Five years ago, our school undertook the monumental challenge of dedicating ourselves to a system which placed “Learning for All” at the forefront of our work. Donna Johnson, our assistant principal and special education coordinator, and I recognized from the beginning that this would require a substantial time commitment on our part to ensure we continued to move in the direction we envisioned in August of 2008. We both felt strongly that to ask our teachers to do something a specific way, it was imperative that we model these same behaviors and demonstrate that we were committed to this work ourselves.
Memorial School’s recent recognition by “allthingsplc” as an exemplar professional learning community reinforced that we were on the right track, but certainly did not signify the end of a journey. To us, it just suggested that our team-approach to addressing the ever-changing needs of students is sound in that it is adaptable and based upon what the multiple points of data we collect are telling us. I believe this is the salient point of highly functioning learning communities. They can adapt to the needs of the students at any given time while retaining the foundational traits which have made them successful.
The question many other administrators have asked me has been “Where do we start?” This is a question we asked ourselves. In hindsight, I believe it was important that we identified two specific areas that we would focus on.
1.) We would utilize Professional Learning Communities as the basis for all of our work. This would include the work we were going to do related to data analysis, the ongoing work with curriculum alignment, and the work of building assessments that pinpointed students’ needs.
2.) We would provide a tiered response to students who were not exhibiting the growth we would expect. Our model would respond to all student needs, whether through intervention or through enrichment.
I believe strongly that if we had focused on too much at once, we would not have realized the growth that we did (12% increase in reading scores in two years according to state assessments and 93%-100% proficiency in reading and math in grades 3-5 according to NWEA). We chose to start in one subject area (reading) and narrow our focus over time depending upon what the needs of students were. The key was getting all staff to understand what this focus was, include them as participants in the process of determining our needs as we moved forward as a school, and make the commitment to assess our work and respond in a timely manner.
Our entire staff has grown considerably as professional practitioners during this journey, as well. Data is not only NOT a “dirty word” anymore, but is now sought out by teachers hungry for more information. What was once a pile of numbers on the table is now a piece of the puzzle which can help a teacher dissect what is keeping a student from demonstrating growth and success. We have encouraged our staff to try various approaches when considering student learning needs. Teachers have developed their sense of autonomy based upon the success of action plans they have put into place. At other times, plans have not worked as predicted, but this is part of the learning process, as well. In fact, we may have learned more from these outcomes, as our educators have carried this knowledge with them moving forward.
I believe a true test of the strength of professional learning communities lies in a school’s ability to work vertically. We put this to the test, so to speak, within the last year. One of our school goals was to increase students’ writing proficiency based upon a common writing prompt. The activity was structured to collect a common writing sample from each student across all six grade levels. Teams were then responsible for collecting exemplars at each level of performance. These exemplars were posted on a wall within our school and analyzed by vertical teams comprised of a member from each grade level. The ensuing conversations spurred on some of our greatest collective discussions as a staff. A common understanding related to expectations and grade level proficiency resulted, and instruction at each grade level reflected this increased understanding.
This past fall we expanded the scope of this work and utilized a K-8 continuum for writing. Teams of teachers assessed each piece of writing, agreed on its level, and provided exemplars for each level that existed within the grade. We were then able to compare writing from different grades that were assessed as being on the same level. Again, the resulting dialogue was one that allowed teachers to better understand what students across all grade levels were able to do.
We look forward to where our journey will lead us from here. The work we do is never complete. Just this morning, the assistant principal and I were discussing the intricate needs of three particular students in our school. We were discussing at length what the programming for less than one percent of our school’s population entailed, how it could be improved, and how we were reporting their progress. This reinforces our belief that each child, every single one, deserves an education that is going to meet his/her needs, and create opportunities for them for success in the future.