The Principal's Office - Caruso Middle School

A blog by Dr. Brian Bullis, the principal of Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, Illinois. Upholding the CMS mission to Engage, Inspire, Empower, and Grow.

Caruso Middle School Honored

On November 6 and 7 in Washington D.C., Charles J. Caruso Middle School was officially honored with the 2017 National Blue Ribbon School designation.  Mrs. Suzanne Molloy, veteran Caruso teacher and instructional coach, joined me to represent CMS for this special award.  We were also joined by Kipling Elementary and Drs. Lubelfeld and McConnell.

How prestigious is this honor?  As Jason Botel, Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education pointed out, it is more difficult to earn this status than it is for a college athlete in almost any sport to turn professional.  Far less than 1% of schools across the nation are recognized each year.  It is not a perfect analogy, but it does communicate how special this honor is for a school community.

What comes next?  To continue our relentless pursuit to the meet the academic and social-emotional learning needs of all of our students.  We are humbled by this honor but we do not rest on our laurels.  At most, a school can only receive this recognition once every five years, however, we aim to be blue ribbon-worthy each and every year!  Thank you to all of our staff members, parents, students, and community members for promoting educational excellence at Charles J. Caruso Middle School!

We Believe We Can Cause Learning

There is a new number one in town – teacher collective efficacy.  According to John Hattie, in his most recent iteration of his massive meta-analyses synthesis, this category has a whopping effect size of 1.57 and tops the list of over 250 influences.   

What does teacher collective efficacy mean?  It means we believe we can cause learning.  It means a team of teachers believes that they add value through their actions by working together effectively.  More officially it means, “collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.” (Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004, p. 190)This idea seems simple at the surface level.  If you ask almost any teacher or team of teachers,  they would tell you that they make a positive impact on student learning.  But what about when the door closes?  What does a teacher tell themselves?  What does a team truly believe?  If the answer remains the same then a team is on the path to true teacher collective efficacy….and the learners reap the rewards.

Note that this is not a discussion about whether or not our students can attain achievement through our collective teacher efficacy.  Our job is to add value, add growth.  Many students have attained achievement standards for a grade level before they even walk into our classrooms on the first day while other students can get there not long after.  Other students may need more than one year’s time to reach grade level 


Identifying and replicating teacher teams with high collective efficacy is compounded by the fact that they are often humble in identifying themselves.  Ask a master teacher or team why they think their kids did so well.  The answers will include hard-working students, great parents, helpful resources, etc.  The question Hattie poses is “how often do teachers say the kids did well because of them?”  Answer: not often.  Teachers will increase their impact by owning their successes.  Educational leaders can also serve a role in curbing this humility and attributing success to teachers.  Let’s scale up these successes and promote the growth of an even larger number of teacher teams.

This area of research and many of the other top items in Hattie’s research are dominated by teacher expertise.  Hattie argues, rightfully so, that school systems do not do enough to prioritize this reality and put the spotlight on the teachers with the right expertise.  The reality is that we cannot choose the students we have, but we can select and/or develop the best teachers and teacher teams.  As teachers, we can aspire to maximize our time and functionality in professional learning communities and professional development and growth experiences.  As school leaders, we need to have the courage to identify teachers of expertise and build a coalition around them.

National Blue Ribbon Award Winner!

We are so excited to be recognized today as a National Blue Ribbon School Award recipient for 2017!  Below is our parent communication regarding this special honor.  Go CMS!!!  Also, a big thank you to our Blue Ribbon application authors:

Dear Caruso Families:

I’m excited to announce that your child attends a 2017 National Blue Ribbon School!  

It is with great pride that I share with you that in a ceremony today, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will name Charles J. Caruso Middle School a National Blue Ribbon School. If you are interested, you may watch the live stream of the announcement on the Department of Education’s youtube page –  The announcement will occur this afternoon at 1pm EST (noon our time).

We were first nominated by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to be considered for this national award. The ISBE’s nomination of Caruso as an “exemplary high performing school”  was based on measures of our student achievement. Next, we submitted an incredibly detailed application to the U.S. Department of Education that provided information about Caruso’s climate and culture, instruction and curriculum, assessments, professional development, leadership, and parent and community support.

Of the nearly 4,500 public schools in Illinois, we are 1 of 16 public schools to receive this prestigious honor in 2017. This is the second time Caruso Middle School has received this award; the first time was 33 years ago in 1984 when the school was called Wilmot Junior High.

I would like to thank the staff who served on the application team. It was an arduous process, and their hard work to tell the story of our school and our students was outstanding. Caruso Middle School would not have earned this award without their leadership.  Team members included:

  • Adriane Reisman
  • Anna Riddle
  • Barb Mastin
  • Carrie Schrader
  • Casey Wolfer
  • Dana Spies
  • Jana Wagner
  • Jenna Weiner
  • Jenn Gold
  • Jessica Jaksich
  • Julie Witczak
  • Kirk Humphreys
  • Matt Milazzo
  • Sarah Hogan
  • Sharron Richardson
  • Suzanne Molloy
  • Taryn Lehman
  • Tracy Markin

In November, Suzanne Molloy will join me in Washington D.C. to accept this award on behalf of our entire school community.

I also want to thank you, our Caruso families, for your key role in this honor.  You represent a long line of Caruso families that makes high quality education and engaging learning environments a priority.  We would not be a Blue Ribbon school if we didn’t have such caring and committed families.  Thank you for sharing your time, talents, and values with us to make Caruso Middle School one of the best in nation!



Top Ten Recognition! Lake County Attendance Week

We are excited to share that Caruso Middle School was recognized as a top ten school in Lake County for their annual Attendance Week!  Our attendance the week of September 11th was 97%.  Thank you to all of our families for promoting excellent attendance this week and throughout the year!!

Did you know that being absent more than two times a quarter can lead to chronic absenteeism?  Here is some further information from on how families can support excellent attendance!

Our CMS Facility Updates!

Now that the school year is in full swing we have also put the exclamation points on some great new building projects at CMS!  The summer always flies by and it is remarkable what our school board and buildings and grounds team can orchestrate in these few short weeks.

With the phenomenal support of our PTO and the Caruso school community, we have made major upgrades to our fitness room.  The PTO purchased high-quality cardio machines for our students.  The school and district contributed new flooring and video projectors to make this room an even greater resource for our PE classes and extracurriculars.

The school district has led the impressive renovation of our locker rooms.  The improvements include new lockers with built-in locks, the addition of changing stalls, updated water fountains, new storage spaces, new flooring, and updated staff offices.


In cooperation with the buildings and grounds department, Caruso Middle School has added new office furniture, carpeting, and paint to provide much-needed improvements to this space.


The school district and technology department has replaced our aging Promethean Boards with new high-resolution projectors and marker boards in our classrooms.  Among their features, these boards easily sync and airplay with our teacher-issued iPads for teacher and student use.

Additional features include new planters at the front of the building (teachers not included), new accessible sidewalk and ramped curb, and increased door security for the building.


We remain incredibly thankful and appreciative to educate in a community where such a high premium is placed on facilities and resources that postively impact student learning.

The SBL Journey Continues – Model Scholars

[This blog is the last part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

The stakes have been raised when it comes to honor roll recognition in our District 109 middle schools.

As principal, I am often conflicted when it comes to honor roll.  We always need to be careful of motivating students extrinsically as the behavior can be superficial.  One can easily counter that argument with the importance of a system which celebrates behaviors that we value, such as significant achievement in relation to academics and habits of success.  

Our standards-based learning committee made the decision to roll out two levels of honor roll in our new system – Model Scholar and Distinguished Model Scholar.

Model Scholar is awarded each semester to students who have demonstrated all “3s” (or “consistently demonstrates”) on their habits of success.  

Attaining Model Scholar status is no easy task as most students have eight classes, all of which report out on the same four habits of success standards.  That equals thirty-two marks that need to consistently demonstrate that they:

  • Respect others’ rights, feelings, and property
  • Follow directions
  • Complete assignments with attention to quality and punctuality
  • Exhibit effort, commitment, and perseverance

If a student turns in a “2” or a “1” on any of these thirty-two marks it precludes them from receiving honor roll recognition.

What I adore about the Model Scholar criteria is that we, for the first time in this way, are celebrating students who are doing all that we expect of them as students even if they cannot attain all of our high academic standards.  This should absolutely be celebrated and these behaviors will translate into invaluable life skills as they move forward.


Distinguished Model Scholar is awarded each semester to students who have met the criteria for Model Scholar and also have a letter grade of “A” in each of their courses for that semester.  Meeting these high standards certainly merits the descriptor of “distinguished” for a student who attains them any specific term.

If honor roll is something that is valued in a family it is important to remember that it all starts with a stellar performance on our habits of success criteria.  

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.


The SBL Journey Continues – Personalized Comments

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

The primary function of a report card is to serve as a communication device.  

Personalized comments on the report cards are one small, but important piece of this process.  We have specific expectations when it comes to the comments section of our report cards and we want these expectations to contribute to the communication occurring throughout the rest of the term.

Our semester report cards at the end of second and fourth quarter contain course summaries and personalized comments.  These personalized comments should include at least a couple of sentences that highlight a strength and an area for growth for each student.  The goal is to make these personalized comments unique to each student and provide meaningful feedback as they continue to grow.  Meanwhile, the course summary comments are similar or identical for all job-alike teachers at both middle schools and do not have any personalization (these are the only comments shared on first and third quarter progress reports).

Reports cards and progress reports should not stand alone in conveying information about the learning and growth of each student.  We want individualized communication to take place in multiple ways throughout the year so the teacher, student, and family can effectively partner together to promote student growth.   

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.

The SBL Journey Continues – Meeting Expectations Over Time

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

Picture a standard that is taught throughout the year.

In October, should a student earn a “3” for meeting expectations if they are progressing successfully towards that end of the year standard even if they have not yet attained it?  Should the student only receive a “1” or “2” (for not meeting expectations or approaching expectations) throughout the year until they show complete mastery of that standard in May?  

There is no perfectly correct answer here, but our district has chosen the former option and we report out on standards based upon where we believe students should be at different points in time.  Does this introduce the opportunity for more subjectivity?  Perhaps.  Does this do more to recognize and celebrate student growth and progress?  Yes.

This asks our teachers to constantly calibrate and recalibrate, but this was also happening in our traditional system, just with less visibility.  

One of our teachers suggested an intelligent way to approach this concept.  In our former traditional system and in our current standards-based systems we often use “I Can” statements, or some close equivalent, which identify objectives we expect students to learn during the class.  These statements are often benchmarks that progress students towards the ultimate standard we are trying to reach.  If they achieve the “I Can” expectation they are meeting growth expectations at that point in time.

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.

The SBL Journey Continues – Opportunities to Exceed

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

We have a high-achieving student body and there should be an observable correlation between the number of students that exceed expectations on our PARCC and MAP assessments and the number of students that achieve “4s” in their classroom performance.

Every student learns in differents ways and there will never be a perfect alignment between our assessment scores and classroom production.  That being said, we know our students can do remarkable things and we need to be sure to provide the opportunities for them to blow the ceiling off their grade level expectations.

After operating in a standards-based learning environment for several months I believe there are three primary ways that students can exceed expectations and earn a four.

Going Above and Beyond – going further than what the standard is asking a student to do.  This may be a student explaining, evaluating, synthesizing, or applying a standard in order to exceed the original expectation.  Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge levels are two frameworks that can help identify how learning may be extended.

Acceleration – moving to the next level of the standard.  This can more realistically be accomplished when the standards are linear in nature and may be more achievable in some courses compared to others.  For example, if a student masters a 6th-grade math standard and then works to master a 7th-grade standard that aligns with it.  The idea is that the standard should be the floor for all, but the ceiling for none.

Student input – teachers can listen to student input on how to exceed a standard.  Students may generate ideas that show how they can exceed the standard while also integrating their own passions, interests, and strengths.  This option should probably not be done in isolation, but instead paired with one or both of the above options as some students need more direction and guidance.

Should every single task, assignment, project, and assessment for every standard throughout the year have an opportunity for a “4?”  The answer is no; that would not necessarily be reasonable or achievable.  Should every strand in every course have multiple opportunities during the term to exceed expectations and provide the chance for a “4?”  Absolutely!  Our teachers are working hard on this as they learn how to further integrate opportunities to exceed expectations into their respective courses.  

The SBL Journey Continues – The Urgency of Two

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]  

When our task as educators is stripped down to its most simple form it is to get every student to meet or exceed expectations.  When a student is not on pace to achieve a “3” or a “4” on their strands for each class there should be a sense of urgency for the student, parent, and teacher.

As teachers, we want to be sure to communicate as soon as we believe a student is showing longitudinal evidence of earning a “2,” or a “1,” on their learning for a strand within a course.  This does not mean we hit the panic button if something below a “3” emerges on an assignment, formative assessment, or other worthwhile task.  A “2” represents “approaching expectations” and all of our students will live in that zone at some point in almost all of their learning.  

Time and frequency become important factors in determining when a “2” is significant.  If a student has worked on a strand over time and is consistently demonstrating learning that falls below the “3” range this communicates something important.

The next critical step is to identify what else can be done in order to get a student to meet expectations.  We encourage retakes and redos as one valuable step.  This does not mean to do the same thing over again and expect different results.  Instead, we want to engage in a process with the student where they are able to develop a plan with the teacher.  This plan should include the opportunity to engage in reflection, additional learning, and reassessment in order to launch them to that next level.

If anyone is communicating the message that “2s” are OK, that can be a true or a false statement.  It is certainly false when it becomes a representation of the body of work for any strand within a course.  We want every student to meet expectations and a sense of urgency should be triggered for all involved when that is not the case.

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.

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