Three weeks before she officially began as the principal of Butler High School, Stacey Mabray called all faculty and staff to the school June 10 for a two-day retreat.
Mabray, however, insisted on calling the event a “forward,” because “Butler Bulldogs never retreat,” she said. It was her first gesture showing she was serious about changing the tone of the school.
The theme of the gathering was “perception is reality,” and Mabray wanted to find out how Butler was perceived by its teachers, students and the public.
The feedback wasn’t great.
Many teachers felt unsupported and frustrated. Butler had just completed three years of state intervention for its Race to the Top grant, which funded technology, training, consultants and other reforms, and some were wondering what they had to show for it.
In 2013, Butler’s graduation rate dropped to 38 percent; less than 50 percent of students made passing grades in seven of nine End-of-Course Test subjects. A third of students were chronically absent.
More discouraging than even the test scores was a sense that Butler lacked a fluid connection between students, teachers and the administration to work as one supportive family, said Natalia Thrash, a chemistry teacher with 13 years at the school.
“The morale the past few years has just been nonexistent,” Thrash said Thursday. “Ninety percent of our kids are very willing, bright, capable young people, but when you’re in an atmosphere where discipline is nonexistent and there’s no support from above, teaching can’t happen. It’s discouraging.”
As she made clear to her staff at their summer meeting, Mabray’s strategy to reform Butler High School is to target culture first. She said her goal is to create an atmosphere where teachers feel supported, policies are enforced and students feel at home.
After that, she said, achievement will follow.
“I’m a real big fan of student voice – what are the kids saying?” Mabray said. “I’m a real big fan of teacher voice. What are the teachers saying? It’s your school, you’re in the classroom, you’re experiencing this, tell me what to do. That’s how we can change things.”
Mabray comes to Butler with administrative and classroom experience which she said gives her a unique perspective on how schools should operate. After earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry in 1992, Mabray decided to switch paths to teaching, which was her real passion in life.
She taught science at Butler from 1993 to 2003, then worked as the Richmond County science coordinator and most recently led the district’s curriculum department.
She was named Butler principal in April, when Superintendent Frank Roberson shifted the leadership at several schools in the county that were struggling with achievement.
Butler’s former principal of six years, Greg Thompson, was transferred to head the alternative program.
One of Mabray’s first initiatives to raise achievement began last week when she launched Butler University, a two-day freshman orientation where incoming ninth-graders toured the school, learned which courses they must complete to graduate and how to manage social media, friends and growing up.
“That transition from eighth grade to ninth grade is probably one of the most crucial,” Mabray said. “That sense of freedom sometimes can be daunting to kids. There are some who get lost in it all. And just adolescents, going from 14 to 18 is just difficult, so we’re trying to set them up to be successful.”
When the school year begins, Mabray will implement a classic homeroom system, which has not been in place for several years. Students will remain for four years with the same homeroom teacher, who will be responsible for learning students’ needs, making sure they stay on pace for graduation and getting to know about any personal problems that might keep them from getting to school at all.
“We’ve got one person who is personally looking after 25 individuals for four years,” Mabray said. “The idea is this teacher is an academic teacher, but it has nothing to do with academics. It has to do with socialization and staying focused.”
Butler’s incoming intervention specialist, Sharon Dukes, will also be tasked with keeping students on track to graduate, developing clubs and activities, helping students fill out college applications and financial aid forms and making sure they have a plan for after high school.
Dukes previously worked as the graduation coach at Cross Creek High School, where the graduation rate climbed from 64 percent in 2012 to 71 percent in 2013, the highest in the district excluding the magnet schools.
“It’s really about trying to motivate students to do their best,” Dukes said. “It’s about structured student involvement. It’s about extra curriculars so they feel a part of the school and want to be here.”
Mabray said bringing a sense of pride will also be important to raising achievement. She is planning to launch the Butler Legacy Series next year, in which alumni return to talk to students about what they accomplished after graduating from Butler and how it’s possible to leave Augusta and succeed.
This also involves strengthening ties to the community by bringing local businesses into the school to expose students to different careers. It means having south Augusta businesses come in to teach students about what to wear to a job interview and how to land internships.
Parent Facilitator Inga Coleman said community support has an astonishing ability to boost the mood of a school and energize students. She said in the past it has been difficult to recruit businesses to attend events or do outreach at Butler.
And students take notice.
“Last year I approached students and said ‘OK, what do you think would really make Butler pop?’ and what they really came back with was ‘Well, nobody cares about us, they leave and don’t come back, people who graduate, we don’t see them.’ That’s what they really want.”
Mabray said the post-high school component will be another priority of her administration. She said college is not a good fit for every student, but every student should leave Butler with a plan.
Because what’s more urgent than the test scores is the amount of access schools are giving to their students, she said.
“Part of it is not only pushing them out into the world but bringing the world inside,” Mabray said. “We have our valedictorian from five years ago who went to South Carolina State (University) and is now studying for her Ph.D. and has a full fellowship. Kids don’t see that. Kids don’t see what Ph.D. means. Those are the kinds of people who have to come back and share their experience with our kids … It’s about getting kids to see you can get there from here.”