November 23, 2020 20th Anniversary, Blog

Dr. LeViis Haney Believes In Doing School Differently

Before LeViis Haney’s tenure as principal of Lovett Elementary from 2012-2018, the school was struggling to succeed, having problems of high student apathy and low academic performance.

But Haney remembers one moment that helped inspire the school’s new, transformative vision: As he was being interviewed by the outgoing principal, she said she hoped he would “Love it at Lovett.”

For Haney, this simple remark was revolutionary: “‘Love it at Lovett’ ultimately became our rallying cry in regards to what we felt our students really need to be successful. We felt that our kids needed to be engaged in the learning process.” 

As a former CPS student who at times felt disengaged from school, Haney set out to reverse this culture. “I knew that we had to do things differently,” Haney said, “I knew we had to look outside the box.” 

The first step to looking outside the box was collaboration. 

“We used to work in silos,” Haney said. But through a partnership with LEAP Innovations, a non-profit specializing in personalized learning, he reflected, “We were able to not only reimagine schools for our kids, but also get feedback from other schools and continue that learning process. It was just such an amazing partnership and it still is valued to this day.” 

What did LEAP Innovations and Haney discover together about doing school differently? 

Ironically, an important part of increasing student success was actually normalizing failure. 

According to Haney, the traditional learning process often penalizes students who don’t learn a concept right away, and then deprives students of opportunities to improve. But at Lovett, he wanted to create a culture where “failure has to be a part of the learning process, not an end product.” 

“Athletes are celebrated for being able to demonstrate a skill,” he argued. “But what about all of the times that the athlete had to practice learning that skill? Whether it’s hitting a home run, or shooting free throws: We judge the athlete after they’ve learned what they practice. And so why don’t we don’t that for kids?

“If we give students plenty of opportunities to practice and learn, and then we assess them, we find that, surprise, surprise, more students are successful!” 

These opportunities to practice and improve, however, don’t come about by accident: Data holds the process together.

Haney emphasized that formative, non-punitive assessments are necessary for teachers to identify potential areas of student growth and adjust accordingly. “It means that teachers are teaching specifically to what their kids need as they’re assessing, and determining where kids need support.”

In this way, personalizing learning made students feel as if their individual needs and interests were important—ultimately, creating a culture where students would want to come to school. In practice, using data to identify areas where students already excelled allowed teachers to cut down redundant lecture time, solving student boredom. This saved time was then used strategically to review concepts needing improvement, and then move onto interesting applications that sparked students curiosity and fed their love of learning. 

Improving engagement was the pathway towards the ultimate goal of boosting student achievement, while also allowing teachers to concentrate on genuine learning as opposed to pressure for high stakes testing. 

Haney summed up the strategy: “As the leader of this building, I’m giving you permission to focus on student engagement and not focus so much on data, but yet we still take temperature checks, and we see if what we’re doing is working.” 

The temperature checks showed positive results. Lovett started at the 5th and 6th percentile in student growth and soared to the 96th percentile within two years. And in terms of students performing at grade level, they moved from fewer than 20% of students meeting targets to 50%. 

These results were so impressive that Haney shared his findings about data-driven personalized learning with fellow principals by leading a PLC through the Fund in 2017. 

Now as the Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Stevenson High School, located in a Chicagoland North suburban district, Haney still reminisces about his days at Lovett: “What was so cool about that was that our kids truly did love learning. When you would visit our building, you saw kids fully engaged and taking ownership over their learning.” 

At Stevenson, Haney’s mission is still the same: prioritizing the success and equity for all students by fostering “major shifts in the way that kids see school.” 

Hopefully, they will love it too.