Becoming one of the most effective schools in the country is no easy feat. Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy (TJCA), a K-12 award-winning public charter school in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, has done just that.  Recently, TJCA hosted the November Regional Charter School Principal Consortium, where twenty leaders from thirteen charter schools across the state came together to learn more about the attributes that have paved the way for TJCA’s success.

Having opened its doors in 1998, TJCA first served grades 7 to 10 with the original goal of only serving secondary students. They soon realized that in order to maintain a college preparation education plan and culture, they would need to engage their students much earlier than 7th grade. In 2003, they expanded the school into a full K-12 school facility.

While serving as a consultant for the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools, TJCA was one of the schools on my caseload. I knew a bit about their history and success, but was enlightened to all that they offer and more during our visit. One of the ways this was accomplished was during a great walk-through of the school’s rich, classical curriculum by academic dean, Jeff Zielger.

In my ten years studying effective schools, I have never observed a staff member, let alone an entire leadership team, with the ability to articulate why a school was created and how the curriculum impacts the students like TJCA.

academic dean at podium

Academic Dean, Jeff Ziegler

Six questions to clarity for effective schools

TJCA exemplifies the work and ideas of effective schools captured by best selling authors Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why and his work on moving from Why to How to What, and Patrick Lencioni, author of the bestselling book, The Advantage, where he shares six questions to clarity.

At Leaders Building Leaders, we have led dozens of leadership teams and organization through Patrick Lencioni’s Six Questions to Clarity during retreats and team building exercises. We used these questions as the basis for our visit with TJCA:

  • Why do we exist?
  • How do we behave?
  • What do we do?
  • How will we succeed?
  • What is most important right now?
  • Who must do what?

Why does TJCA exist?  

Wherever you look, TJCA lives their mission of bringing a collegiate atmosphere to a rural setting. College-preparation is evident in everything they do – from the school’s curriculum choices and offerings to their scholastic challenges, lecture-based instructional methods, focus on vocabulary and nationally-normed assessments, keynote speeches delivered by staff, and collegiate-themed activities. Even the school mascot (Gryphon) embodies the school mission and focus.

How do we behave?

With a focus on academics and self-discipline, the culture at TJCA is open and trusting. The expectations are clear as they explain that they support the belief that character development and student discipline go hand-in-hand; one is proactive while the other is reactive. All teachers and staff are trained to promote positive character development traits as part of their teaching responsibilities. They are also charged to serve as models for excellence in everything they do. This is apparent from the moment you walk on campus, and a student holds a door open for you, looks you in the eye, and says, “Good morning.”  

What do we do?

The Core Knowledge Sequence provides a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum for use in kindergarten through eighth grade. This includes fundamentals of science, government principles, world history, mathematics, art, and music. 

How will we succeed?

Pictured left to right (Jeff Ziegler, Academic Dean; Tessa Waldrep, Elementary Assistant Principal; Joe Maimone, Headmaster; Robin Lattimore, Librarian; Michael Fair, Secondary Assistant Principal; Gary Blake, Secondary Principal and Jason Cole, Elementary Principal).

TJCA succeeds through the following formula: clear curriculum and education plan (Core Knowledge Sequence and Classical High School Curriculum), vertical and horizontal curriculum planning, a culture of high expectations for every student, a strong emphasis on building leadership capacity among their staff, a recruitment of content specialized teachers combined with a clear and effective teacher development program.

TJCA measures their success through their clear and rigorous high school graduation requirements, use of the NWEA MAP Assessment programs, ACT/SAT scores, and overall employee satisfaction according to the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey. The TJCA leadership team invites grade level leaders their leadership team meetings once a month in order to be heard, share challenges, and provide school improvement initiatives. The team explained that this is a critical tool in order to build trust and communicate effectively within the school community. It is also key to keeping the K-12 culture intact and building leaders throughout the school.

In addition, TJCA invests a great deal of time informing their stakeholders as well as the local, state, and national media on the news and accomplishments of their students. They believe this helps recruit strong team-players and strategic partnerships, as well as solidify the school’s enrollment of about 1,300 students in a small rural county.

What is most important right now?

The organization is expanding its current secondary campus, a refurbished former public school building, and embarking on a capital project to build a state-of-the-art high school facility. The school is on track to open, allowing the original kindergarten class to graduate in the new building in 2020.

Who must do what?

The leadership structure is very clear at TJCA. The Founder and Executive Director, Joe Maimone, oversees the organization and focuses on communicating the big picture (2020 Vision) through media releases and statewide events. Over the past two decades, TJCA has intentionally developed leaders from inside the organization. Many of which now lead either specific levels of the school or key attributes of the school’s success (Teacher recruitment and development, curriculum and operations). These individuals believe wholeheartedly in the mission. Last year, I had the privilege of observing and providing feedback during one of their board meetings. The board functioned at a very high level with multiple committees carrying the bulk of the governance work, reporting and recommendations. The meeting was less than an hour and focused on action towards the future!

Be more to see more

If you want to be more, you have to see more. I challenge you to seek high-performing organizations and see what is possible when clarity is combined with extreme focus.  As one of the most effective schools in the country, TJCA understands that there is no success without succession. Their intentional action towards a culture of high expectations, mission-driven decision making, and professional capital (teacher development) is developing generations of leaders that are making a difference in not only the Rutherfordton community, but our nation!

This blog was written by Tom Miller and Katy Ridnouer, leadership coaches with Leaders Building Leaders. If you or the organization you lead is struggling with clarity and focus, reach out for a complimentary professional discussion on how these six questions to clarity can help you build a stronger framework for the future.

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