Before Michael Randolph leaves Leesburg High School in central Florida each day, he opens the school’s social media accounts and posts a message and photos of something positive that happened that day at the 1,600-student school.
It's the best part of his day — every day. He's consistently posted positive notes every school day since the start of the 2019-20 school year.
"This has changed the entire trajectory of where we are as a school, and it's really just allowed us to celebrate our students, our staff and the community daily in a very open forum," Randolph said.
Called #180DaysOfJoy, the principal's mission of sharing daily recaps of awards won, connections made, accomplishments met and struggles overcome has become contagious. Teachers, students, families, community members and other schools are encouraged to share the best parts of their days, too, Randolph said.
The postings are a daily bright spot for the Title I school, which has been steadily improving its academic rigor, graduation rates and campus culture over the past six years, Randolph said — and data shows.
"I never leave my campus in a bad mood. I only leave my campus thinking about the best part of my day," Randolph said. "It really helped my mental health as well, because it doesn't matter what happens during the day. Before I leave, I reflect on the best part of my day, and then I send that out."
The road to improvement
Randolph became the school's principal in 2017 at a time when school morale and student expectations were low, said both Randolph and John Bell, a certified executive chef and culinary instructor at Leesburg High School.
Bell, who has taught at the school for 15 years with a one-year hiatus, said the school had a bad reputation when Randolph started. Academic outcomes were poor, absenteeism was high, and there were fights daily among students.
Now, it's "1,000 times better," Bell said. "There was a time where you'd be worried about everything that went on in school, which should never happen. We still have our moments, but nothing compared to what it was."
What changed, Randolph and Bell said, was a stronger focus on staff professional development, use of restorative approaches for disagreements, vigorous outreach for community partners and parent engagement, and a vigilant system for tracking academic progress.
The school raised graduation rates from 67.1% in 2017 to 86.3% in 2022, according to a district report card from the Florida Department of Education. Although the graduation rate slipped slightly in 2022 compared to 2021, the school awarded more students diplomas that year — 331 — than in any other point in the school's history, Randolph said.
The school's 2022 graduation rate, however, is slightly below the district and state average.
Leesburg has also raised the number of advanced classes and exams students take through Advanced Placement and Cambridge Assessment International Education work, Randolph said.
As a result, college credits earned by students have skyrocketed by 404% over the last six years, Randolph said. Last year, for example, students earned 1,272 college credits from passing scores on AP and Cambridge exams, which Randolph estimates is equivalent to $500,000 in college tuition credits.
"This has changed the entire trajectory of where we are as a school, and it's really just allowed us to celebrate our students, our staff and the community daily in a very open forum."
Principal of Leesburg High School
Randolph explains that Leesburg High School students are challenged to take at least one advanced course. "We affectionately tell our students, 'You either take it by your own choice, or we will have you take it before you leave,' because every student deserves that opportunity," Randolph said.
There is still much work to do, some data points show. Only 17.3% of students scored proficient or above in state reading assessments in the 2021-22 school year, and just 4.9% scored proficient and above in math, according to the Florida Education Department.
Promoting the progress
In addition to academic rigor, the school has added teacher supports, such as training in student academic engagement and grade-appropriate assignments. While those efforts have helped improve student outcomes, Randolph maintains that a collective and authentic belief that all students will achieve — "There's a difference between can and will," he said — is what fueled the climb to higher achievement at the school.
"You have to believe that our students will graduate regardless of our socioeconomic status, regardless of our Title I status," Randolph said. "That only tells you our students' needs. It does not have any impact on our students' aptitude."
By sharing positive news through the district's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, the school is also promoting its story of progress.
Randolph's favorite #180DaysOfJoy post is from Jan. 10, 2022, (Day 89) when he told one student, who had not been graduation-ready, that they earned three college credits by passing the Cambridge AICE general paper exam.
"The pride that he had on his face and he called his dad and, you know, we shed a tear and it was powerful," Randolph said, adding that the student later earned all the credits needed for graduation.
Day 105 - The best part of my day was checking in with our Performing Arts teachers today! We have so many talented students in our Jacket FAMILY and I am excited for our Spring performances! #ForTheFAMILY #180DaysofJoy https://t.co/Gf15jAYZ8G— Leesburg High School (@LeesburgJackets) February 6, 2023
Bell said Randolph's advocacy and the social media posts have led to invitations for his students to show off their culinary skills at community events. Other community connections have resulted from the attention the school receives by publicly sharing the academic and technical skills students are developing, he said. The school has also formed a National Technical Honor Society chapter.
"That's what he's built by that atmosphere," Bell said. "By supporting it, we are successful — all the kids. Not just the kid that's going to be the doctor, not just a kid that will probably go to college and do OK, but also the kid that will be a plumber, the kid that will be in construction."
The #180DaysOfJoy has motivated teachers and students to do better, he said. "It makes you feel good. The parents now feel good, and now everybody supports it and kids want to come" to school, Bell said.