me know I’m doing the right thing.”

In math, Waddell teachers emphasize writing about math and applying the concepts in real-world situations – because that’s what the Georgia Milestones do —sometimes asking students to explain how they arrive at the answer or even explain how an answer that’s been provided is wrong.

Last year, Waddell conducted its inaugural CCRPI Week, led by school counselor Kelly Swinyard.

“It was like Career Week on steroids,” Douglass said. “We had two areas on CCRPI where we achieved the maximum points possible. Both directly tied to the important task of raising students’ awareness of Georgia’s 17 Career Clusters. The purpose of CCRPI Week was to have the clusters come alive for students and to focus their thoughts on considering their own career goals and the actions necessary to achieve them.”


Douglass calls academic coach Amy Patrick the school’s “secret sauce.” Patrick has been serving Waddell for three years, two years full-time and the previous year shared with Wesley Heights.

Teachers meet with Patrick weekly in data teams, discussing and planning how to meet the state standards, she said. “The teachers have the drive to look at the data and do what’s best for those children,” Patrick said.

Last summer, after Douglass’ first year at Waddell, she wondered how to replicate the cross-level training her faculty did at Downtown, where teachers met with the grade level below and above them.

“The purpose of it was to learn about your blind spots,” she said. “… They looked at where the standards met.” They learned “even the most high-achieving kids” were weak in certain areas, Douglass said.

Waddell’s professional development funds already were committed for other purposes, but Douglass figured another way for her new school to benefit from cross-level training: She moved one teacher at each grade level down a grade level.

“It was not well received,” Douglass said with a chuckle.

Just ask Christy Norris. She had spent her first six years as an educator teaching fourth-grade reading and English language arts at Waddell before Douglass told her the school needed a third-grade teacher who knows the fourth-grade standards and could lift students’ reading levels. Norris would now teach third grade, where teachers must cover all subjects.

Norris wasn’t happy.

“Yeah, I was frustrated,” she said with a laugh. But by the end of the first week of school, she added, “I was in love with my class.”

In fact, a fourth-grade teaching position unexpectedly came open, but Norris “begged” Douglass not to move her back.

“Being in there with them all day and building that relationship that first week of school,” she said, “we had already bonded.”

Third grade is the first level where students take the Georgia Milestones tests.

“In fourth grade, they’re expected do a whole lot more independently and they have to read a lot longer,” Norris said. “They have to read two- and three-page passages at one sitting. They have to go back and find the text evidence. They have to be able to write in complete sentences. No more multiple choice. No more fill-in-the-blank. No more true/false.

“I had to tell my student-teacher, ‘Don’t get upset when they start crying,’ because about the third week, fourth week of school, when I really start pushing them, normally I have meltdowns because they’re not used to being pushed outside their comfort zone. … They’re so excited when they struggle through it and realize, ‘I could do it.’”

Seeing the soaring CCRPI score excited Norris, who realized accepting and capitalizing on her transition has proved worthwhile.

“All this hard work finally did pay off,” she said. “It’s just awesome to see it and go, ‘Yes! This is what we can do.’”

Norris regularly shows her students’ parents and guardians what they do by sending them messages through the ClassDojo app.

“I wear them out,” Norris said.

“Yes, you do,” Douglass added. “They love you, though.”

Since she arrived at Waddell in 2015, Douglass has increased the number of teachers endorsed in gifted education from one to five, with one more on track this year, to have at least one on every grade level. She calls such a teacher “a chief differentiator. … You do a better job of noticing, ‘What does this kid need? What does that kid need?’”

Wiley lauded Douglass for her leadership.

“She works with every teacher and asks, ‘What can we do to improve? … What can I do to help you?’ That really drives me,” Wiley said. “As a principal, she doesn’t second-guess who we are as educators.”

The principal trusts her teachers but expects the best from them, Wiley said.

“I’m OK with that because I expect a lot from my kids,” she said, “and they know that.”


Also last summer, Douglass moved the fifth-grade classrooms from the intersection of hallways to the end of a hallway. “It made such a difference,” she said.

“They used to change classes right in the middle of where everybody passed through,” Douglass said, “and it just created these huge jams” while other grades were on their way to art, music, gym or lunch.

Douglass recalled a fifth-grade teacher telling her, “I have been in this classroom for 20-some-odd years, and I can’t believe you’re making me move.’”

But then, Douglass added, “she immediately saw these great possibilities, and everybody did.”

Douglass laughed and acknowledged her reaction was similar when she was moved from Downtown to Waddell.

Other factors were implemented before last school year but their benefits boosted Waddell’s 2016-17 performance, Douglass said, such as the master schedule for elementary schools, which gives teachers a daily 50-minute planning period while their students are in art, music or gym.

Douglass also appreciates Lewis dividing the district’s schools into three regions, each with a chief administrator, and assigning certain central office personnel to each region so schools get more attention.

“It laid the groundwork,” she said. “… It really helped to facilitate this success.”

The principals in her region, Douglass said, “have been taught now to lean on one another. … We didn’t do that before.”

They meet at least quarterly to discuss best practices and they text each other regularly. “It’s like a little support group,” Douglass said. “… We coach one another a lot. We dry one another’s tears.”

Next challenge

Upsetting folks seems to be a by-product of the changes Douglass has made at Waddell, where the School Climate Star Rating has fallen from 4 stars in 2014 to 3 stars in 2015 and 1 star in 2016 and 2017.

The ratings, on a 1-5 scale, are designed to measure what the Georgia Department of Education calls the “quality and character of school life — the culture of the school.” In other words, the ratings show what it feels like to be a student there, have your children attend there or work there. So these are subjective scores, as opposed to the CCRPI, the state’s objective measurement.

The School Climate Star Ratings comprise the following indicators:

  • Surveys of students, teachers and parents, measuring their perceptions of the school’s climate.
  • Student discipline, defined by the suspension rate.
  • Safe and substance-free learning environment, factoring discipline incidents and student survey responses about use of illegal substances and the prevalence of violence, bullying and unsafe incidents at school.
  • Attendance, factoring the average daily attendance of teachers, administrators and other staff members, as well as the percentage of students with fewer than six unexcused absences.

The 2015-16 school year was the first time Waddell had the state’s required 75-percent or more participation rate for the surveys to count in the rating, Douglass said.

“We didn’t like what we got,” she said, “but we were at least in there.”

Waddell’s attendance problem has worsened the past three years. The percentage of students with less than six unexcused absences has decreased from 78 in 2014-15 to 69 in 2015-16 and 66 in 2016-17.

Waddell’s climate rating also took a hit because its number of out-of-school suspensions increased from 28 in 2013-14 to 53 in 2014-15 and to 124 in 2015-16. The number dipped to 105 in 2016-17, but Waddell also started in-school suspension that year and had 62 of them.

And the recorded incidents of physical student discipline infractions at Waddell increased from 12 in 2014 to 39 in 2015 and 153 in 2016 but decreased to 112 in 2017.

“During my first year at Waddell, systematic data entry of discipline issues had to be addressed and improved,” Douglass said. “The first year was rough. I believe many boundaries were tested. At the start of my second year, the assistant principal for my school was switched with another and the new master schedule was implemented. During my second year we implemented Second Step, a social emotional development program. We focused consistently in building relationships among faculty and staff and among students. We did a lot of peer mediation, and began to use in-school suspension.”

Asked why Waddell’s climate rating has gotten worse while its CCRPI has gotten better, Douglass said, “I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I know one thing that gives me a lot of confidence in improving is this year we have become a PBIS school.”

That’s the program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which repeatedly teaches behavior expectations, rewards positive results and tracks discipline data to strengthen weaknesses. According to MCSD’s website, 37 of the district’s 53 schools are in some phase of implementing PBIS.

“We will complete a soft rollout of PBIS this year,” Douglass said. “Our team of eight received three days of state training. We are currently training faculty and staff for a January rollout.”

Douglass vowed, “We will be a 5-star school. That is the next dragon we slay.”


1. Waddell Elementary: 21.2%

2. Forrest Road Elementary: 20.3%

3. Midland Middle: 19.8%

4. Wynnton Elementary: 13.6%

5. Johnson Elementary: 12.6%

6. Davis Elementary: 10.9%

7. Veterans Memorial Middle: 9.4%

8. Carver High School: 8.4%

8. M.L.K. Jr. Elementary: 8.4%

10. Kendrick High School: 6.7%

Source: Georgia Department of Education, CCRPI scores for 2015-16 and 2016-17


Elementary Schools

1. Britt David: 106.0

2. Gentian: 87.6

3. Johnson: 83.8

4. Eagle Ridge: 82.5

5. Clubview: 80.2

6. Hannan: 79.6

7. Mathews: 77.9

8. Waddell: 77.7

9. Midland: 75.5

10. North Columbus: 73.6

11. Wynnton: 73.4

12. Reese Road: 72.4

13. Dimon: 71.7

14. River Road: 71.6

15. Forrest Road: 70.5

16. Downtown: 70.2

17. Allen: 66.2

18. Blanchard: 67.7

19. Fox: 67.6

20. Double Churches: 66.5

21. Dawson: 66.0

22. Key: 63.5

23. St. Mary’s Road: 62.0

24. Rigdon Road: 59.9

25. Davis: 57.8

26. Georgetown: 55.4

27. Wesley Heights: 54.0

28. Lonnie Jackson: 52.7

29. Martin Luther King Jr.: 51.8

30. South Columbus: 49.4

31. Brewer: 47.3

32. Dorothy Height: 45.3

Middle Schools

1. Blackmon Road: 85.0

2. Aaron Cohn: 86.0

3. Veterans Memorial: 81.6

4. Midland: 73.7

5. Richards: 70.8

6. Fort: 68.5

7. Arnold: 64.8

7. Double Churches: 64.8

9. Eddy: 59.0

10. Rothschild: 53.6

11. East Columbus: 53.1

12. Baker: 51.8

High Schools

1. Columbus: 99.8

2. Early College: 93.9

3. Northside: 89.3

4. Hardaway: 78.7

5. Shaw: 75.4

6. Carver: 74.0

7. Jordan: 67.7

8. Kendrick: 66.9

9. Spencer: 61.8

Source: Georgia Department of Education, CCRPI scores for 2016-17