DTM: John M. Clayton Elementary
“If you don’t believe all kids can learn, what are you here for?”
—Sharon Brittingham, former principal
- Frankford, Delaware
- Indian River School District
- Grades PK – 5
- DTM awarded in 2005 (as Frankford)
Awarded the Dispelling the Myth Award in 2006, Frankford Elementary faltered for a few years under new leadership. With a new principal, the school, as John M. Clayton, is once again a leader in student achievement.
A long-time middle school teacher and assistant principal, Sharon Brittingham arrived at Frankford Elementary School in 1997 after the school had been put under supervision for violating civil rights laws. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights had found that the school over-identified African American students — particularly boys — as needing special education services and then segregated them away from the general education population.
Brittingham found in place a staff that didn’t expect much of the students, most of whom were low-income and either African American or Latino. A phrase commonly used by the teachers was, “You can’t make chicken salad from chicken shit,” words that were particularly redolent in that school because many of the parents worked in the poultry industry that dominates that area of rural Delaware. Brittingham asked the teachers, “If you don’t believe all kids can learn, what are you here for?”
But, she said years later, she knew that teachers didn’t just need to believe in the ability of children to learn, but also in their own ability to teach. For that reason, she focused her energies on helping teachers improve their instruction, bringing in high-quality help from the district and state. “We brought in the Delaware reading project, the Delaware writing project … people to help teachers teach phonics,” she remembered later. She also helped teachers become more comfortable with the idea of “inclusive” classrooms, meaning classrooms that included students with disabilities, sometimes co-taught by a general educator and a special educator.
As teachers learned more about instruction, test scores of students soared, and when Brittingham retired in 2006 to work with principals around the state through the University of Delaware, she left a school that was near the top of the state, posting proficiency rates of 100 percent in some grades and some subjects.
During the next few years, the school faltered somewhat. Although the school continued to achieve above state averages, it was no longer at the top of the state. The principal who succeeded her “told me that I had expected too much of the students,” Brittingham said recently, adding that he dismantled many of the structures that had supported students and teachers, including the before and after-school tutoring and homework club. “Because I came from poverty, I knew you had to have high expectations,” she said recently. “He told me I was too hard on the kids.”
In 2011 the school moved to a new building (an old high school), its name was changed to John M. Clayton, and it was assigned a new principal, Dr. Charlynne Hopkins, who has since reinstituted many of the systems Brittingham had put in place, including intensive interventions for any student who falters even a little. “All our children can do very well and will do very well,” Hopkins said.
Once again, the school is a state leader in academic performance.
In the spring of 2014, Ed Trust, with the support of The Wallace Foundation, conducted a webinar with leaders of Indian River School District, including Clayton’s former principal Sharon Brittingham, to highlight the lessons we can learn from an improving district.
“Leadership: A Big Thing” by Karin Chenoweth reports on the webinar.
It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2007) has a profile of Frankford Elementary School (now Clayton).
Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011) has a profile of former principal, Sharon Brittingham.
Ed Trust webinar series, Building a Profession: Helping Principals Become the Lever of Changefeatured former principal, Sharon Brittingham.
More information about academic achievement in Delaware.