Climbing to Thriving School Profile
School Quick Facts
Location: East Nashville (Stratford High School Cluster)
Total number of students: 216
Principal: Dr. Ricki Gibbs
Years in the role: 1
84% Black or African American
6% Hispanic or Latino
0.5% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
86% Economically Disadvantaged
10% English Learners
17% Students with Disabilities
8.1% Students who are Homeless
Reinvesting in our Students, School, and Community
What would it look like for one of the district’s most consistently low-performing schools to become one of the fastest-growing in just one year? That’s the goal that Ricki Gibbs embraced when he became principal in fall 2018. One of the oldest schools in MNPS—founded in 1892—the East Nashville school has seen just as many ups and downs as its surrounding community. Despite recent challenges—high teacher attrition, four principals over the last five years, and low, stagnant academic achievement scores—Warner is poised for significant gains for the first time in years.
For decades, this small school has been one of the lowest-performing in Tennessee as designated by its priority status, which identifies schools in the bottom 5% in the state. Yet in one short year, Warner has earned top scores for student academic growth, meaning students are moving significantly more than a grade-level’s worth of learning each year, and has demonstrated some of the highest literacy growth for economically disadvantaged students in the entire state. Not only are academics showing immense improvement, but disciplinary referrals have drastically reduced, and the school culture is one of joy, pride, and hard work for students and teachers alike.
Not only are academics showing immense improvement, but disciplinary referrals have drastically reduced, and the school culture is one of joy, pride, and hard work for students and teachers alike.
The Right Leader at the Right TimePutting belief in action
In the 2018–19 school year, the district knew that the school was in desperate need of a leader with vast experience in school turnaround work—someone who could quickly implement changes at Warner that would lead to dramatic, lasting results. Along with his deep level of experience in turnaround school work, Dr. Gibbs brought to Warner something intangible and vital: a contagious positivity coupled with a strong belief that Warner’s students can and will achieve at a high level. This energy and mindset are what Warner needed the most: the belief that problems have solutions, and with hard work, those solutions are within reach.
Gibbs sees working in education as a calling: “We have the power to change lives … to engage students to hope and dream big.” He is committed to providing a just, equitable education to all students—the central motivation behind the decisions he makes for his staff and students. With each action, Dr. Gibbs is ensuring that Warner is holding just as high a bar for its students as any other school would, while supporting students to work hard with perseverance and confidence.
“We have the power to change lives … to engage students to hope and dream big.”
Intentionality in Every ActionDecision-making led by a clear vision
After just a short time at Warner, positive staff survey results rating Gibbs’ leadership and the experience at Warner Elementary doubled or even tripled in key categories compared to before he had joined the team.
Why it All WorksBuilding a culture of trust and support
Gibbs has made a great deal of changes at Warner, and change does not come easy. He has raised expectations for behavior because he knows that students can meet them, making learning environments safer and more joyful. He has raised the expectations for academic rigor in lessons because he knows that teachers can meet them, giving students the chance to reach and achieve at a higher level.
But none of this happened overnight. Gibbs took the time to create a culture of trust at Warner that makes students feel safe and empowered while also making teachers feel heard and supported. Gibbs had the unique position of coming into his principalship at Warner once the school year had already begun, a few months into the semester, which allowed him to get an authentic picture of how the school was currently operating on a daily basis, and how he would be able to support the transition to achieve the changes he knew had to be made. He had the time to get to know the strengths of his teachers and identify areas of growth. While it was an unconventional start to his principalship, Gibbs was able to capitalize on it by establishing himself as a leader who listens.
Staff Survey Positive Responses
Gibbs made it clear to his staff that, as principal, he worked for them, and not the other way around. He wanted them to know that he had clear expectations for what he wanted to see; but at the end of the day, if teachers were not thriving, it was because he was not doing his job the way he was supposed to be. He believes teachers have the hardest job in the building, and it’s his role to support them to be their best. At first, teachers at Warner were rightfully skeptical of this level of openness, but over time have seen that Gibbs’ words match his actions. Gibbs opened his door wide to teachers, inviting them to have open, honest conversations with him, whether that meant asking for help implementing a new teaching curriculum or discussing a disagreement over the curriculum itself, for example. Gibbs welcomes tough conversations that others might shy away from and establishes a two-way street for communication and accountability. Gibbs tells his teachers he will support them in any way they need, but that he can’t do so if they aren’t being honest about what their needs are. He builds trust by committing to listen to them even if the conversation is not easy, and proving to them that he always has their best interests at heart.
Teachers are taking the risks Dr. Gibbs is pushing them to—such as moving to a new, more structured math curriculum—and are seeing those risks pay off by providing students with a more rigorous education. Gibbs is listening and providing teachers with what they need, such as additional time in the school day for planning and professional learning. After just a short time at Warner, positive staff survey results rating Gibbs’ leadership and the experience at Warner Elementary doubled or even tripled in key categories compared to before he had joined the team.
Growing With the CommunityBuilding partnerships to enrich student learning and success
Once a school flourishing with partnerships, Warner has seen a decrease in community involvement in recent years. Gibbs has been dedicated to bringing these relationships back. His outgoing, positive demeanor has him out walking the neighborhood, knocking on doors of local businesses and organizations to tell them about Warner and how they can be involved in the school’s success. His sense of humor and desire to make learning fun make for a very entertaining—and informative—social media presence (seriously, check them out: @WarnerArtsMag), strengthening the community’s perception and level of awareness of the school. Gibbs’ and his team’s strategic and creative thinking maximizes the grant funding that comes with being an arts and STEAM magnet school to create the opportunities and educational experiences his students deserve. Warner Elementary has been a part of the East Nashville landscape for so long, Gibbs wants Warner to not just be a school located in East Nashville, but a school that is central to the East Nashville community and benefits from all the unique experiences and opportunities the area has to offer. Inspired by what’s possible for his students, he’s begun to massively draw these resources to Warner. The school has partnerships with local eateries such as Jeni’s Ice Cream and Five Daughters Bakery, and community events such as the Hot Chicken Festival and the East Nashville Tomato Art Fest, to name just a new. Warner has received donations from Amazon, and hosts volunteers from Belmont University who teach guitar class, work in the front office, and assist with school communications.
One particularly significant partnership is with Be Well, a nonprofit piloting its first elementary school program this year at Warner. The organization provides a full-time teacher to Warner—at no cost to the school—who teaches yoga, mindfulness, and calming tactics to students through large and small group classes. In addition to this, the Be Well classroom serves as a safe space for students to come throughout the day when they need a “Be Well” break—when they may be feeling stressed, anxious, or upset. Students can be sent to the space—which is filled with plants, comfy furniture, and positive affirmations all over the walls—by a teacher as a first step before a disciplinary action is taken, or the student can self-refer, so that the student is able to calmly reflect on what they are feeling, why they are feeling that way, and how they will move forward in a productive way. This is significant for a number of reasons. Students who are in need of a “Be Well” break are able to do so outside the classroom, eliminating the possibility of a disruption affecting other students. The student him- or herself is able to self-correct their own behavior before it becomes a serious disciplinary issue and learn coping skills to continue to do so in the future. Teachers and principals are not pulled away from their regular duties to monitor a student who has to be pulled out of class. And students feel that they are in an environment that cares about their emotional health and well-being. Not only has this program greatly reduced the number of disciplinary referrals at Warner, but teachers are seeing that students are employing the tactics they learn through Be Well in their regular classes, self-monitoring their own behavior, and managing stress and anxiety in a healthy way without having to leave the classroom and interrupt their learning.
Growth That LastsMaking changes with sustainability in mind
Ensuring that changes and improvements are sustainable is a difficult, but key aspect of school turnaround work. This is especially true for Warner Elementary as a school on the priority list, since priority schools receive extra funding for needed resources that goes away soon after a school earns its way off of the priority list. The result is often that schools invest in systems and programs that help them achieve high levels of growth that do not sustain once that funding is no longer accessible. Aware of this obstacle, Gibbs is planning for long-term growth at Warner, prioritizing increasing enrollment and spending funds on “people, not programs.”
School funding is determined in part by school enrollment. Currently, Warner is enrolled under capacity, at around 220 students; at full capacity, the school building can fit just over 500 students, however. If Warner can enroll more students, it will open up a larger budget for Gibbs to work with. Gibbs is dedicated to bringing more families into Warner, holding tours any time, any day. Seeing that many families living in the surrounding area are choosing schools other than Warner, his goal is to “win back the neighborhood” and create a school environment that families are excited about. This has motivated an overhaul of the school’s appearance, investing in fresh paint and new furniture, improving school communications, and being constantly present in the community. Increasing enrollment and ensuring that growth happens in a sustainable way also require parents and families to be engaged partners in Warner’s success. The school has not had a PTO in recent years, but will soon be starting one this year, so that families—both longtime and new to Warner—are involved, active, and invested.
Warner is showing that school turnaround work is possible, and can be done in a way that is true for families, students, and teachers as shared partners in and recipients of that success.
Early ResultsSeeing the growth necessary for Warner’s students and families
Everything happening at Warner is with the intent of creating a positive experience and academic success for students. The great emphasis on teacher expectations and staff organization and systems is based on the belief that, when we set up adults in the building for success, we are ultimately doing the same for students. Students are negatively impacted when there is a prevalence of conflict or disfunction among adults, Gibbs says, so we must work to minimize these issues as much as possible. “You cannot get mad at a child when you set the stage for something bad to happen,” he says. The high expectations, intentional teacher teaming, and creative partnerships with community organizations all create the types of educational experiences and inclusive culture a thriving school wants for its students. Increased academic rigor in the classroom, collaboration among staff to continuously improve, and support with resources from school leadership to accomplish it all should lead to student growth, both in academics and in self-confidence and agency. At Warner, after just about one year under Gibbs’ leadership, Warner is beginning to see these results.
Despite being on the priority schools list due to achievement scores in the bottom 5% of the state, Warner’s students showed tremendous academic growth—meaning, despite being below grade level, they were making the gains needed to grow at the fast pace necessary to catch up with their peers. Warner’s students were growing so much, in fact—and doing well as a school in other areas such as educating English language learners and reducing chronic absenteeism—that, if Warner had not been on the priority schools list, they may have actually earned reward school status, which celebrates schools making large gains for students at a level significantly above other schools in our district and state. This is huge for Warner. On the 1–5 TVAAS scale, which rates student academic growth—1 being much less than a typical year’s worth of growth and 5 being much more than a typical year’s worth—Warner has earned a score of 1 in recent school years. However, this past school year, Warner earned a 5, the highest score. With this type of data, Warner is likely to earn reward school status. Not only is this recognition important for the hard work being done by Warner’s staff, but being able to hang the reward school banner outside of Warner tells students, families, and the community that Warner is a school worth investing in.
The fact that student disciplinary referrals are down from 900 to a projected 50 in the span of just two school years is unbelievable.
The work that Gibbs and his staff are doing translates to more than just academic successes at Warner. The fact that student disciplinary referrals are down from 900 to a projected 50 in the span of just two school years is unbelievable. Student satisfaction surveys show that students are happy to be at Warner, and feel as though their education there is something to be proud of, reporting that they feel engaged in their learning at Warner 16% above the MNPS average for elementary schools, and feel that their voices matter 13% above the MNPS average for elementary schools.
This sentiment is shared by families. Enrollment is up, as families begin to see the positive change happening at their neighborhood school. Gibbs is happy to see new families at Warner, and wants to continue to earn the trust of those who have been with the school for years by growing Warner into the school their children deserve. The best thing a parent can say—and they have—is “Dr. Gibbs, thank you for turning this place around. Thank you for making the building happy again.” Warner is showing that school turnaround work is possible, and can be done in a way that is true for families, students, and teachers as shared partners in and recipients of that success. Warner is “turning the corner with the neighborhood,” one teacher says. “There are great things on the horizon.”