As Principal Toni Stevenson walked out of a kindergarten classroom at South Creek Elementary School, a student walked right up to her with a giant smile on her face.

The girl stopped and proudly held out a slip of paper, beaming.

“I was being quiet in the hall!” she told Stevenson.

“Lauren!” Stevenson said excitedly. “Good job!”

Lauren tucked the slip of paper into a little mailbox outside her classroom door and returned to her teacher.

The brief exchange showed what Stevenson believes is a central part of the culture at Franklin Township’s South Creek — a focus on positive character traits to build community and school spirit. When students are seen being respectful or exemplifying another positive trait, they get a ticket. The more their class collects, the better shot they have at small prizes and schoolwide recognition.

Stevenson, who has been at the school six years, said this work — as well as renewed teacher collaboration, digging into student data, and a reduction in population that allowed everyone some room to breathe — has contributed to her school’s recent gains on the state ISTEP exam.

Find your school’s 2017 ISTEP scores here.

This year, the school’s scores shot up 15 percentage points to 80.6 percent of students passing English and math. South Creek, unlike many schools in Indianapolis, has demographics that historically correlate to high test scores — few students living in poverty, a majority of white students and relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs.

But the school’s previous state grade, a C, showed that about one-quarter of kids weren’t passing state tests, and even more worrying to Stevenson, students’ test scores weren’t improving. This year, that changed — the school received an A grade from the state and students advanced considerably.

Chalkbeat sat down with Stevenson recently to talk about her school’s progress. Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What was your reaction when you learned how much improvement you’d made this year?

I was ecstatic. People have different feelings about being recognized by grade, but I felt very happy.

What do you think made the difference?

The preceding year, 2015-16, we had always been an A school and we dropped to a C. When I had to tell our staff that we went from an A to a C, it was very emotional.

In (2015-16), we had 700 students in the building — we were just full. Everyone was just really exhausted. It felt like the teachers’ morale was going down. So last year, the district noticed how we need to re-balance. We lost about 10 teachers and 200 kids — it was bittersweet. After we lost those students and those teachers, we really focused on … How do we bring joy back into the classroom? No one is going to be happy if we’re not happy teaching.

We talked to all K-5 teachers. Just because you don’t have a test in the lower grades, it still contributes to what we do in the upper grades. Everyone talks about collaborating, but collaborating as a staff and as a grade level is not as easy as you read about.

Our teachers were always very good at what they did. I saw that when I did walk-throughs, but they were very timid in sharing what they did, even within grade levels. So our instructional coaches said, “I want to bring teachers in during prep and see what you are doing.” Nobody volunteered in the beginning.

Slowly, you saw that gradual change where the teachers were very proud opening up their classroom. You saw this ripple effect going through the school, and they opened up their classrooms, and they started sharing.

What is your school community and culture like?

We do not have a high (free and reduced-price lunch) population here. Do we have challenges? Of course we do. The parents’ expectations are so high here — it’s just really hard to explain if you aren’t working in that environment. If a child is not challenged or a child may be getting a B or the child may not have a good day — I mean, it’s a big deal. The expectations are really high and it’s been a little hard for some of our newer teachers. Parents aren’t hands-off here.

I attribute that (parental concern) to these intentional relationships that those teachers have with those parents. They know those families.

What is your approach to leadership?

I cannot do everything, and I’m not good at everything. So I really have to rely on the teachers and staff to contribute to what we want to do. This is your school, this is your work environment — everybody should want to be here and come work here.

(Teachers) need to be happy, just like the kids. I always tell them … I am not going into your classroom to catch you doing something wrong. I want to see all the great things you are doing.