A Conversation with Principal Billy Lewis

The front entrance of Belvidere High School, where Lewis has been principal for six years.

Belvidere High School Facebook

The front entrance of Belvidere High School, where Lewis has been principal for six years.

Jack Larson, Editor-in-Chief

Note: This interview was conducted and released prior to the Board of Education’s vote to remove Proficiency Based Grading from all District 100 schools starting in the 2022-23 school year.

Principal Billy Lewis has implemented many different strategies for school and student improvement during the past seven years at BHS.

Lewis’s work around the school has affected all students and faculty, but as the student body will always have questions about what’s happening at BHS, The Buccaneer’s editor Jack Larson had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Lewis in his office for a one-on-one interview Oct. 25 to talk about proficiency based grading, Empower, school culture, his biggest successes, his goals, and what he thinks needs to come next.

Jack Larson: Mr. Lewis, what do you think would be one of the most significant goals that you’ve been able to accomplish during your time here at BHS?

Principal Billy Lewis: I think the proudest moments are probably anything to do with achievement in school culture, school climate, or school pride. It’s hard to point to one thing, but I feel like that’s my role as a principal: to be the one that sets the tone, and to be kind of like the keeper of school culture. That’s the kind of thing I’m often talking about with teachers – the type of culture to create in their classrooms, and how they’re supposed to work with one another as teachers. Using different tools, like our circles in Buc club, we’ve been able to– like I said –reduce student discipline, suspensions, things like that. To answer your question, though. on what I’m most proud of, I think it would just be strengthening the culture, and making a more positive climate. We’ve been working to do that every single year. Then, going along with Buc pride, we’re following Mr. Sternquist’s lead on that. We want people to be proud to be here. We want them to be proud to put on the Belvidere uniform, and to walk through the Belvidere hallways. So, on the athletic side of things, that’s really a visible side of the school, so that’s why we celebrate that. That’s something we can be proud of: when our soccer team places third in conference, things like that.

JL: Do you think that a big part of our school’s cultural change and Buc pride can be attributed to Mr. Sternquist coming in? As a student, I think he’s made a big difference.

Lewis: Absolutely. I would agree. And he talks about it. He’s very proud of being from Belvidere, and returning home to Belvidere. We gave a tour to some alumni this weekend, and I was walking them around the building, and he came out and spoke with them. He’s creating a strong sense of community. He’s bringing in great coaches, and the coaches are creating great cultures within their teams. They’re following his lead.

JL: Going back to cultural improvement, Belvidere sets three core goals every year. The first, to have 90% of our freshmen being on track to graduate, then, 90% graduation rate, and our third goal of having half of our student body involved in extracurriculars. I believe that in 2018, we met the set goal for graduation rate-

Lewis: Yes, in 2018 we had a 93% graduation rate.

JL: Are we still meeting those goals, and if we’re not, would you mainly attribute that to COVID-19?

Lewis: That’s a big part of it. That was a unique year – 2018. There were 90-plus percent of freshmen on track for that class, so there is that correlation. Normally we’re mid- to low-80s both for freshmen on track and graduation rate. COVID definitely has taken its toll, and it’s made it harder for a lot of students and families. We’re trying to get smarter as a school, and we know that Empower is a learning curve for students, families, and staff. But Empower really gives us the right information, and then we can act quicker if kids are behind.

JL: You mentioned Empower. Personally, I think that Empower is neither here nor there, and I haven’t noticed a huge difference between (Empower) and Canvas. I can understand why we’ve put it in our learning system, but I feel like there’s been an overall negative response from students, about both Empower and PBG. Do you think that these complaints you’re seeing are mostly warranted, or that a lot of it is just students pointing fingers, just to put the blame on something?

Lewis: Good question. I want to answer that with a couple of different responses. Yes, I think some of the complaints are warranted because as a school system, we haven’t been as consistent with it, when we started off. With more training helping teachers understand it better, we will be more consistent. So, that’s what students may be experiencing: they may be getting told one thing in one class, and another thing in another class, but hopefully, that’s happening less and less. The second thing I would say is, I think this is a very hard push for students and teachers. But just looking at it from the student perspective, PBG – it can be harder to get the grade, because it’s not about getting as many points as possible, no matter how you get it, you have to perform at a high level on multiple skills in order to get the grade. Doing the hard part of our transition during a pandemic has been difficult. So, I definitely think that some of the complaints are warranted.  We’re working very hard to make sure that we are consistently executing on our end as a staff. But in the end, I think there’s a reason why all the research supports this move; for learning, we want to be able to measure the right stuff. What this exposes, is actually how wildly inconsistent traditional grading is among teachers. This is not (the) teachers’ fault. It’s just, in the traditional system, there’s not training on how to grade. If you don’t have training, and you don’t have common expectations, people are going to kind of do different things. Now the difference is, nobody could really see what those things were. You just had a percentage and you just had a grade. So transitioning to PBG kind of exposes just the wildly different ideas people had with grading, and now we’re trying to get people on the same page.

JL: Something in PBG this year, is I’ve seen in specific instances that the best possible grade you can achieve is a 1.5, or a 2.5; that may be the most confusing part.

Lewis went on to use an analogy referring to the Boy’s soccer regional championship game on Saturday, Oct. 23.

Lewis: So let’s talk about it in soccer. Everything that the boys were doing on Saturday was at a 3.0 level. Like, if you’re in a regional championship game, you can take skills like dribbling and passing, and shooting, and defending, and positioning, and put those together, and apply it. When you’re warming up, and just passing the ball back and forth to one another with no defender, without the setting of an actual game, that would be a 2.0 level or a 1.5 level, because they’re not even being tested at that 3.0 level. There’s no way that if I were grading you on your passing pre-game, there’s no way you can get a three because that’s just not the setting. That’s probably the best way I can explain it.

JL: That makes sense. I’ve just felt like it may need to be communicated a little more from teacher to student.

Lewis: So part of what we’re working on with that is to make sure that teachers have the same understanding amongst themselves of what a 3.0 is. Like if we give someone a task, are we calling that a 3.0, or a 2.0? Why would you call it a 3.0 – they’re just passing back and forth with no defense. These are the kind of conversations that we’re having, and to go back to what I said about the old system, they didn’t really have those conversations very much.

To switch up the conversation, we began to discuss student accomplishments over the course of the past seven years.

JL: Do you think you’ve seen an increase in student accomplishments over the time you’ve been here as a result of the culture generally improving?

Lewis: I would think so. We really try to celebrate them whenever they come up. Mr. Sternquist – I can give you a concrete response for this – he said that he expects us to have more all-conference athletes this fall than we did all of last year, so that’s kind of a tangible thing. Advanced Placement, we’ve increased that from like 20 tests taken to over 200 tests taken in the last five years; so there are definitely some examples that you can point to, where the system has grown.

JL: So you’ve had all these goals for now, what are some visions you have for the future and things that still need to be accomplished for school improvement?

Lewis: So, a couple things I would point to, I want to start with the athletic side of things. I want to see athletic participation continue to increase, success and pride continue to grow. There’s something called the all-sports trophy that the Rockford Register Star hands out; basically, they assign a school’s varsity team a number of points based on how they finished in the conference. So the first-place team in a sport will get 10 points. Whoever gets the most points wins the all-sports trophy. So every sport, and every placement matters. I want to see us climb in that. I think there would be exponential benefits in seeing us continue to grow in the all-sports standings.

Going to PBG, I think it’s incredibly important for us to see this through. I think we need to work through some of these kinks, and give it time to work. What we’re ultimately getting to, is we’re getting to a place where students graduate not because they just spent four years at a desk here; they graduate because they have proven that they can do a lot of really important things. That’s where we’re going. Part of proficiency based grading is helping kids move faster when they show they’re ready to move. If you want another analogy, let me show you something here.

I’ll give this to you, you can use this and refer to it.

He handed me an advertisement card from Dolphin Swim Club: A kid’s swim club in Loves Park.

So they’ve got different levels of swimmers. This is the most basic one (he points to the easiest swimming course.)  It’s about blowing bubbles, things like that. So if you as a student, if you should be here, but are placed here–

*He points toward the most difficult swimming course.*

What does that say? You need to swim 100 yards but you’re afraid of the water? You’re going to probably fail and give up. The reverse will be true if you should be here, (*he points at the highest difficulty again*) and I’m just telling you to blow bubbles in the water, you’re going to be bored out of your mind– and that’s kind of what the school system traditionally has been. So even if you’re ready for (the hardest class,) we would keep you (in an easier class) just because you’re seven years old.

JL: So is it all self-paced in a way?

Lewis: Self-paced with teaching. Teachers have a role, but that’s the ultimate vision. Everyone needs to learn these important things, so we can’t just say that because it’s the end of the year you’re ready to move on. We need a way to prove that you know what’s going on, and that’s what proficiency based grading does.

JL: Do you think that it’s clearly attainable to accomplish that – especially for teachers? They would have to put every student at their own pace.

Lewis: There’s ways to do it. One thing that we have to explore is the way our daily schedule looks. This daily schedule is not the most conducive to this kind of system, so that’s something we need to look at too.

JL: Do you mean going back to block scheduling or something like that?

Lewis: It could be block scheduling.

JL: Do you think it’s just teachers needing more time with the students?

Lewis: Well, yes. Because right now, they’re all trying to support 150 kids – one person – and that’s hard to do. You guys are trying to balance six or seven classes at once, six or seven people trying to explain different things, and different goals, different rules, and things like that. That’s a lot. So we know that the daily schedule is a big factor.

Some students around BHS also share the same opinion with Lewis, and some propose the same idea of block scheduling making a return.

The principal appears happy with the school’s overall cultural growth, but still stresses the importance of tackling the ideology of proficiency based grading and maintaining a rise in athletic participation.