Q: I understand you teach at Moultrie Middle School, which was recently ranked as the No. 1 neighborhood middle school in the state and No. 2 out of all 330 middle schools, second to only one magnet school that picks its own students. How did your school do it?

The credit goes to our wonderful faculty, great administrators, supportive parents and hard-working students.

But such rankings are ephemeral. Next year we might be further down the list. What is most important is sustained excellence. Being No. 1 or No. 2 for the year feels good for a minute, but what matters more is being a highly effective school year in and year out, which is what Moultrie has been since even before I attended it in the 1980s. How is that accomplished? A number of things contribute to the overall culture. I’ll highlight a few that might differ from other schools:

  • A safe and orderly environment
  • The students at Moultrie are taught the rules and are expected to comply. Teachers and principals have high expectations for student behavior and do not let smaller problems slip through the cracks to evolve into big problems. Students are given consequences for bad behavior, including ISS (in-school suspension) and suspension when it is warranted. When students do what’s right, they can earn privileges. All this is critical to maintaining an atmosphere where learning is the focus.
  • Academic independence
  • Teachers at Moultrie are not forced to use new, trendy programs, change their curriculum every two years or use experimental methods. Teachers are given the autonomy to use the strategies that work best for them and their students.
  • Parental support
  • There are always exceptions, but the vast majority of parents support the school’s decisions, get their kids to school on time and make them behave and do their homework.
  • High teacher morale
  • We have a PTA that keeps us appreciated and well-fed. We have principals that support teachers’ educational decisions, even when faced with irrational parents. Our staff truly cares for each other like a second family.
  • Proper student placement
  • Students are scheduled for courses based on a comprehensive rubric, ensuring that they aren’t placed in classes that are too hard or too easy and that the curriculum isn’t watered down to accommodate students who are improperly placed.
  • Limited digital use
  • Students are not given their own digital devices. Instead, teachers permit students access to screens only for targeted assignments. Many (like yours truly) barely use them at all.
  • Teacher input
  • Moultrie has a vibrant faculty leadership team where teachers work together with principals to solve problems and make improvements, both big and small. Teacher voices aren’t just tolerated, they are actively solicited.
  • Uniforms
  • The kids at Moultrie put on the blue and white every day and when they do, they know they are coming to school to learn.
  • Distractions are discouraged
  • Cell phones aren’t allowed: students must place their electronic distractions off and away during school hours. Instructional coaches aren’t permitted to hector and harass teachers like they do at many schools, but serve instead as resources. A behavior room takes on students who disrupt class.
  • Tradition
  • Moultrie has a healthy veneration for its history (it has been a middle school since 1973 and was a high school long before that). Eschewing the “new, now, next” mentality that pervades education today is key to our sustained success.
  • Recess
  • Moultrie gives its kids the opportunity to still be kids. They work very hard, but we also let them play hard. Like adults, kids need an unstructured break during the day to rejuvenate.
  • Work is mandatory
  • Students who fail tests are often made to redo their work. Likewise, students who don’t turn in their assignments are sent to detention during recess to complete them. None of this is done to earn back points, which would only breed laziness, but for the more important tasks of learning what was missed and building a stronger work ethic.
  • Sensible scheduling
  • Moultrie rarely alters the schedule for assemblies, clubs, or a/b days, allowing students to get into a routine. But one change we do make is that every semester we swap morning classes with afternoon classes, because everyone knows that last period is not always the most opportune time for the toughest subjects. This gives every student a chance to have his or her most challenging classes during a more optimal period.

If I had to articulate the success of Moultrie in one word, it would be ‘focus.’ When schools allow themselves to drift from a laser focus on teaching students the basics, their success rates drift, too. But when every school decision is made with the student’s academic advancement in mind, the way forward leads to greater success and the trail left behind is a rich tradition of excellence.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He is the recipient of the 2018 first place award in column writing from the South Carolina Press Association. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent and on Twitter @stallings_jody.