Muscle Shoals City Schools: Impactful Problem-Solving

This is the second post in a six-part series recognizing the state finalists and overall grand prize winner of the Tri-State Best Practices Contest. Our first post featured Alabama state finalist Eufaula City Schools.


Many young people face a Catch 22 when they enter the job market: Employers want experience, but you cannot get experience unless someone hires you. In a continuing effort to provide Alabama students with real world experiences, the Alabama State Department of Education has partnered with the Alabama State Department of Labor to provide work-based learning programs to local school systems. However, in some cases, students were not afforded opportunities in skilled, technical environments due to employer restrictions on insurance of minors.

Origins of the Pathfinder Program

To alleviate this problem, Muscle Shoals City Schools (MSCS) piloted the Pathfinder Program at the Muscle Shoals Career Academy in August 2014. Pathfinder is a program designed to give business and industry the means to utilize trained and certified high school students in technical and skilled jobs. In addition to classroom and lab/shop training, Pathfinder students must also perform satisfactorily in the workplace to earn their high school diploma and dual enrollment college credits.

MSCS partnered with a local firm, Lyons HR to make it easier for businesses to participate in the Pathfinder Program. As the employer of record, administers payroll, remits related taxes and provides workers’ compensation and general liability insurance for all working students. With the Pathfinder Program, high school students may now work in positions previously ‘off limits.’ These training stations and positions allow students to gain meaningful experiences in a career they plan to pursue after high school while earning a paycheck and school credit.

Businesses that have partnered with the Pathfinder Program include Navistar, ECM Hospital, Helen Keller Hospital, Tasus and original program participant North American Lighting

Impact of the Pathfinder Program

The Pathfinder Program benefits high school students by placing them in an authentic employment position for which they have been trained, allowing them to earn a paycheck, and by helping them obtain a class credit. The program includes an acceptance process whereby students are required to complete an application and interview with both the Coordinator of the Pathfinder Program and the business representative. Once accepted, students complete a training agreement and training plan. The Coordinator maintains weekly contact with students and businesses to ensure on-going success.

The program has grown from one student working at North American Lighting in the Fall of 2014 to students working at a variety of businesses in North Alabama. The program has generated nearly $1 million of economic impact.Through the soft skills that the program teaches, employers report that the Pathfinder students often exceed their expectations. They report to work on time and rarely miss work days. They exhibit a good attitude and are eager to learn new skills. Additionally, attendance at school has seen improvements among students enrolled in this program.

The Pathfinder Program has earned recognition across Alabama and the country. At the time of inception, there was no other program like this one in the US. Now, other schools have toured MSCS facilities and replicated this model. Pathfinder Program Coordinator Tiffany Stonecipher and Career Academy principal Caryn Hairell speak at both state and national career and technical education conferences sharing this best practice with other school systems.
“We are honored that our Pathfinder Program at the Muscle Shoals Career Academy has been chosen as an Alabama finalist for the Tri-State Best K-12 Practices Award sponsored by LEAN Frog,” said Dr.Brian Lindsey, Muscle Shoals Superintendent. “Because the program provides students with opportunities for work experience and prepares them for life after graduation, it can greatly affect students’ lives. Your recognition of the Pathfinder Program’s success will foster its growth and help fund its future.”

MSCS students working at their respective skilled, technical jobs through the Pathfinder Program


The Pathfinder Program is a good case study of effective problem-solving in education.

  • Take time to identify problem: MSCS took the time to identify the problem that was preventing students from reaching their career goals.
  • Collaborate with others to find solution: Once the problem was identified (i.e., employer restrictions on insurance of minors), they partnered with Lyons HR to implement a solution
  • Test solution on a small scale: MSCS piloted the program to test the solution
  • Remove obstacles to success: Once it was clear the solution worked, MSCS removed obstacles to ensure success of the solution. For example, the system changed the Pathfinder Coordinator position from a 9-month employee to a 12-month employee so coordinator could stay connected with businesses year round.
  • Standardize success: The academy developed a standardized training agreement and training plan
  • Share Success: Data from the Pathfinder Program is recorded and evaluated to understand effectiveness and economic impact. This information is shared at each month’s board of education meeting


Muscle Shoals City Schools’ award winning practice has taken an employment conundrum for students and created a program that benefits both students and the local economy. “Because the program provides students with opportunities for work experience and prepares them for life after graduation, it can greatly affect students’ lives,” said MSCS Superintendent, Dr. Brian Lindsey. This best practice is growing and MSCS is challenging the community to help it grow even more. As Pathfinder Coordinator Tiffany Stonecipher remarked, I encourage each business that hears of this program to consider giving a young person the chance to be successful. More than anything, I want our young people to see a successful future in their hometown.

from left to right: Sherri Headrick (LEAN Frog), Celia Rudolph (MSCS Board President), Sally Howell Smith (AASB Exec Dir), Brian Lindsey (MSCS Superintendent), and Byron Headrick (LEAN Frog)

Congratulations Muscle Shoals City Schools and the muscle shoals career academy for your award-winning entry. We applaud you for using effective problem-solving skills to create solutions that positively impact your students and your community.

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Eufaula City Schools – Providing Purposeful Exploration of College and Career

This is the first post in a six-part series recognizing the state finalists  and overall grand prize winner of the Tri-State Best Practices Contest. May these great examples of best practices in Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee public education inspire you as they did us.


What do you want to be when you grow up?” This is a question that we start asking children at an early age.  Eufaula City Schools’ leaders–one of the Alabama finalist in the “Tri-State Best K-12 Practices” Contest—have not only asked their students this question, but they have developed a best practice that helps student systematically and purposefully explore college and career opportunities.

Origins of “Crayons to Careers”

When Superintendent Dr. Elisabeth Davis arrived at Eufaula City, she realized that many things were happening – fast! Department planning and activities were not always coordinated; in some cases they were siloed.  Consequently, she worked with all levels of leadership to align activities system-wide to support the school system’s vision, mission, and values.  This became the birth of the “Crayons to Careers” plan.  A system-wide calendar was developed detailing all activities that fall under the title “Crayons to Career.” Most activities and events were not new. However, putting all of the events and activities together created a systematic approach for knowing what to do, when to do it, how to do it, who should do it and how the event or activity can be improved in the future.

The “Crayons to Careers” plan focuses on spiraling programs from PreK to 12th grade to introduce children early to career options.  For example, students in lower grade levels work in raised beds (provided by an AlProHealth grant through the Barbour County Extension Office), while older students receive training in horticulture at the new greenhouse at Eufaula High School (EHS).  Students are given time during school hours and encouraged to take part in activities that are part of the spiraling of programs system wide. School schedules were changed for lower grade levels to have students participate in running school stores and have clubs such as chess on certain days.  This means students are now introduced to activities/concepts such as chess, coding, and handling money at a much younger age then they were before this plan. Additionally, upper grade level students participate in activities and teach/coach lower grade level students.

“Crayons to Careers” Community Engagement

Eufaula City Schools’ students and teachers learn about careers and participate in community service activities.

A key aspect of Eufaula City’s plan is community engagement.  Students participate in grade-level community service projects based on career interests or themes such as the Senior Citizen Prom, a joint community service project of the EHS Academies. The plan also has ECS staff shadow local business leaders and public servants to understand “A Day in the Life” of these community members so teachers can better prepare their students for those careers.  Having a detailed plan helps staff at Eufaula City Schools and community members pay close attention to ways to build upon partnerships. Using the premise that parent, family, and community involvement in education correlates with higher academic performance and school improvement, Eufaula City builds on these relationships.   When schools, parents, families, and communities work together to support learning, students tend to earn higher grades, attend school more regularly, stay in school longer, and enroll in higher level programs.

Why we Like this Entry:

There are numerous reasons to love the “Crayons to Careers” Best Practice.

The impact and focus on all grade levels throughout the system guarantees all students will have equal opportunities to participate.  By providing this plan, all teachers are then accountable for providing appropriate opportunities to all students and those opportunities a sequential across the grade spans.

“A Day in the Life of” demonstrates the importance of a high level understanding the Suppliers, Inputs, Outputs, and Customers (SIPOC) of a process, in this ensuring that students are College and Career Ready.     Elementary and Secondary administrators shadow each other, Career Tech teachers shadow relevant businesses, and Central Office members shadow students.  This provides staff with the opportunity to understand the needs of both Suppliers and Customers in the career development process.

Their consistent planning, implementation, and review of activities and events is reminiscent of the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle that promotes a commitment too continuous improvement.

Helping Students Dream Big

Eufaula City Schools’ award winning practice is consistent with their system motto “Dream Big . . . Innovate Often.” As Superintendent Davis remarked, “We believe we must teach our students how to dream in the elementary grades, and we must equip them with the knowledge and skills to make those dreams a reality as they journey through middle and high school!  Our commitment to a purposeful PreK – 12 exploration of colleges and careers through a variety of avenues provides both students and adults with a wide array of innovative experiences to accomplish their big dreams!”

-from left to right: Sherri Headrick (LEAN Frog), Mitzi Clayton, Sally Howell (AASB), Otis Hill (ECS), Byron Headrick (LEAN Frog) and Louise Conner (ECS)

Congratulations Eufaula City Schools for your award winning entry.  We applaud you for your commitment to purposeful preparation of students and to consistent review of your efforts.


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Central Community and East Feliciana are the Louisiana Finalists!

Spring is in full-bloom here in the southeastern United States and LEAN Frog is pleased to announce that the Louisiana school systems’ first year of participation in this Best Practices Contest has blossomed beyond our expectations!  The Louisiana entries were highly competitive and well-deserving of recognition. After several rounds of judging, LEAN Frog and co-sponsors the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents (LASS)/Louisiana Association of School Executives (LASE) are excited to announce the Louisiana Finalists in the “Tri-State Best K-12 Practices” Contest. . .


Central High School (Central Community School System in Baton Rouge, LA) and Jackson Elementary School (East Feliciana Public Schools in Clinton, LA).  Formal recognition and a $1,000 cash prize will be given to each of the finalists at an award ceremony to be held at their prize-winning schools. Additionally, the Louisiana finalists will be recognized at the at the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents (LASS) Summer Conference June 20-22 at the Double Tree in Lafayette, LA.


Central High School’s (CHS) “Student-run Help Desk” is a best practice begun in 2015 – a year after the start of their 1:1 digital initiative.  Inspired by college, student-run technology “help desks”, the CHS student-directed and staffed Help Desk provides full-time tech services on 1,400 student/teacher laptops. Additionally, these students maintain all classroom workstations, projectors, printers and nearly every other technical device.  The Help Desk staffers provide technology training to incoming students and professional development to faculty. These help desk students secure real-world IT experience (e.g., troubleshooting problems, repairing hardware and software, tracking inventory, communicating with customers, developing standard operating procedures), develop technical writing skills (e.g., creating training documents and documenting standard operating procedures) and jump start their careers by earning CompTIA A+ certification. Some students have gone on to become employed by the school system’s IT department.

A Central High School student-run Help Desk staffer repairs a laptop.


Jackson Elementary School’s (JES) “Cubs Morning Meeting” began in 2014 to address student and staff needs to develop a common language and space to explore the school’s values of respect, responsibility and kindness without sacrificing instructional time. The Cubs Morning Meeting (20 minutes first thing in the morning) has evolved into an almost entirely student developed and led assembly involving all members of the Jackson Elementary School Cub family (kindergarten through fifth grade).  This best practice has helped JES achieve a variety of quantitative and qualitative school goals connected to climate (e.g., 28% decrease in out of school suspensions), efficiency (e.g., reduced number of informational faculty meetings, adding a monthly meeting focused entirely on professional development without increasing the number of faculty meeting the staff needs to attend), and student leadership and public speaking skills (e.g., “Author’s Chair” presentations). Because each homeroom gets at least two weeks of practice leading Morning Meeting each school year, the number and variety of students provided with leadership and presentation skills has grown exponentially.

Students share their writings in the “Author’s Chair” during Jackson Elementary’s Cubs Morning Time


Louisiana had a record number of entries its first year participating in the Best Practices contest. We thank all of those who took the time to enter the contest and we applaud all your efforts on behalf of the students in Louisiana public schools!


The Alabama finalists were announced in December 2017 at the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) Annual Convention (AASB is the Alabama contest co-sponsor.) The Tennessee finalists were acknowledged at the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) Legislative & Learning Conference in February 2018 (TOSS is the Tennessee contest co-sponsor).  All six state finalists will compete for a Grand Prize of an additional $4,000 that will be awarded at a Board of Education meeting of the winning school system.  This presentation will allow the local community to share in the school system’s recognition for positively impacting student achievement and promoting the effective and efficient use of public resources.


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Louisiana Believes . . . in Great Best Practices Contest Entries!

The state plan for the Louisiana State Department of Education is Louisiana Believes.  The Louisiana Believes plan was designed to ensure that every child is on track to a college degree or a professional career and emphasizes the crucial role students, parents and teachers play in helping students achieve. This strong belief is echoed in the entries we received from Louisiana school systems in their first year of participation in the Best Practices contest*.  Well, we believe that Alabama and Tennessee have some stiff competition for taking home the Grand Prize in the Tri-State Best K-12 Practices contest.  In their first year out of the gate, Louisiana public schools have submitted innovative and impactful entries that demonstrate the strength and depth of public education.


Some of the Louisiana-submitted best practices involved:

  •  Increased Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) education opportunities for K-12 students to expand their critical thinking skills and prepare them for the 21st century workforce
  • Student-led early morning assemblies that distribute important school news and shared “cultural values” and spotlight student and staff recognitions
  • Professional Development for Career Technical Education (CTE) Teachers that focuses on the economic growth plans of the community, facilitates learning and collaboration with local businesses, and promotes students earning industry certifications
  • A strategically focused blueprint for increasing student achievement, developing educator effectiveness, and building public confidence
  • Expansion of the student directed and staffed IT “Help Desk” to deliver full-time technology maintenance services, enhance the use of technology in academic projects, and provide CompTIA A+ certifications for students
  •  Intensive ACT preparation to help students increase their scores and broaden their college opportunities.


We are thankful for the wonderful entries submitted by Louisiana, Tennessee, and Alabama and we greatly appreciate the support provided by our public education co-sponsors -Executive Director Sally Howell and the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) in Alabama, Executive Director Dale Lynch and the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) in Tennessee, and Executive Director Mike Faulk and the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents (LASS) in Louisiana.  Thanks also to Executive Director J. Rogers Pope and the Louisiana Association of School Executives (LASE).


So now the question is . . .


Stay tuned for the revelation of the Louisiana finalists (see previous posts about Alabama entries and finalists and Tennessee entries and finalists) who will receive $1000.00 each and for the Grand Prize Winner selected from each state’s finalists.  The Grand Prize winner will receive an additional $4000.00 cash award!!!


* LEAN Frog sponsors the Tri-State Best K-12 Practices Contest for Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana public schools in association with the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB), the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS), and the Louisiana Association of School Executives/Louisiana Association of School Superintendents (LASE/LASS) LEAN Frog established the contest to give back to public schools and to promote creative and sustainable practices that impact student achievement and encourage the effective and efficient use of public resources. Started in Alabama in 2014, expanded into Tennessee in 2016 and into Louisiana this year, winners receive public recognition and a cash prize for their successful entries.

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Alabama’s Best Barkley Bridge Elementary-Preparing Teachers and Students in STEM Learning

This is the final post in a six-part series recognizing the winners of the Tennessee’s Best and Alabama’s Best Contests.  Our previous post featured Tennessee’s Best Grand Prize winner Kingsport City Schools (TN), and the following runners up: Indian Valley Elementary (AL), Maury County (TN), Crestline Elementary (AL), and Lauderdale County (TN). Stay tuned for details about an exciting Best K-12 Contest expansion.


“In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”  National Science Foundation


Students learn with and from one another during Virtual STEM day at Barkley Bridge.

Students learn with and from one another during Virtual STEM day at Barkley Bridge.

Ensuring that all students have access to high-quality learning opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects is a concern for many in education. Barkley Bridge Elementary School in Hartselle, Alabama recognizes that supporting both teachers and students in STEM is a game changer.  Barkley Bridge and their comprehensive K-4 STEM program  were recognized by Lean Frog and the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) as the Grand Prize Winner of the 3rd Annual Alabama’s Best Contest. Their entry showcases a sustainable approach to “STEM schooling” that is “preparing the little faces of today for a little of what they will face tomorrow.”

Barkley Bridge’s STEM Journey

In August of 2014, Susan Hayes (Barkley Bridge Elementary School’s principal at the time) met with several teacher leaders to discuss a perennial concern: “How do we reach the students we are missing when using traditional educational approaches”? 

The conversations that ensued left them seeking more information about STEM (Science; Technology; Engineering; Mathematics) schooling and the power of problem solving. As a result, the faculty identified five “goals” that they wanted to address in an interdisciplinary manner:

1.       Every Child will engage in STEM/Problem-Based Learning to increase capacity for thinking “outside the box”, to increase persistence and stamina in learning, and to boost resiliency after failure – since failure is a part of learning and life.

2.       Every child will find academic success.  Some find their success through traditional schooling; STEM school will open the doors to more Students.

3.       Every child will be introduced to STEM careers and leadership opportunities.

4.       Every child will develop character and soft skills as well as academic skills.

5.       Fourth grade “graduates” will be on the path to college and career readiness.

Barkley Bridge rightfully recognized that to prepare their students for STEM learning, they needed to prepare their teachers as well.  Teachers engaged STEM experts and prepared themselves by learning more about problem-based learning, higher order questioning, facilitating learning through a design model, and how to seamlessly integrate technology into day-to-day instruction.  Project Lead the Way’s (PLTW) products and approach were identified as the program that would best meet the needs of their students.  Lead teachers at the school piggy-backed on PLTW training at another school district and conducted turnaround training sessions at their school home. This turnaround training helped them achieve the buy-in of teachers throughout the school so everyone was on board by roll-out.  Each grade level offers PLTW models, AMSTI (Alabama, Math, Science, and Technology Initiative) modules, Mystery Science , Kodable coding, and more.

Barkley Bridge solicited and received corporate donations from several Morgan County businesses, including their Partner in Education, Sonoco.  Their Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) also raised community funds for the STEM initiative and as a by-product raised community awareness of the need for a strong STEM program.      

STEM in Action at Barkley Bridge

Barkley Bridge has seen both qualitative and quantitative benefits with the implementation of their comprehensive STEM program. 

1.       Involved parents: Parent volunteers created a “Putting Parents into the Equation” team.  The PPE volunteers work with students to build number sense and problem-solving skills. 

2.       Engaged community: Parents and community helped the school deliver STEM learning beyond the classroom through activities like Family STEM Night, Virtual STEM Day, and a Library Maker Space.

3.       Inspired students: Students, parents, and teachers have commented on the impact of this approach to learning:

a.       “I like sharing ideas and collaborating.  I understand it better and understand the steps better when I am doing and not just watching.”  –Sawyer Tapscott, Fourth Grader

b.       “I have seen my own kids think creatively in ways they have not before.  They no longer just build things, they transform them.”   –Janadah Sartin, PTO President

c.       “My husband works in the STEM industry.  I was showing him what we are doing with coding.  He just kept saying ‘Third graders are doing that?’  He was amazed.”                   –Teacher Wendy Goss

4.       Marked improvement in student Math and Science ACT Aspire scores:



Why we Like this Entry 

Barkley Bridge’s STEM program emphasizes the importance of planning and execution and achieving buy-in.  They identified goals for their STEM program at the onset, planned their work and worked their plan.  Their wide-ranging program involves the support of all stakeholders and helps ensure the sustainability of these best practices in STEM learning.

Susan Hayes (former principal at Barkley Bridge) and Vic Wilson (Supt, Hartselle City Schools) accept the $3000 cash grand prize for Barkley Bridge Elementary School.

Susan Hayes (former principal at Barkley Bridge) and Vic Wilson (Supt, Hartselle City Schools) accept the $3000 cash grand prize for Barkley Bridge Elementary School.


Congratulations Barkly Bridge Elementary School for your Grand-Prize winning entry.  We applaud your students for their growth in learning and in their achievements, the faculty for its commitment and innovation, and the community for its engagement and support.


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Alabama’s Best Winner Indian Valley Early Literacy Groups – Making Literacy a Reality for All

This is the fourth post in a six-part series recognizing the winners of the Tennessee’s Best and Alabama’s Best Contests.  Our previous post featured the following runners up:  Lauderdale County (TN), Crestline Elementary (AL), and Maury County (TN)


IV-valueHow do you determine what someone values?  One of the best ways is to look at how and where the person spends money.  The same can be said of schools and school systems.  Indian Valley Elementary School  in Sylacauga, Alabama has a goal of making literacy a reality for all their students.  School leadership has invested in best practices and resources for teachers, students, and the community to reach that goal.  Indian Valley Elementary and their Early Literacy Groups (ELGs) were recognized by LEAN Frog and the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) as a Runner-up Winner in the 3rd Annual Alabama’s Best Contest.  The ELGs and the resources they require demonstrate how Indian Valley values literacy.

Students at Indian Valley Elem. participate in literacy lessons designed to meet their needs

Students at Indian Valley Elem. participate in literacy lessons designed to meet their needs

How the Early Literacy Groups Work

Early Literacy Groups are a form of a collaboration that gives students engaging and intense small group literacy instruction on their level.  ELGs are implemented using teams of paraprofessionals and certified teachers who have been trained to provide explicit small group reading instruction to students.   These teams rotate through classrooms to deliver lessons centered on reading foundations: phonemic and phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehensions, writing, and vocabulary.  While the classroom teacher works with a small group, other students are actively engaged in precise literacy lessons designed to meet their specific needs of acceleration.  This practice ensures every student has access to a highly-trained literacy professional.

Impact of the Early Literacy Groups

Classroom teachers view the ELGs as a positive prevention tool.  They collaborate with the ELGs team members to discuss groupings, lesson plans, skills and strategies.  After only year of implementation, the ELGs have had a positive impact:

·         68% of students meet or exceed (based on end of year Fountas & Pinnell  reading benchmark assessment data)

·         93% of all Kindergarten students are proficient in phonological awareness (based on the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS))

Why We Like this Entry

ELG participants collaborate to develop lesson plans and strategies

ELG participants collaborate to develop lesson plans and strategies

The Early Literacy Groups demonstrate the value Indian Valley places on literacy:  literacy is important enough to commit extra instructional resources in the classroom.  This best practice has many noteworthy qualities, but a few that really stand out to us include:

·         The collaborative effort: The classroom teacher is not left alone to help every student become a successful reader.  Principal Monte Abner attributes the impressive literacy assessment results in part to these collaborations. “This instructional teamwork effort has proven beneficial for the students and teachers as it impacts student achievement and shares responsibility with the classroom teachers,” he noted.

·         The understanding of how value flows.  A key lean six sigma principle is understanding how value is created and how it flows to the end user.  In this case, the end user is the student.  Indian Valley has developed a systematic, optimized practice for improved literacy instruction delivery.

·         Alignment with their mission: Indian Valley’s goal is to make literacy a reality for all their students since     They clearly understand the connection between literacy and student success and have developed an evidenced-based reading practice to achieve their goal.  As Sylacauga City Schools superintendent Dr. Todd Freeman notes, “The ‘Early Literacy Group’ strategy is the foundation in our mission to have all our students prepared for college, career and community choices.”   

Principal Monte Abner and Instructional Interventionists Cindy Cleveland and Teri Owens accept $1000 cash prize from LEAN Frog for their runner-up entry

Principal Monte Abner and Instructional Interventionists Cindy Cleveland and Teri Owens accept $1000 cash prize from LEAN Frog for their runner-up entry


Congratulations Indian Valley Elementary for your award-winning entry. We applaud the commitment your school has made to making literacy a reality for all your students. 


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Alabama’s Best Award Winner Crestline Academy – Helping Parents Help Their Children

This is the second post in a six-part series recognizing the winners of the Tennessee’s Best and Alabama’s Best winners.  Our first post featured Tennessee Best runner-up Lauderdale County.



Crestline Academy - mothers homework prayerIt’s every parent or guardian’s nightmare.

You’ve been stumped by your child’s homework assignment.  Or, better yet, you know the answer, but you are not familiar with the way the teacher has taught your child how to get the answer.  We’ve all been there.  If you haven’t yet, chances are you’ll get the glazed over look one day in the future.

Crestline Elementary in Hartselle, Alabama is providing a way to help parents and guardians help their children and avoid the homework nightmare.    Crestline Elementary and their Crestline Academy were recognized by LEAN Frog and the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) as a Runner-up Winner in the 3rd Annual Alabama’s Best Contest. Crestline Academy is a website containing.

Crestline Academy Background:

Crestline Elementary faculty recognized that both students and parents often needed support with reading and math instructional strategies that were presented in

A Kindergarten student demonstrates addition and subtraction with objects

A Kindergarten student demonstrates addition and subtraction with objects

class. Faculty members started creating instructional videos in October 2015.  The videos were patterned after Kahn Academy with its “Learn Anytime, Anywhere” mission.  As the videos were created throughout the school year, they were uploaded to YouTube.  By November 2015, Crestline had created a collection of embedded videos and launched Crestline Academy.   [Check out their cool “What are you wearing Jake from Crestline Academy” commercial on YouTube!].  By the end of the school year, teachers and students from each grade (K-4) had created several videos to present math standards and strategies.  Several had created videos explaining reading standards and strategies.  Some videos explain complicated concepts, some explain instructional games, while others model instructional strategies.  As Instructional Partner Elisa Harris remarks, “Our goal is to equip parents and guardians with tools to help their child outside the classroom while providing explanations for strategies used to prepare College and Career Ready students.”

Crestline Academy Benefits

The benefits of a resource like Crestline Academy are numerous.

  • The videos provide parents with skills to work collaboratively with teachers to improve student performance and increase student success.
  • The videos are an innovative way to promote the mastery of math and reading standards.
  • The teacher-directed, student-led videos have the “for us, by us” effect. Students love seeing themselves on camera.  They also like taking an active part in their own learning and others’ learning as well.
  • Organizing the videos as Crestline Academy provides a useful one-stop resource for all stakeholders. Videos are organized by grade level and even have “Multisensory” drills that parents/guardians can use with their students.

Why We Like this Entry:

Crestline Academy features "multisensory" drills

Crestline Academy features “multisensory” drills

We love practices that strengthen the school-family relationship.  Crestline Academy is an example of an innovative approach to connect students, teachers, and parents/guardians.   “In designing ways to increase parent engagement in their children’s learning, our teachers suggested using classroom videos to let parents see how our standards are being taught,” said Principal Robin Varwig. “This allows the parents to see how students are learning and to use the same strategies at home with homework.”  Crestline emphasizes an old lean adage of “we see together, we learn together, we do together.”

We also like how Crestline’s entry recognizes the realities of students’ lives by having a resource that is available anytime, anywhere.  Math and reading instructional support is available when school is not in session or when the student is absent.

Finally, Crestline Elementary includes and monitors this practice as part of their Continuous Improvement Plan to help ensure its sustainability.

Elisa Harris accepts the $1000 cash prize for Crestline Elem. From L-R Brandon Payne (LEAN Frog), Elisa Harris, Sherri Headrick (LEAN Frog), Vic Wilson (Supt, Hartselle City Schools), Sally Smith (AASB Exec Dir)

Elisa Harris accepts the $1000 cash prize for Crestline Elem. From L-R Brandon Payne (LEAN Frog), Elisa Harris, Sherri Headrick (LEAN Frog), Vic Wilson (Supt, Hartselle City Schools), Sally Smith (AASB Exec Dir)


Congratulations Crestline Elementary for your award-winning entry.  We applaud the work your school is doing to ensure students and parents are equipped with resources outside the classroom and to strengthen the school-family relationship.

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3rd Annual Alabama’s Best Contest Receives Inspiring Entries

As Alabama students begin their first full week of school in 2017, we would like to recognize the excellent work of those school systems who participated in the 3rd annual Alabama’s Best Contest.  We congratulate all those who entered the contest, our two runner-up winners, and our grand prize winner.  We hope that learning about these impressive examples of best practices will inspire others in 2017.



The Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) and LEAN Frog were delighted to continue our tradition of recognizing the great work of Alabama public education with our 3rd Annual “Alabama’s Best” K-12 Practices Contest.  We received inspiring entries that covered the instructional and non-instructional spectrum. Departments such as Special Education, Career Tech, Student Services, Maintenance, Technology entered practices exhibiting strong pedagogical thought and exceptional creativity.  More importantly they showed the intense dedication of our Alabama teachers, educational administrators, and communities to both support and enhance the learning opportunities for our students.

Talladega City Schools students in the Precision Machine/Industrial Maintenance/Robotics Program created a prosthetic hand for a patient in Nepal

Talladega City Schools students in the Precision Machine/Industrial Maintenance/Robotics Program created a prosthetic hand for a patient in Nepal

Some examples of best practice entries included:

  • A robotics program that provides opportunities for students to learn precision machining and participate in community service projects
  • Data collection and analysis of counseling services to better target high needs areas, improve direct student intervention, and educate parents and community members on important issues such as anxiety and drug use
  • Replacement of inefficient metal halide lamps with LED lighting to save money and improve students’ ability to learn and perform
  • A “Garden to table” catering program that enables adolescents and young adults with significant cognitive disabilities to acquire functional, academic, and vocational skills.
Gadsden City Schools students in the "Beautiful Rainbow Catering Company and Garden" program lean about organic gardening.

Gadsden City Schools students in the “Beautiful Rainbow Catering Company and Garden” program lean about organic gardening.

With all the great entries, competition was tight.  We had several rounds of judging to identify the top three entries.

And the 3rd Annual Alabama’s Best winners are . . .

LEAN Frog recognized the winners of the contest at the AASB annual meeting in Birmingham.  The collaborative efforts of each winning best practice tied nicely with AASB’s theme “Together We Can Soar.”  The winning entries included:

  • an online academy featuring teacher-directed, student-led instructional videos
  • an Early Literacy Groups program highlighting teacher-paraprofessional collaboration
  • a comprehensive elementary school STEM program that spans all grade levels


Crestline Elementary School (Hartselle City Schools) and Indian Valley Elementary School (Sylacauga City Schools) were the two-runner up entries. They each received $1000.  Crestline Elementary’s entry, submitted by Instruction Partner Elisha Harris, features instructional videos as part of their Crestline Academy.  The videos allow parents to help their children academically with concepts that have been presented in the classroom.  Students and teachers created the videos to reinforce College and Career Ready standards/strategies for math and reading.  Crestline Academy ensures students have access to instructional support when school is not in session or when students are absent. Indian Valley Elementary’s entry, submitted by Principal Monte Abner, focuses on collaboration between certified teachers and paraprofessionals.  Their Early Literacy Groups (ELGs) deliver explicit reading instruction to students on their level.  The ELGs’ emphasis on phonemic and phonological awareness, comprehensions, writing, and vocabulary have led to 68% of students meeting or exceeding grade level expectations.   Additionally, 93% of kindergarten students are proficient in phonological awareness.

The grand prize winning entry from Barkley Bride Elementary School (Hartselle City Schools) received $3000. Barkley Bridge’s Best Practices in STEM, submitted by Principal Susan Hayes, documents their process for developing and maintaining a comprehensive STEM program for all grades at the school.  From developing goals at the outset that aligned with the district’s strategic plan to involving parents and community partners, Barkley Bridge developed a sustainable approach to “STEM schooling” that has achieved teacher buy-in and significant increases in student ACT Aspire Math scores.

We thank and congratulate all those schools and school systems who submitted entries to the 3rd Annual Alabama’s Best Contest.  You are all winners for the work you put in each day to improve the lives of students in Alabama’s public education system.

COMING THIS WEEK:  The start of a six-part series profiling each of the winners of the Alabama and Tennessee’s Best Contests!

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Alabama’s Best Contest Winners Announced at AASB Winter Conference

We always have an exciting time at Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) events. This year’s Winter Conference was no different. We had the opportunity to interact with Alabama’s very dedicated and hard-working school board members. Our President and Co-founder Byron Headrick gave a wonderful presentation on “The Pitfalls of Poor Strategic Planning” to a packed room of very engaged board members and superintendents.   LEAN Frog friend and great superintendent Dr. Shelly Mize, Tarrant City Schools, won the prize for our drawing – a cool AUTO x series drone. (Don’t worry the contest was not rigged. AASB Executive Director Dr. Sally Smith drew the winner’s name.) However, our favorite part of the AASB Winter Conference was announcing the winners of the second annual Alabama’s Best contest.

AASB and LEAN Frog co-sponsor the contest which is open to all public schools in Alabama. This year we expanded the contest to include instructional best practices as well as non-instructional practices. The entries were judged on creativity, sustainability and impact on students. We would like to congratulate all of the school systems that submitted entries for the 2nd annual Alabama’s Best K-12 Practices contest.

The 2015 Alabama’s Best K-12 Practices Award winners are . . .

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kim Hendon and board members Lisa Reed, Lynn Houston and Mary Ann Jordan accept the $3000 Grand Prize for Roanoke City Schools

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kim Hendon and board members Lisa Reed, Lynn Houston and Mary Ann Jordan accept the $3000 Grand Prize for Roanoke City Schools

$3,000 Grand Prize Winner – Roanoke City Schools

Outdoor Educational Center

The winning entry and $3000 Grand Prize winner was Roanoke City Schools with their Agricultural Project Based Learning practice. Their best practice highlights the importance of engaging students in authentic and real learning. Roanoke City’s five acre Outdoor Educational Center houses everything from fish ponds to bee hives, from blueberry bushes to a hydroponic greenhouse. Students not only participate in a cross disciplinary agricultural curriculum, they also utilize science, math, reading, and technology in a real world setting as they sell catfish and tilapia from the fish ponds and fresh eggs from the chicken coop.

Nearly one third of the students at Handy High School participate in this hands on project which requires to utilize the four Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity. Future plans include having a storefront in downtown Roanoke for selling eggs, fish, vegetables, honey and jam.

Superintendent Dr. Scott Coefield accepts runner up $1000 prize for Pelham City Schools

Superintendent Dr. Scott Coefield accepts runner up $1000 prize for Pelham City Schools

$1000  Runner-Up Prize – Pelham City Schools

Journey to College and Career Readiness 

Pelham City Schools was a runner up winning entry receiving a $1000 cash prize. Their Journey to College and Career Readiness entry highlights the role of collaboration in ensuring a sustainable best practice.

While other school systems establish programs and develop their curriculum to help prepare students for college and career, few do it systematically from Kindergarten through 12th grade. This practice provides every student in Pelham City Schools (starting in Kindergarten) with the opportunity to explore, identify, and narrow college and career interest throughout his or her school career.

To ensure the sustainability of the practice, local school administrators, instructional coaches, high school college and career advisory boards review the vertical alignment annually to ensure career opportunities align with workforce development data, business partners’ feedback and student interests.

Superintendent Dr. Todd Freeman, CNP Director Kelley Wassermann, and board member Jennie McGehee accept $1000 runner up prize for Sylacauga City Schools

Superintendent Dr. Todd Freeman, CNP Director Kelley Wassermann, and board member Jennie McGehee accept $1000 runner up prize for Sylacauga City Schools

$1000 Runner-Up Prize – Sylacauga City Schools

Indian Valley Elementary Recycling and Repurposing Program

Sylacauga City Schools was the other runner up and recipient of $1000 with their Indian Valley Elementary Recycling and Repurposing Program. Sylacauga City’s entry highlights how caring and creative staff can make a positive impact on students in need.

The CNP staff go the extra mile in customer service to provide a funding source for students with negative meal accounts. By collecting, cleaning, and recycling disposable food containers students bring from home such as the lunchable plastic trays and Capri Sun pouches, the recycling revenue has funded a special account to help students who do not have enough money to cover lunch. Since its inception close to 800 students have benefitted from this best practice. This practice not only benefits students, but it also demonstrates a commitment to environmental stewardship.

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And the Winners Are . . . The 2014 Alabama’s Best Non-Instructional Practices Award

This fall, the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) and LEAN Frog sponsored a contest to recognize Best Practices and Innovations in the non-instructional departments of K-12 public schools.  These Best Practices and Innovations have impacted student achievement and promoted the effective and efficient use of public resources statewide during the last two school years.

From Child Nutrition to Transportation to Student Services, non-instructional departments and programs in public schools across Alabama are implementing creative and sustainable Best Practices.  These Best Practices improve students’ well-being, help prepare them for successful futures, and encourage the involvement of school staff, parents, and the local community.  The entries LEAN Frog received boast some impressive results:

  • A 63% increase in high school breakfast participation rates
  • Promotion of unity and shared responsibility
  • A 5% increase in the number of students with perfect attendance
  • Assistance with motor skills for Special Education students
  • Improved ACT test scores
  • Dramatic decreases in detention
  • Over 98,000 hot meals served to children 18 and under during the summer
  • Reductions in truancy, discipline issues, and tardiness

LEAN Frog and the Alabama Association of School Boards congratulate all of the school systems that submitted entries and thank them for all they do on behalf of Alabama public education.  Award presentations and the winning videos and slides will be featured at the 2014 AASB Conference held December 3-6 in Birmingham, Alabama.

The 2014 Alabama’s Best Non-Instructional Practices Award winners are . . .

Winning Entry ($3,000 Grand Prize)  

Tarrant City Schools – A Creative Approach to Solving Child Nutrition Challenges

Many schools have seen drops in their student breakfast and lunch participation rates since converting to recipes compliant with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act law.  Even among those students still participating, some Child Nutrition Programs are reporting food waste when complying with standards set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Alabama State Department of Education.  Schools across the nation are grappling with the question, “How do you make nutritious meals that kids enjoy eating?”

Tarrant Intermediate School students demonstrate healthy approaches to problem-solving

Tarrant Intermediate School students demonstrate healthy approaches to problem-solving.  CLICK the photo to see Tarrant’s video submission.

The 2014 “Alabama’s Best” award-winning entry (and winner of the $3,000 grand prize) addresses this question and focuses on how Tarrant City Schools improved their Child Nutrition Program through the implementation of a series of best practices over the last two years.  “With all of the changes that have come about with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, we are continuing to ensure that all stakeholders have a voice and we are striving to implement as many requests as possible within the HHFKA framework. It is an on-going process and we will continue to tweak the program as needed,” said CNP Director Kelley Javinett.

Through their research, Tarrant City Schools discovered that “reduced-price” families missed qualifying for “free” meals by less than $500 per year. As a result, they implemented a Universal Breakfast Program in the spring of 2012.  This program increased breakfast participation across the whole district.  The greatest impact was at Tarrant Elementary, with participation increasing from 54% to 95%. Later in the 2012-13 school year, Tarrant City Schools implemented the Provision 2 option in the federal School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program, thus providing free breakfast and lunch across the entire district, resulting in simplified paperwork, streamlined meal service, and further increased student participation. In the spring of 2013, student focus groups were conducted on student preferences, with the data used to drive purchasing decisions and meal preparation.  Items such as hot wings and buffalo chicken pizza were added to lunch menus. Based on student feedback, the switch was made to 8 oz. plastic milk containers versus traditional cartons, resulting in an increase in milk consumption by 30% daily.   In the spring of 2014, a “Kitchen Cook Off” was held to determine entrée appeal and taste. This data was used to drive Child Nutrition professional development activities.  The sustainable results are increased student participation in breakfast and lunch, greater acceptance of the menu, and more engaged students and staff who feel their voices have been heard.

Runner-Up Winning Entry ($1000 Prize)

Huntsville City Schools – A Role Model for Implementation and Impact

 As the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service points out, “Just as learning does not end when school lets out, neither does a child’s need for good nutrition.” The USDA established the Summer Food Service Program to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals and snacks throughout the summer months when they are out of school. Unfortunately, fewer than eight percent of Alabama students eligible to receive meals in the summer were actually getting them.

Westlawn Middle School students saying a prayer before eating their supper.

Westlawn Middle School students saying a prayer before eating their supper.

Huntsville City Schools’ award-winning second place entry highlights the system’s successful implementation of this program.  Free meals meeting Federal nutrition guidelines are provided to all children 18 years old and under at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children. Huntsville City Schools’ unique approach involved city-wide collaborations such as partnering with other local organizations like Girls Inc. and other groups who have active summer programs, partnering with the city of Huntsville to provide free bus transportation to children who need a ride to school so they can eat, and setting up Alabama’s only SFSP to provide three hot meals per day.  This resulted in almost 100,000 children served.  The number of summer meals served to children across the city was three times as many hot meals provided in all SFSP programs across the entire state of Alabama combined!  As a result, Huntsville City Schools has been identified as a state, regional, and national role model for implementing SFSP.  However, it is the thankfulness of the students and their families that brings the greatest satisfaction to those that implemented the program.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  I believe this picture (students at Westlawn Middle school praying before eating a hot supper meal) tells you why Huntsville City Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski, along with the Huntsville City School Board, supports the Summer Foodservice Program,” said Child Nutrition Director, Joey Vaughn.

Runner-Up Winning Entry ($1000 Prize)

Sylacauga City Schools – A Committed Team Dedicated to Sustainable Interventions

“Response to Intervention is not a special education initiative; it is a general education obligation.”

Marcus Johnson uttered these words at the 2014 National Blue Ribbon Schools Ceremony.  The 2011 National Superintendent of the Year, who coached four Sanger(CA) Unified Schools District schools from the bottom 10% in student achievement to National Blue Ribbon status, discussed the importance of teamwork during his featured presentation at the 2014 Ceremony.  He described a team as “a group of people working together interdependently to meet a common goal and holding each other accountable.”

Sylacauga Success on Saturday--engaging our students in every way!

Sylacauga Success on Saturday–engaging our students in every way!

Sylacauga City Schools’ award winning second place entry, “SOS — Success on Saturday”, demonstrates the role that teamwork and dedication play in helping students achieve.  Students from third through twelfth grades participate in math practice, Leader in Me activities, ENGAGE testing, counseling, school projects, credit recovery, and other supporting activities at no cost.  The program takes place on Saturdays at three Sylacauga City Schools with over 200 students receiving tutoring, homework help, and life counseling. Administrators, counselors, and teachers provide personalized intervention and support; CNP workers provide breakfast, snack, and lunch; and the system’s bus drivers provide safe travel to and from the program.

The academic growth of SOS students is impressive.  Retentions in the ninth and tenth grades have dramatically decreased, while there have been no retentions in the third through fifth and eighth grades in the past year. The program has garnered the support of students, parents, the community, and school staff.  When asked to prioritize student support programs, principals unanimously choose SOS as their number one choice.  As Carol Martin, Director of Instruction and Intervention remarked, “Parents now call and ask if their student can attend SOS, and students even ask to attend!  They recognize what great results we are seeing.  SOS is one of our most successful RTI interventions.”

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