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Crew Is the Heartbeat of What We Do

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    EL Education

Each year, through its Principal of the Year program, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) recognizes exceptional middle and high school principals for their notable contributions to students and the profession in general. The organization’s most recent honoree: Dr. Lucas Clamp, principal of River Bluff High School, an EL Education network school in Lexington, South Carolina.

Clamp was the founding principal of River Bluff, and it was during the design of the school’s instructional program—and, in particular, while researching project-based learning—that he discovered EL Education. “I believe that the core practices align with work that is so challenging and rigorous,” he says. “It really provides a framework to design learning experiences for students.”

Intrigued by the concept of learning expeditions, the culture of Crew, and the field work that leads to the development of a piece of high-quality work, he explored the idea of having River Bluff join the EL Education school network. After a site visit to Evergreen Community Charter School, an EL Education network school in Asheville, North Carolina, Clamp attended the 2012 National Conference in Denver. There, he met Scott Hartl, president and CEO of EL Education, and some of the organization’s other leaders. “I knew then that we would find a partner in EL,” says Clamp, “and a partner that would support us.”

Clamp wasn’t disappointed, noting that the network provided amazing professional learning experiences for the school and for him as a leader. “Being engaged in site visits and going to seminars and attending national conferences, and then having school-based school designers on our campus working side-by-side with us through our work plan, has truly been incredible,” he says. The school, which opened in 2013, is the first EL Education high school in South Carolina and one of EL Education’s largest partner schools, with 1,400 students. It now has well over 2,000 and anticipates enrolling as many as 2,500 students.

Creating Relationships, Exploring Within

Laying the school’s foundation was only the beginning. With the belief that all students have the potential to learn, Clamp and his colleagues set out to build a culture of inclusion and acceptance. They created a space where students and teachers can thrive, with a rigorous portfolio of courses, learning experiences, and extracurriculars—River Bluff today offers more dozens of clubs, organizations, sports teams, and arts groups. They also incorporated the concept of Crew . . . with a twist.

“Crew is likely to me the most unique aspect of EL,” says Clamp. “It is the best of student interaction, collaboration, civil discourse—and connects with our habits of scholarship to allow our students to grow and develop.” At River Bluff, the acronym CREW stands for “creating relationships, exploring within.” It also represents specific cohorts heterogeneously grouped by grade (9th and 10th, and 11th and 12th) and aligned with a crew leader. Each grade explores a curriculum designed around four questions: In the 9th grade, Who am I? In the 10th grade, Where am I? In 11th grade, Where am I going? And in the 12th grade, How can I be a better local to global citizen?

Crew is the best of student interaction, collaboration, civil discourse—and connects with our habits of scholarship to allow our students to grow and develop.

Clamp acknowledges that developing instructional consistencies continues to present challenges and opportunities. “How can we ensure that each student gets this quality experience of Crew in a classroom environment where learning is guided by targets and formative and summative assessments?” he asks. “We’ve set lofty goals for ourselves through our work plan, guiding our work around mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high-quality work—and investing in leaders on campus.

“We’re still a very young school,” he continues. And yet these efforts are already paying off. From 2014 to 2017, graduation rates at River Bluff increased from 81 percent to 94 percent. ELA and math scores have risen, too. “As we developed our work plan this year, we saw within our data an opportunity gap between students’ achievement in English I and Algebra I,” Clamp says. “Strategically, we aligned professional learning experiences to help teachers identify individual student needs and skills within the classroom to group and regroup students through inquiry cycles.” In just one year, the school saw achievement levels in English I rise from 77 percent to 90 percent—while also closing the opportunity gap between its white and its African Americans students.

As they have from the start, teachers meet weekly to discuss issues and have conversations about instructional practices. Lead teachers and administrators regularly gather insights from faculty to help inform professional development experiences. Recently, a River Bluff alumna was hired as a public school teacher at Meadow Glen Middle—itself an EL Education network school.

Thinking In a New Direction

Clamp himself followed in the footsteps of one of his adult role models. “My mother was my first-grade teacher,” he says. Later, she became an elementary school principal, a middle school principal, and finally a school superintendent. Being exposed his entire childhood to her stories and her passion for helping students contributed to his decision to become an educator. He started out as a science teacher and a football and baseball coach. It wasn’t until his second year teaching that he began to pursue a degree in administration. After four years in the classroom, he became an assistant principal at Lexington High School, serving a huge population of more than 3,000 students—and growing. With a new high school on the horizon, he was tapped as its founding principal.

Though the award itself carries my name, it is certainly carried on the shoulders of an amazing staff and amazing student body.

Leaders aren’t born, they’re developed, and Clamp is first to acknowledge that he honed his leadership skills by working with numerous talented individuals. One of the first EL Education principals he met was Derek Pierce, of Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine. From him, Clamp considered how learning experiences can extend outside the classroom during field work and how students can use these experiences to develop a piece of high-quality work for an authentic audience.

He also gives a shout-out to Belicia Reaves, “an amazing principal” at Capitol City Public Charter School in Washington, DC. “She and I have had rich dialogue about leadership and ownership and accountability,” he says, noting her ability to lead a school with integrity and with the drive to see students achieve. And he cites Stephen Mahoney, founder and former principal of Springfield Renaissance School in Massachusetts, as the inspiration behind River Bluff’s motto to work hard, get smart, and do good. “Steven was a leader who challenged me in working in a circle,” he says, describing a space in which staff and students interact and find a space of equity. “I had never done that before.

“Leaders like those three are just examples of how strong the network is, how collaborative the network is, and how supportive the network is of new schools like us,” he says. “EL Education leaders, as a whole, think in a new direction. They think in a way that begins with students first.” Their approach considers the need to give educators the supports and structures to help them improve. “I’m honored to be a part of the EL Education network and aligned with leaders that really challenge us, support us, and have a caring attitude,” says Clamp. They “allow you to fail, and allow you to fail forward.”

EL Education leaders, as a whole, think in a new direction. They think in a way that begins with students first.

For Clamp, being a part of the EL Education network also means being engaged in work where learning and doing are inseparable. He describes the commissioned pieces of student-made artwork adorning the campus; students creating documentary films on the topic of power; and first-year students building boxcars branded with social-issue and advocacy messaging.

“It’s those successes that are happening in our classroom, guided by teachers who genuinely love students and create conditions for them to succeed, that I think that set us apart from other schools,” Clamp says. “We would not have been there if we had not been connected with the EL Education network and provided these amazing structures with which to design learning experiences. We owe an extreme amount of gratitude to the leaders within EL and encourage and challenge them to continue to encourage and challenge us.” •