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A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: A Strengths-Based Model for School Improvement

Camille Jones

Have you ever heard this phrase before? A rising tide lifts all boats.

Two of my edu-heroes, Dr. Joseph Renzulli and Dr. Sally Reis, use this expression to encapsulate their theory that the pedagogies of gifted education can, and should, be applied more broadly. They, and I, believe that our students are full of potential we do not yet recognize, and schools are places for talent development.

These values ground the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM). The SEM is a strength-based model for school improvement, and the backbone of the Enrichment and Highly Capable Program that I lead in the Quincy School District. 

Similar to other tiered intervention systems that are popular today, the Schoolwide Enrichment Model consists of three types of enrichment supports, which I've portrayed in the pyramid below. The broad base represents interventions for all students. Each consecutive tier is smaller as enrichment activities become increasingly targeted based on individualized student need.

The SEM at Pioneer Elementary is like a pyramid of services with three consecutive tiers.

Tier One: Inspire Curiosity

Tier One opportunities are provided to all students. These enrichment activities are designed for exploration--but it doesn’t stop there. Many schools bring in guest speakers, plan family nights, and introduce students to robotics. What differentiates the SEM is the hidden goal behind these activities--discovering talent in nontraditional ways. Combining this evidence with typical student data creates a holistic picture of student strengths and interests.

This year, a second grader, I'll call her Jessica, reminded me of the power of discovery through tier one enrichment activities. I met Jessica for the first time this fall. It wasn't anything she did in my class, or even in her own class, that caught my eye. It was her response to our Family STEAM Challenges. In particular, the family make-and-take nights that go along with them.

Jessica faithfully attended these events each month, which surprised me at first, because her home life is less than stable. As the months went on, I noticed the creativity in her solutions to each challenge. She started giving me ideas for new challenges we should try and following up with me often to find out what the next challenge would be. Then a few weeks ago, our principal Ms. Porter, came to see me. She told me Jessica had gone to her office, asking, "How can I do more projects?"

This was our moment of discovery about Jessica. It made us wonder, What might this girl be capable of, if we gave her the chance to show us? We agreed she should try Daily STEAM, my class that represents Tier Two enrichment.

Tier Two: Deepen Skills & Processes

If Tier One enrichment gives us the first glimpse at undiscovered potential, Tier Two is where we really see it grow. To an outside observer in my classroom, this level of service probably seems the most like a traditional enrichment pull-out program. However, Tier Two is incredibly flexible, and it is intended to represent greater depth in the enriching tasks assigned to students, regardless of where or how those activities take place.

For example, the advanced geometry unit I just completed with second graders would probably not have been a good fit for Jessica, but the creative problem solving project we're working on right now is perfect for her. With each new unit, classroom teachers and I work together to build a class list, using both assessment data and observational evidence.

Jessica's story is just beginning, but I could go on and on with examples of students who thrive, when given the chance. I've written in the past about the transformations of students like Raul, Gabriel, and Rosa. Let me now add the story of a boy I'll call Jacob. Jacob was the toughest student I encountered in my first year in this role. While his traditional academic data did clearly show his need for advanced learning opportunities, the trick was keeping him in class.

At the time, attending my class was often used as a reward for good behavior. That meant it could also be taken away for bad behavior. The thing was, he rarely misbehaved in my class. Not because I am such a magical teacher, but because he was engaged and challenged from the moment he walked in to the moment he left. I pushed hard that year to change the perspective that enrichment could be treated as a reward. I knew it was an essential intervention for students like Jacob. I feared it might be the only positive memory he would take from third grade.

I felt the weight of what that could mean for his future and what outlet he would eventually find for his potential. I don’t know how Jacob is doing now, but I do know that we no longer use Tier Two services as rewards. In fact, quite the opposite. Teachers often share with me their hopes for students like Jacob, asking me to give them a chance and see what they can do.

When working with students in Tier Two enrichment activities, sometimes I still find students who are not challenged enough, or who have intensely focused interests beyond those of their peers. This tells me I’m still seeking the limits of their potential and should provide a more individualized level of service. These students are ready for Tier Three enrichment supports.

Tier Three: Independent Study

The top level of tiered support systems is the smallest, representing interventions that are highly targeted and individualized. I once had a second grader ask me if we could learn about molecular biology. Talk about maximizing potential--that challenged my potential as a teacher!

At this level, it's about solving real problems, for real audiences. The landscaping project my students completed last year is an example of a Tier Three project in action. A very small group of students developed and led the project, which was brought to completion by a larger group of their peers.

Students in tier three have often been identified for Highly Capable Services, although not always. In fact, many schools and general education classrooms are now embracing “Tier Three” enrichment activities, such as Genius Hour and Project-Based Learning. This is something to celebrate and support! The expansion of strategies traditionally reserved for gifted education is only going to help us better recognize and support all students’ talent, potential, and growth. 

The SEM isn’t designed to be the domain of a single teacher, hoarding over the best projects and the most rigorous learning. The goal is to celebrate and unify all of these opportunities as they are presented to students, everywhere that they occur.

The Three Tiers and the Rising Tide

In my last post, I described how Quincy School District has transformed our practices of identifying students for Highly Capable Services through using multiple measures of data. I didn’t mention that my personal “why” behind supporting our method is my own experience of teaching in our Schoolwide Enrichment Program.

Five years ago when I started in this role, only three, middle-class, white, female students were identified as highly capable in the entire school of over 400 students. In a school that is made up of a majority of students who are living in poverty, learning English, and almost entirely students of color, I still accepted this as fact. After all, we had the data. In the era of No Child Left Behind, achievement data was everything.

In my Tier Two services, I started the year with between four and ten students per grade which I also accepted as accurate. Again, ahem, data. I took this role to challenge students who, as I once did, had to endure a lifetime of lessons far below their level of learning. It didn’t even occur to me to question the data. These were the eligible students, and I was here for them.

Then, I started teaching. It was my Tier One services that woke me up. With each new lesson, I saw students come to life. The creativity!--both artistic, and the problem-solving kind. The risk-taking! The leadership! The complex reasoning! I quickly realized the discrepancy between the deficiencies I saw on paper and the brilliance I saw in the classroom.

As I learned about other strategies to understand my students through their strengths, I started advocating for them more bravely. With each step, the program grew. As we created opportunity for more students to show us their potential, they began to achieve more, too.  Today, my upper-tier enrichment classes are fuller than they’ve ever been, and more representative of our school, too.

All Boats Means All Boats

Filled with the faces, the voices, and the stories of my students, my biggest passion as a teacher is to help our systems better recognize student strengths and support their potential. On a personal level, teaching schoolwide enrichment has opened my eyes to how carefully I must work to recognize the biases that filter my thinking, and how intentionally I must work to reduce the impacts of that bias on my students, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. 

My challenge to you, reader, is to first believe that all students are capable of more than we recognize.

Use the summer to reflect: Is it possible that I'm putting limits on student achievement through my assumptions, actions, or interpretations of data? What could I do to remove these limits? How can I use enrichment as an intervention for students?

Then be brave. Commit to an action for next year. Inspire curiosity, create opportunity, and grow potential in your students.

If you do, I think you'll learn what I have.

As the tide rises for our students, it lifts our boats, too.



Interested in learning more?

Join Me at Whitworth! June 19-21, 2019

Whitworth is hosting Dr. Renzulli and Dr. Reis for three days of professional learning this month! Join me and other educators from around the state and nation for Whitworth Center for Gifted Education’s Summer Institute: Schools Are Places For Talent Development: Unleashing Potential, Passion and Creative Talents.

Related resources from around the web:

For Your Summer Reading List:

  • Cultural Competency
  • Enrichment
  • Equity
  • Highly Capable
  • Inquiry
  • Policy
  • Project Based Learning
  • Student Behavior
  • Student Engagement
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Camille Jones Board

K-3 STEAM Schoolwide Enrichment & Highly Capable Teacher at Pioneer Elementary in Quincy, WA

I am a hometown teacher in Central Washington State, and the 2017 WA State Teacher of the Year. My classroom is a place to inspire curiosity, create opportunity, and grow potential. Where everyone (me included!) is challenged to do hard things, on purpose, every day. Outside of school, I love spending time in the mountains or on the water, and anything else that involves my husband, baby girl, or black lab Obi Wan. For more writing, and other inspirations from my classroom, find me on Twitter @farmtableteach or at