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July 01, 2022

West Alexander Middle continues “National School to Watch” rating

WEST ALEXANDER NAMED “A SCHOOL TO WATCH” — The Administration Team to Watch at West Alexander Middle School, from the left: Assistant Principal Katie Nash, Principal Jacob Lail, and Instructional Coach Jamie Curtis.

 

By ANGELA FARR KING

There is a banner proudly displayed above the walkway to the entrance of West Alexander Middle School in Alexander County. The North Carolina Association for Middle Level Education (NCMLE) has named West Alexander Middle School as one of the “Schools to Watch” in the nation. On their website, the NCMLE states that their purpose is to “advocate for the middle school concept” and to “accelerate middle grades reform.”

In 2018, West was first recognized as a “School to Watch” after a long and arduous process. To maintain this status, the administration team at West had to reapply as it is required every three years. Principal Jacob Lail, Assistant Principal Katie Nash, and Instructional Coach Jamie Curtis worked together as a team to prepare the lengthy application and to prepare for an onsite visit from the NCMLE team.

The onsite visit is usually in person, but because of Covid restrictions, this one had to be virtual. The NCMLE team met with students, staff, teachers, and administration to assess their school’s equity, culture, and growth since 2018. The visiting team found evidence of academic excellence and social equity. They noted that school personnel operated with developmental responsiveness, meaning they know how to assess and meet the needs of their middle school students, which is extremely challenging. They complimented their organizational structures, including an efficient schedule that allows for remediation and acceleration.

Using a scoring rubric, the NCMLE team recognized West for the following:
• There is an emphasis on collaboration within the school.
• They are supporting students through the use of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).
• Students are well-known by their teachers and administrators (This is obvious upon entering the school).
• Students feel safe, supported, and welcomed.
• Student voice is celebrated.
• There is a shared vision among stakeholders (this includes an active School Improvement Team involving parents, as well as staff members).

It is obvious that Mr. Lail, Mrs. Nash, and Mrs. Curtis are passionate and proud of their school. They all spoke of the teamwork it took to maintain this high honor. They pointed to the students, who did so well when interviewed, and to the extra summer hours staff had to put in to write and organize the application and data.

Principal Lail related his pride in his teachers, staff, and students for maintaining high standards in the midst of the pandemic, and in spite of the challenges they face with a diverse student population. At the time of their last NC School Report Card, West had a 36.5% population of economically disadvantaged students with a population of 545. West is like any other middle school with the challenges this age group brings. There are mental health issues. There are students who struggle with disabilities. Their students are still learning how to navigate their relationships and many kids come to school without the needed and expected support from home.

What sets West apart is the culture they have created. There is an incredible team assembled that shares a vision for what students can be. They don’t make excuses when failures occur. They solve problems and they do it with an attitude of respect among everyone in the building. The people in the front office set the positive tone when visitors call or enter the facility. Mr. Lail himself has a welcoming and authoritative presence that helps to create a sense of security and consistency in the school. He values his colleagues and consults them for assistance and they rally for positive outcomes for all students. He is quick to point to his administrative team, his students, and his staff for the success of this school. He works hard to encourage his staff and to maintain excellent communication.

When analyzing their success, Mr. Lail is most proud of their low suspension and expulsion rates and their low numbers of chronic absenteeism. He credits this with the relationships built within the school and the quality staff and teachers who invest in the lives of their students. Of course, they have programs and plans in place to address academic and behavioral issues, but they seem to understand that the backbone of any successful school is relationship building.

As part of the honor and responsibility of being named a “School to Watch,” the administration team, along with former assistant principal Charles Draper, will be presenting at the Annual Middle School Conference, which will take place in Charlotte March 13-15 this year. Clearly, they have some insights to share.

Their title as a National School to Watch will last for the next three years, but they are already planning for how they will maintain this elite status. They will continue to reflect, make changes, address hard issues, and plan for growth in the years to come, and they will do it as a team.

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