Principal of utility: Dr. Scott Crisp chalkboards high school’s success

By on October 8, 2013

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – He’s young enough to be mistaken for one of the students at Jackson Hole High School. Well, almost. The lanky, 41-year-old’s mop top looks like it belongs on the head of a hip, young professor at Oregon State, where, incidentally, Dr. Scott Crisp earned his PhD.

Crisp should be puffed with pride, fresh off Jackson Hole High’s designation as a Blue Ribbon school by the Department of Education. The award tracks a school’s progress, looking specifically for four consecutive years of improvement. Crisp took over principal duties at the school four years ago. Coincidence? After a one-hour meeting with the Bronc boss, we don’t think so.

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Scott Crisp. Photo by Mary Grossman

Planet Jackson Hole: Give us the back of the baseball card, Dr. Crisp. How’d you get here?

Scott Crisp: I was born in Greenville, South Carolina. I went to undergrad at College of Charleston. From there   I went to Lewis & Clark in Portland, studying teaching and got my master’s. My first teaching job was here at the high school from 1997 through 2004 [teaching U.S. history].      I left to finish up my education while living in Bend at Oregon State. I finished that and went to University of Oregon for my principal endorsement and returned here as an administrator in 2008.

PJH: It’s been, well, a while since I went to high school. I don’t really remember the principal. He wasn’t someone you saw strolling the halls. He was shut in his office on high and woe to you if you had an occasion to “meet” him. Was that an older model? I think things have changed.

Crisp: The role has changed. Schools in general are shifting from the principal being completely preoccupied with management to a principal being really focused on improving teaching. Eighty percent of my day is teaching and how to get better at it, acknowledging successes in our building and also acknowledging and improving instruction every day.

A lot of my work, yes, does include the nuts and bolts. It includes everything from implementing a new alarm system and building safety to facilitating an in-service with 75 adults on how to be better instructors. All this as opposed to back when you were learning, when a principal was really a site manager.

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(Mary Grossman)

Crisp: We definitely do all that. We serve pizzas at lunch and make sure students are coming into the line appropriately and following the rules and enforcing dress code, and making sure students are on time to class.

PJH: Let’s hit some hot button issues right now. What about pushing back the start of school to 9 a.m. because teenagers can’t wake up. Really? Wasn’t it in fact for the parents so they could drive their kids to school on their way to work rather than have to scrape a hole in their windshield at oh-dark-thirty and drive them there in their pajamas?

Crisp: We made that decision solely off what we knew was educational research around high school age kids performing better a little later on the morning. And it still is. We are working with some universities in Minnesota that are partnering with us. We know that at the high school level, starting a little bit later in the morning, research has shown they are just more alert, more awake.

PJH: Lunch off campus. You down with that?

Crisp: I do believe off-campus lunch should be a privilege students earn as opposed to something that is just inherent. And that’s a system we just moved to. We have a Bronc Card System that recognizes a certain grade threshold. Our criteria is Cs or higher. It’s very fair to students. We just implemented it so we are still running the numbers but I would say about 90 percent of our students have one.

If you are a senior and you have one you can leave campus for lunch. It’s interesting because even with the majority earning a Bronc Card we are currently seeing only 40 to 50 [out of a 120 to 130 seniors] seniors leave campus for lunch. We haven’t heard anything from parents on it. They’ve just been super supportive of whatever we’ve wanted to do. At the end of the day we need to know where kids are. Whether they are off at Wendy’s or here at the high school, we are responsible for them.

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Scott Crisp. Photo by Mary Grossman

Crisp: I would say standardized testing does serve a role but it’s one of many. I don’t believe that schools should be 100 percent about standardized testing. I believe it needs to be part of a bigger pie. You do need some standardized benchmarking academic information for your kids. You need that to even know where you stand.

But should school accountability be based solely off of tests? I don’t believe so. I believe students learn in many different ways – standardized tests being one of them. This is going to be a conversation for decades, you know?

PJH: Year-round school sounds like it makes sense if this were Japan. But we love our summers. Kids need to be kids, right? Are you for a year-round schedule?

Crisp: If I look at it specifically in terms of student learning outcomes, I think having some sort of modified calendar throughout the year … I’m not opposed to it. I think it just depends on what that is. What are we trying to achieve?

School calendaring is pretty complex work. You have to take into account a lot of factors including local communities and summer camps, and we’ve learned that in this district, as we’ve looked at alternative calendars, you have to look at a number of variables. At the end of the day, I think the commitment is around student learning outcomes, and if we can show they increase with modified calendars then we need to take a good look at it.

The other piece of it, too, is if we do expand the school year, we expand the number of working days for all faculty, and we’re going to need some state support with compensation. If you want this to be a profession of high accountability there has to be compensation that reflects that, especially if you expand the school year.

PJH: A principal is like the manager of a ball club and like they say, you’re only as good as your players. Assess your teachers. Address firings and turnover. How do you build a winning team?

Crisp: What we do to support our staff is we have some very specific things in place that focus on teaching. We have professional learning communities that we use at the high school in which four to five teachers sit down together on a weekly basis for an hour and focus strictly on sharing their instructional focus areas and also the teaching practices they’re using to get to that practice area.

Let’s say I’m a teacher who is focusing on engaging kids in class discussions around what we are reading. There are clear teaching standards of what that would look like. So you would bring that to your PLC and share what you’re doing. What we are trying to do really is de-privatize practice. We’ve gone from high schools that were kind of isolated places to we want teachers to share what they are doing. Be vulnerable. Say, “I’m working on this and it worked,” or “I tried this and it just collapsed.” Because you can’t move forward with teaching unless you are willing to be very vulnerable and share your teaching with other peers.

We’ve also focused on something called Studio, where teachers and teams will actually study teaching live. We will have seven or eight teachers roll into a classroom while teaching is going on and we’ll study what kids are doing and what practices are happening. We’ve really moved to something called job-embedded professional development. Like, I might have a conference with a teacher and video that and then share that video out with the entire staff so they know what I’m working on to get better at. One of the big things we are trying to move toward is: We are all learners. So the principal’s a learner, teachers are learners, students are learners. And it’s imperative that I be really transparent about my learning with our staff as opposed to someone who’s supposed to know it all.

PJH: Have you ever had to fire a teacher?

Crisp: Yeah. Well, not renew. I have to think back here. I don’t know, I’d say maybe eight or nine total.

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Scott Crisp. Photo by Mary Grossman

Crisp: I would mention that kids listen to their parents. They might not act like it but they do. They hear the words, and they see the body language. From a school standpoint it is hugely important to have consistent messaging from a school and parent working together as a partner as opposed to separate, and this school telling the kid one thing and the parent telling a student another thing. That messaging and consistent support and holding the line in terms of expectations together has more power than any volunteering, any contribution to committees that a parent can make.

PJH: JHHS just received a prestigious award. You have added a fab lab. Are you in competition with private schools in the valley?

Crisp: First and foremost I think it’s important to note that I do believe in school choice. I believe in school choice when there are significant differences in programming. For example, when I look at the Journeys School programming around IB [International Baccalaureate], with an outdoor education program, I clearly see a separation in programming from [the high school’s] college preparatory AP program.

When I hear that someone is considering private, the first thing I want to do is have a conversation with that person. Not to talk them out of it and into public school, but to understand the thinking into why they are considering an alternative. That would make me wonder about what we could do better if we aren’t already doing it.

Picking a high school to attend is pivotable, and I think the parent role in that needs to be first and foremost. I like the choices we have in our valley. I think they are fantastic. I would say our high school is a small high school even though it’s 580 students. We have an advisory for every student. We have more counseling staff than most high schools combined. We are as personal as you get. We have an AP program that is flourishing. If a student wants to be challenged, this high school can play that role.

What I like about us, too, is we do more. We are an AP school, and we complement it with a lot of other programs. That includes STEM, the fabrication lab, science electives that go from forensics to anatomy-physiology. And we have a comprehensive activities and sports programs. [On that note] I believe that when you play sports, well, when I grew up you played for the school you attended. I believe there’s something to be said about that. I’m not trying to cause a controversy or anything, but I do believe there’s something to be said about committing to a school, playing for that school and being in classes with your fellow teammates or activities club members.

PJH: School shootings are a horrible reality today. Could it happen here?

Crisp: Safety is at the top. We have a full-time SRO officer, which we are very fortunate to have, who is a regular county sheriff. He’s physically here every day. Cop car in the parking lot helps a lot. We have a safety team at the school. We have monthly drills where we are constantly learning how we can get better at drills. Safety-wise, we are still in the process of implementing a school-wide security system, which will require staff and students to use an entry card to come and go.

PJH: Bullying also is a hot topic nationwide. Do you see any of that?

Crisp: Bullying is something that obviously has gotten a lot of press in the past two or three years. We are very quick on the response when we get a reported issue that relates to bullying. The question for us at the high school level that we are constantly asking ourselves is what is bullying? We know when we have frequency of an event that’s a red flag for us. Is it repeated? That’s a red flag for us. Bullying and the use of social networking and mobile devices is something that we need to attack together as a community.

PJH: And your policy on mobile devices is?

Crisp: Right now, no iPads but kids can have a cell phone. They cannot have them out during instructional time. They can have them out at lunchtime and between classes only. And we’ve gone back and forth on that. We know there are advantages to having smart phones for the kids, and we also know they can be a disruptive piece as well. So we are having to balance that.

PJH: Kids mostly see this room when they are called to the principal’s office. What’s your style? Do you lay into ’em right off the bat or do you remain silent and let them wonder and worry a little?

Crisp: Depends on the situation. We are very much into students identifying solutions to the problems they’ve created, and then we follow up with executing those. We sometimes put that in writing. We sometimes draw up contracts. But it’s all very problem solving based. Identifying the problem from the student, what escalated the problem, and what are some solutions? And we teach around that rather than just moving right to the consequence.


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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