On a Friday afternoon inside the cafeteria of Evans Elementary School, a sea of children danced to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," one of superstar Michael Jackson's biggest hits from the 80s. Though the song itself is twice their ages, they jumped and spun around anyway, showing teachers and parents in attendance their best moves.
Those students were being rewarded for good conduct for the month, and in the middle of it all was their principal, Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell.
Alexander-Mitchell is just one of many administrators working toward a more positive climate and culture in Memphis City Schools. The premise is that a positive school culture boosts effective teaching, which increases students' academic achievement.
Formally on the high priority list due to poor academics, the Southeast Memphis elementary school received $144,000 from the U.S. Department of Education's Zone Incentive for the most achievement gains based on state value added assessment for the 2011-2012 school year. When Alexander-Mitchell arrived in 2005, she began the transformation over the summer before the school year even began. It started with the building.
"It wasn't aesthetically pleasing for children," said Alexander-Mitchell.
After plans to repaint the building, which was a dismal tan and brown, fell through, she opted for a new coat on just the doors.
"I wanted the doors painted blue first because the students needed to see that there was something different," she said.
A community center is located next to Evans and Alexander-Mitchell's next step was to stroll on over, greet students as they entered and to talk with parents.
"It was the little things that helped to shift the perception of the community," she said.
Alexander-Mitchell used funds from the previous school year to grant teachers' wish lists for their classrooms. Teachers were involved in intensive professional development provided by the district, including workshops and work sessions on classroom management and instruction and planning.
"From there, we saw dramatic increases in academic gains. We saw children coming back who had recently transferred to other schools," she said.
The veteran teacher and former district employee has created a family atmosphere where teachers, parents and community members are stakeholders, which helps children learn. Sandra Joyner, a teacher at Evans for 18 years, says faculty and students are able to function better.
"It's more colorful. The atmosphere is more conducive to learning," she said. "Now, I want my grandchildren to come to Evans."
Callisha Williamson, a 19-year-old former Evans student, often visits her younger sister at school. The school culture was completely different when she attended, she said.
"I respect Ms. Alexander and the improvements she's made," Williamson said. "I love the transformation Evans has been through. I feel safe that my sister is here."
Evans' faculty and staff continue to implement creative strategies to inspire and help students. There is a Hopes and Dreams Wall, where students write out their futures, and there are small group counseling sessions for students and Mother-Son/Dad-Daughter activities.
"We have to be responsible for helping the students see a world that they otherwise would not see," Alexander-Mitchell said.
Highly effective principals in MCS and Shelby County Schools populate what's called the Leadership Effectiveness Initiative Team. Alexander-Mitchell now serves on it.
"It's been a positive experience. Each side has something to offer to make the unified district even more concise," she said.
What's her formula for success?
She cites high expectations for all students, encouraging collaboration among staff members and using assessment data to support student success. Most importantly, focus on the students, and never being afraid of change.
Said Alexander-Mitchell: "My job is to make sure that when students get here, they have everything they need."