Afternoon dismissal at Ford Road Elementary School, located in Westwood Westwood, is remarkably quiet and orderly.
"I'm a detail-oriented, step-by-step person, and with that I like to think of all possible scenarios and put systems and operations in place to eliminate any potential problems," said principal Antonio Burt, who's now in his second year leading the school.
Before Burt took the helm in 2012, Ford Road Elementary was plagued by academic issues that had caused the school to fall into the bottom five percent of all elementary schools in the state of Tennessee, becoming one of 69 underperforming schools.
But instead of being turned over to the state's Achievement School District, Ford Road Elementary was among seven schools in the initial cohort placed in Shelby County Schools' Innovation Zone – a move that gave Burt more autonomy as an administrator, allowing him to hire new staff and implement his own practices.
"But with that comes a lot of accountability because you're under the microscope," Burt said.
During the 2012-13 school year, Ford Road saw a 20.3 percent increase in its scholars' math performance. Science performance increased by 26 percent, and reading and language arts saw a 6.6 percent gain.
The keys to the school's substantial gains are structured, strategic and deliberate. Burt said they were driven by five key levers: high-quality teaching and learning; a culture and climate committed to excellence; detailed and structured systems and operations; an aligned staff selected according to school needs and ideology; and personal leadership from staff.
Burt drew from his previous work experience as a teacher and administrator at schools in other urban communities in Shelby County. He's taught at Cypress and Ridgeway Middle School, as well as served as principal at Lester Elementary/Middle. In those schools, he became a champion for changing children's mindsets to make them believe in their own ability to succeed.
Visitor who step foot inside Ford Road can see the shift in culture. The main office displays the banners of top-tier colleges and universities such as Brown, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton and Yale. The slogan "Where dreams are fulfilled and excuses are eliminated" appears on banners in the school's hallway and bumper stickers in its parking lot – constant reminders of the school's can-do belief system.
Jeffrey Veale, who teaches third graders, said Ford Road students are surrounded by a positive team that really believes in them.
"They know that when they come here, everyone's rooting for them," said Veale.
Burt's "No Excuses" mantra, said Veale, applies to everyone – students, staff and administrators alike.
"He's going to give it to you like it is, but that's what's needed because we're here to do really important work," Veale said.
"As) teachers, we're models for our kids, and I feel like it's important that we have an administrator who's a model for our teachers."