Story 2: Off the Beaten Path: Professional Learning Community
Teachers and parents are often seen as blaming one another for students' lack of success in learning. At Deerfield Elementary, significant energy and effort was expended to fully involve parents in the life of the school. As a result, parents become an important school resource, helping to nurture the developing PLC through supervising classes, supporting instruction, and underscoring the importance of education to students.
On a fine fall day in Deerfield, the noises of children playing at recess waft through the windows, providing a cheerful background to the conversation of their teachers. Eight teachers, representing grades three through six at Deerfield Elementary School, are sharing their strategies for boosting the language skills of students. They are learning a special process—Structured Reflection Protocol—which is designed to facilitate their collective learning.
Half of the group discusses the samples of student work they have brought to the session. The other half, supplied with copies of these samples, listen intently as their colleagues discuss the strategies they’ve used. One teacher describes the way her “vocabulary bingo” strategy seems to keep her students interested and energized in learning. A second teacher shares how his students, after working math problems, are asked to write about their approach to solving the problems, using what he calls the “language of mathematics.” Yet a third teacher offers examples of “questions of the day,” written on the board at the beginning of class as a prompt for student writing.
When the facilitator calls time, the listening group gives feedback. They reflect to their colleagues the positive things they’ve heard, providing reasons why these strategies are likely to build language skills. Says one: “I really like bingo as a way to review vocabulary words. I think I could use this strategy in sixth grade as well; it would make it more interesting than the same old flashcards.”
After this “warm” feedback, the “listeners” offer suggestions in the form of questions. One queries, “In the bingo game, have you considered letting the students choose the vocabulary words, find the definitions in the dictionary, and teach each other?” Another wonders aloud, “What would happen if the students were to talk in small groups after they write their response to the question of the day? I think the opportunity to discuss in small groups makes it more likely that everyone will talk...and how better to develop language than to use it in speech?” The dialogue continues, in this structured way, until the students return and classes resume.
Twice a month, teachers in this small school use Structured Reflection Protocol to reflect upon the lessons they teach; their students’ performance on assigned work; and ways to make that work more meaningful, engaging, and targeted to the objectives identified by the State Board of Education. They have found a way to share ideas with one another—to keep their teaching fresh. Unfortunately, this is not the norm throughout their school district.
In the context of such a culture, Deerfield Elementary School stands out as a clear exception to the expected and seemingly accepted poor performance of schools in this part of Appalachia. What has made the difference?
Indeed, in May 2000, the county school system was found to be out of compliance by the State Board of Education. Despite concerted efforts to bring about change, the school system had been unable to correct a satisfactory number of the more than 200 violations found throughout the county’s schools. The visiting state-appointed personnel ultimately recommended what has come to be called a “take-over” of the district by the state. Such take-overs had occurred previously in two neighboring counties in the southern part of the state, an area rife with political corruption and poverty.
This grim picture—of hopelessly poor physical facilities; of disheartened teachers with few expectations for low-achieving students who live up the “hollers,” far from paved roads—and farther still from productive, positive role models; and of students who, to be financially successful, aspire to a college education which will inevitably take them away from their home community, which grows steadily older, poorer, and less skilled in their absence—can be found in many poor rural school districts throughout Appalachia, where schools offer the best-paying jobs in the community and consequently attract political patronage throughout the system.
In the context of such a culture, Deerfield Elementary School stands out as a clear exception to the expected and seemingly accepted poor performance of schools in this part of Appalachia. What has made the difference? What has prompted this little school to be noticeably different and notably intolerant of low standards? How have they come to develop the characteristics defined by Hord (1997) as a Professional Learning Community (PLC) in a school district where schools lack a focus on continuous improvement and tend to stay with the status quo?
Over the last nine years, Deerfield has benefited from the strong leadership of Henrietta Atkinson, a determined principal with a clear and unwavering vision that precludes her students’ falling into hopelessness and unemployment—an experience which is all too common in this community. Henrietta has found ways to bring time, training, and program resources to Deerfield Elementary through partnerships with outside agencies and the writing of several successful grants. Finally, through the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) project of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), Deerfield has focused on helping all teachers share practice.
The School: Basic Demographics
219 students attend Deerfield, in preschool through grade 6; 83% of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The attendance rate was 94% during the 97-98 school year; few children move in and out of the school district. Twelve percent of students qualify for special education services, excluding communication disorders—a primary deficit of this population; an additional 15% qualify for speech and communication-related services. Compared to other schools in the district, Deerfield scores relatively high on Stanford 9, the state’s standardized test. Only nine percent of the students at Deerfield scored in the bottom quartile of the Stanford 9 at the conclusion of the 97-98 school year; an additional 20% scored in the second quartile.
Deerfield is a typical Appalachian community: small and rural, with coal figuring prominently in its past and present. The nearest four-lane highway is about 10 miles and 30 minutes away; one two-lane road leads into and out of the town, curving over and around hills. The entire population in this area of the county is white; many residents are unemployed or working in low-paying service industry jobs. Nearly one-third (28.2%) of the families in this county are on welfare. It is estimated that nearly half (45%) of the children in this county live in poverty. Of the adults living in Deerfield and its county, only 49 percent have high school diplomas; an estimated five percent have completed a college education.
Twenty-seven adults are employed at the school. One principal, 15 teachers (including one speech therapist, two special education teachers, and one Title I teacher), five service personnel and three cooks comprise the faculty and staff. Deerfield’s teachers were already experienced when the PLC project began in 1998: all had taught for more than six years and nearly half for more than 15 years. Slightly over half of the professional staff had a masters degree. Most of the Deerfield staff had worked for their entire professional lives at this school, so they and their families are well known to one another. Because of the community’s small size, many are related. For example, two pairs of sisters and one husband and wife were on the faculty in 1998; others are cousins or good friends.
School Improvement: A Brief History
Bringing Parents into Partnership
In 1990, Henrietta Atkinson read the discouraging statistic that 45 percent of children in her rural county lived in poverty—an increase of 56 percent over the preceding 10 years. The probability was very high that these children would live in poverty as adults, and would raise their own children in poverty as well. One year later, Henrietta became principal of Deerfield Elementary School.
On any given day at Deerfield, parents and grandparents gather in the welcoming Family Center—a converted classroom that doubles as a teachers’ lunchroom so that parents and teachers are in constant proximity. These family members contributed more than 12,000 volunteer hours in the school last year.
Henrietta committed herself to doing everything she could to help break this damaging cycle that claimed the lives of so many young people in her community. She understood that improved instruction was an important tool to give children an achievement boost, and she introduced rigorous and challenging staff development to all professionals in the school. But she also understood the importance of involving the families and the greater community in creating hopeful futures for her students.
In some respects, school reform at Deerfield began with a paradigm shift about parents and their involvement. Henrietta discovered the Institute for Responsive Education (IRE); Deerfield became a partner school. IRE encouraged parental involvement; they introduced the school to action research as a way to conduct staff development; they sponsored professional development for some of the staff to travel to Boston. (This experience of travel, in and of itself, broadened teachers’ vision for their students!) The results of the IRE partnership can still be seen.
On any given day at Deerfield, parents and grandparents gather in the welcoming Family Center—a converted classroom that doubles as a teachers’ lunchroom so that parents and teachers are in constant proximity. These family members contributed more than 12,000 volunteer hours in the school last year. In this rural, economically-disadvantaged community, a parent or family member of 98% of the students was in the school building sometime during the year—primarily because of intentional efforts to hold inviting events, such as talent shows, after-school fishing, dinners, and square dances. Home visits are made to hard-to-reach parents.
Teachers at Deerfield have telephones in their classrooms to enable two-way communication with parents. An innovative “telephone tree” ensures that every family receives a monthly call or visit from a parent volunteer to advise them of upcoming events and to solicit their suggestions. Parents serve on the Local School Improvement Council and on every school committee; their voice is heard before decisions are made. A U. S. Office of Education-sponsored website features Deerfield and focuses on its innovative and successful efforts at involving families in their children’s education.
Whatever it Takes
Monies from a variety of sources allow a preschool program to serve three- and four-year-olds in the community; home visits to be made during and after pregnancy to targeted families; a local dentist to provide dental screenings at the school. A partnership with a Minnesota-based religious organization provides youth volunteers to help residents with house cleaning and repairs. Through the adoption of MicroSociety, children in this K-6 school are learning how to function as entrepreneurs, employees, legislators, law-enforcement officials, judges, and other productive members of this school’s functioning society. The recent funding of a 21st Century Community Learning Center provides an after-school and summer program that keeps children engaged in academic enrichment and remediation—including basic reading and math, hands-on science, and creative writing—as well as courses in recreation and arts that include traditional sports (basketball, baseball, and football), karate, gymnastics, piano, arts and crafts, etc.
The school works with other community agencies and has partnerships with a local lumber company, a regional health systems provider, and a community outreach program. One particularly successful partnership has been with a nonprofit organization in the community funded by the Kellogg Foundation. With assistance from one of the organization’s staff, Henrietta has written several grants that have been funded to allow the school to offer services and programs, including those mentioned above. Through the regional educational laboratory, AEL, in Charleston, WV, Deerfield is a part of the Quest project for continuous school improvement; with Co-Developer Sattes of AEL, Deerfield is part of SEDL’s project for PLC.
Deerfield’s Professional Learning Community
Shared and Supportive Leadership
As part of the PLC project, four Deerfield teachers were interviewed about each of the five components of a professional learning community. These teachers were quick to acknowledge their principal as a dynamic leader. “The key to a good school is the leadership” and “the principal is the key” were two of their statements. Two teachers reported that Henrietta is good at “delegating duties,” sharing leadership. But clearly, this is a principal who acknowledges the expertise of the teaching staff and develops leadership among her teaching staff. “All of us are leaders in our own right,” said one of the
“Henrietta always asks, ‘Is this what’s best for kids?’ The more we researched the program, the more we decided it would help the students and so Henrietta agreed to give it a try.”
Important school decisions are made by Deerfield’s faculty senate. Faculty senates at many schools meet solely because of state mandates to do so. In contrast, the Deerfield faculty senate is a strong and functional decision-making group. “She’s just one of the team when we’re making decisions.” Said one teacher of their principal. “She gets just one vote.” One teacher shared that at faculty senate, everybody is free to give his or her opinion. “We talk things out.” Interestingly, in their examples, it was clear that data drive their decisions: “We look at test scores” to make decisions.
Henrietta draws on her teachers to be leaders in creating change. Two teachers shared the story of how MicroSociety, a mainstay at the school today, came to be introduced to Deerfield. They recalled that two of their staff had attended a workshop and had come back to school filled with enthusiasm for the power of this new program. Henrietta was initially reluctant to try something so different. But, this teacher reported, “Henrietta always asks, ‘Is this what’s best for kids?’ The more we researched the program, the more we decided it would help the students and so Henrietta agreed to give it a try.” A third teacher cited the example of the new grade card to illustrate Henrietta’s willingness to allow teachers to lead. “We decided to change things three to four years ago,” the teacher reported. The new grade card—developed by the faculty—is skill-based. With Henrietta’s support, the faculty senate applied for—and received—a waiver from the state for this new way of reporting progress to parents.
As a school leader, Henrietta shares decision-making through several formal and informal strategies. The Local School Improvement Council (LSIC) is established by state law to include the principal, two elected teacher representatives, an elected parent, an elected support staff member, and one invited community representative. The council is active in helping to plan school improvement efforts at the school. At a retreat in the spring of 1999—partially funded by a grant from community partners and partially from the central office—the LSIC joined with the Quest team and students representing the student body to review achievement test data; surveys of teachers and parents; and the results of focus groups with parents, students, and community members. They utilized processes learned from AEL to engage all members of the school community. To hear them tell it, data were disaggregated and posted all over the walls of their retreat setting; they took their task seriously and accomplished a great deal. With these data on hand, they established goals and developed a school improvement plan to help them achieve those goals.
The Faculty Senate meets for a half-day every month. Agendas are established by the faculty senate chair, in collaboration with other members. Additionally, Deerfield has an active Curriculum Team, Technology Team, MicroSociety Advisory Committee, and other committees that are established as needed.
Shared Values and Vision
The staff at Deerfield know what’s important and can talk about their shared vision. “Teaching isn’t a profession for us; it’s our life.” “We’re educating the future of the world”—and that’s important. In response to the question, “What’s important around here?” one teacher said unhesitatingly, “the children.”
“We ask ourselves, ‘Have we tried everything we can to teach in the most modern and most effective ways possible?’” Staff look at test data, disaggregating scores and focusing on the bottom quartile of students. There is a “lot of reflecting here. We ask ‘why?’ if students don’t achieve.” As an example of the results of these kinds of discussions, Deerfield staff have divided the students into skill groups so that, for example, the math teacher can work intensively with the six or seven students with the greatest needs in math two days a week in a small group setting.
The culture of the school seems to be that failure is not an option. Every child is expected to succeed and the staff does everything in their power to ensure success. One teacher described the school’s vision as having evolved beyond students—to now include the parents and community of Deerfield. All four teachers that were interviewed mentioned the school’s partnership with parents in discussing the school’s vision. They seem to understand that the school can’t “do it alone” and they have focused their efforts on engaging the home, providing preschool enrichment activities for children, and changing the way the community views academic success.
“Parents are more confident; you can see it in them.” One teacher described their community of parents as “somewhat backward” but “now many have jobs and are willing to get out in the world of work, with self-confidence.” Parents serve on every committee and help make decisions; they are “an integral part of our school.” “If you’re really going to effect children, you have to start in the home...helping parents become life-long learners.”
The culture of the school seems to be that failure is not an option. Every child is expected to succeed and the staff does everything in their power to ensure success. One teacher described the school’s vision as having evolved beyond students—to now include the parents and community of Deerfield.
This focus on “life-long learning” was expressed by two of the four teachers. One told a poignant story that the students, as a part of MicroSociety, had to decide whether or not there would be a welfare system in their school’s society. Students resoundingly voted “no,” which seemed to validate movement beyond the historic and economic limits of their community.
When asked, “What is the vision for improvement?” one teacher responded, “Change is constant. It’s almost addictive.” Teachers are working to make learning relevant and meaningful: to help students learn. They will never “be there.” They’ll always be learning how to do it better. Clearly, Deerfield is a school where teachers know that change is a way of life. “We have taken on so much for the last five or six years. But there is so much to do; we need to keep working,” shared one teacher.
Henrietta recognizes that “you can’t force people to do what you want them to do” but she knows that you have to be willing to try new things to make progress. She hopes that, through teachers’ leadership, other teachers will see the value and the power of innovations. Two of the teachers talked about “risk-taking” as the norm at Deerfield as they said the following: “We have the freedom to take risks;” “we have learned being a risk-taker is important;” and risk-taking is “the same philosophy we try to get over to our kids.” It’s continuous improvement as a mind-set. “We’re still making changes and we’ll continue to do that,” was the way one teacher summed up life at Deerfield.
Collective Learning and Application
When asked to “tell about how the staff comes together to learn,” one teacher said, “we are in a constant state of learning—after school, during faculty senate and staff development days, wherever necessary.” The teachers clearly believe that this is a community where “learning” is valued. “We learn together every month at the faculty senate and professional development day.”
“The QUILT program was different for us. We sent a team of three people, three of whom had never had a leadership position in the school. They came back and led the training for the whole faculty. And they did a great job.” We’re “now taping each teacher in their classroom, so they can review what they’ve done, set goals and tape another time to compare their progress.”
Many opportunities exist for teachers to attend workshops. One teacher talked about the experience of another teacher bringing back what they had learned to the rest of the staff. “It’s an expectation. You share and show them what you’ve learned.” Last year, a group of 21 teachers and parents went to San Francisco to attend a conference on MicroSociety. This feat is amazing for a small, rural school in Appalachia.
“Traveling gives us the opportunity to socialize with one another” and to learn more from one another.
All four teachers that were interviewed mentioned the many different venues for learning together, and all four made specific mention of the protocol process, a new practice introduced to the school in the fall of 1999. Structured Reflection Protocol is done in team meeting once or twice every month. “Protocol is very useful in reflecting on student work and techniques. We bring in examples of student work and give warm and cool feedback.” Teachers believe that protocol gives teachers an opportunity to learn from one another. There is also evidence that teachers are using what they learn—in the next meeting, a teacher gives an example of something learned in the last protocol session.
Another common denominator among all four teachers was a reference to the QUILT program.“The QUILT program was different for us. We sent a team of three people, three of whom had never had a leadership position in the school. They came back and led the training for the whole faculty. And they did a great job.” We’re “now taping each teacher in their classroom, so they can review what they’ve done, set goals and tape another time to compare their progress.”
One teacher acknowledged the value of a connection to an outside agency. The Institute for Responsive Education (IRE) helped them focus on parent involvement and action research. AEL’s Quest network puts them in touch with other schools—they share information and visit with one another. Through AEL they also learned about the QUILT staff development program. Their involvement with SEDL stretches staff development even further, into the Professional Learning Community.
When asked how staff determined what they wanted to learn, one teacher responded, “Writing skills were down. We decided to work on that area through protocol.” Another teacher shared that they compile surveys to decide what to study. “The state came up with a list of ‘good strategies’ and we asked teachers to rank how comfortable they were with each. We geared our staff development to those areas. For example, cooperative learning was one that people were not comfortable with. We formed a study group, read a book, had a one-day in-service on the topic, and observed one another.”
One teacher specifically mentioned the value of learning together through team meetings. “We decided to target the fourth grade group and give them consistency for three years.” Students have the same teacher for three years (fourth through sixth grades.) This team approach to instruction has paid off in higher achievement test scores.
At the beginning of their involvement with AEL and SEDL, the staff were somewhat divided. A core group of five or six teachers (who might be called “innovators”) were Henrietta’s strong supporters and willing to continuously improve their practice for the benefit of kids. Then there was a small group of “resistors.” This small group (one of whom filed several grievances and wrote anonymous letters to the state board of education complaining about the principal) actively resisted any attempts to change the school or do things differently from what they had known for 40 years as “good schooling.” The rest of the staff were “in the middle.” They were active supporters of the principal but less interested and engaged in changing their practice.
Because the “core supporters” were also very good friends of or relatives of the principal, these divisions had the potential to cause a serious rift among school staff. In this poor, rural county—where “politics” is commonplace—this grouping was especially troublesome. In leadership meetings with Henrietta and the SEDL Co-Developer, we talked openly about this problem. Identifying it seemed to help address it.
Henrietta worked diligently to make sure that not just the “innovators” were using new and effective teaching strategies—but that all teachers had the opportunity to learn together, and understood the expectations for high performance and continuous improvement. Henrietta believes in meeting folks where they are, in holding high expectations for performance, in pushing when necessary; but she also understands that change can’t be “forced” on teachers. Many of the desired changes in teaching must come from a personal commitment on the part of individual teachers.
It is clear that the principal understands her responsibility to support her faculty by finding adequate resources. Grant-writing has yielded additional financial resources for after-school help for students, supplies, training, and travel. The faculty appear to have sufficient time available to them for collective learning. Once a month, they have a half-day for state-required faculty senate meetings. All members of the faculty participate in this decision-making body. The chair of this group, by state law, is selected by the faculty. Examples of new business under discussion at one faculty senate meeting included: plans for Family Learning Night, to which all parents are invited and at which dinner and child care is provided; Life Skills Training, for which two volunteers were recruited to attend and report back to the faculty; plans to submit a waiver to the state board of education related to a new grade card they have developed to more clearly communicate with parents about student progress; and update about the protocol process and how it is to be implemented by grade level teams.
To the observer, a pleasant atmosphere exists during meetings; it was casual, with some joking, but clearly the business was serious. At one point, someone asked for the “talking stick” so it seems they have procedures to allow talking without interruption; these procedures are not needed or used consistently, but are available and used “as needed.”
The second half-day of that monthly time is for professional development. The staff at Deerfield use that time for a variety of purposes. Teachers have input into the content, although often at least part of the agenda is required by the central office administration.
In addition, the principal has arranged for time to be available to two sub-groups within the school. The nine teachers in the lower grades (preschool through third) have opportunity to meet for an hour before lunch and the six teachers in the upper grades (fourth through sixth) have a similar time immediately after. These “planning teams” are required to meet for 30 minutes twice a week.
Whole school meeting time can be arranged periodically by utilizing the parent volunteers. If more time is required, Henrietta arranges for parents (and often herself) to cover the students. In the search for more time as an entire faculty, the faculty senate approved a plan for an hour every week. Henrietta has requested early dismissal of the students every Friday for 30 minutes. Teachers would “donate” an additional 30 minutes, giving one full hour of whole-staff time to work together. When asked what structures support collective learning, teachers mentioned the protocol process, leadership, and time to meet. “Henrietta frees us up to meet during the day.” Sometimes Henrietta takes the whole school, with help from parent volunteers, so that teachers can meet and learn together. “Not many principals would do that.”
Clearly relationships are important in this school. One teacher acknowledged that the close-knit community was a structure that supported learning together. “We went to school together and have taught together all these years. We live together in the community. We have a common bond—wanting to do what’s best for the kids.” Staff are comfortable speaking their minds because they know one another so well. This teacher described his colleagues as having “open minds” to try new things, and he identified this trait as a supportive condition. “I’ll try it; if it doesn’t work, I’ll try it again; you never know, it might work well.”
Different teachers were mentioned as being inspirations to other teachers. No single teacher stands out; evidently all have a role in leadership in this school. In one interview, a teacher identified a specific teacher who had helped her “grow and evolve.” She was able to take more chances because the two are friends outside of school. The principal was identified as key to promoting this “being together” attitude. She communicates well and clearly. “You’re just as good as your leader,” said one teacher, and “she’s very good!”
Shared Personal Practice
This area is the one in which Deerfield was the weakest on their first administration of the PLC instrument. It may also be the area in which there has been the most growth and development. When asked if staff shares their practice (through classroom observations, for example) one teacher responded, “I do it all the time.” She related that a new teacher in the school had brought in lots of new ideas. “When I was assigned to teach at a different grade level, I wanted to observe, so Henrietta arranged for a substitute for me.”
All four teachers who were interviewed mentioned that the structured reflection protocol process was a way for them to talk about what they did—all the while, looking at student work. “I’ve seen some attitude changes since we started it.” Evidently the most reluctant teacher has even begun to feel comfortable with the protocol process. “We have a wealth of knowledge. If we can share that knowledge, we’ll all be enriched.” QUILT was also mentioned as an important way for them to get into one another’s classrooms on a regular basis.
Deerfield faculty seem to be aware that observation is a good thing, but they still don’t do it regularly or systematically. “We need to do it more.” They are taping their own classrooms to watch and give themselves feedback. This is a first step toward having a partner come into their class to observe. Teachers also recognized that lots of informal sharing occurs regularly. “Little things happen all over the school” as there is sharing during committee meetings.
This is the an area of the five PLC areas in which Deerfield teachers talked about things being different now—an area in which they can identify change. “This is different definitely. It’s a good change.” They saw value, but they also recognized that they don’t yet share and observe as much as they have the opportunity to—or as much as they believe would be good. “Teachers have good things to share and problems that stump them.” Sharing personal practice has been an intentional difference at the school; teachers are aware of the effort to make this change. “We’ve always done that, but it’s different now. It used to be more individualized. It has changed dramatically. We come together as a whole staff. That’s the big difference.”
Schools must acknowledge contextual influences as they develop school improvement initiatives. Co-Developer Beth Sattes is painfully aware of the social, cultural, and economic context in which this Appalachian school struggles. What factors help Deerfield Elementary to acknowledge this context, without making contextual factors into excuses for students' lack of success? What lessons can be drawn from the work of Co-Developer Beth Sattes, Principal Henrietta Atkinson, and the Deerfield story? What other school districts and regions might benefit most from these lessons?
Ricki Chapman sees her Co-Developer role as providing the external resources to facilitate growth and improvement at her partner school. At Deerfield Elementary, Principal Henrietta Atkinson plays a similar role establishing business partnerships, writing grant proposals, etc. In Ruth Hinson's story, the development of a grant proposal helps to instigate school change, and is an important experience of collective learning for the leadership team. As schools struggle to find resources, should more attention be given to bringing these kinds of activities into individual schools? Do teachers have a role to play in developing resources for their school?
Leadership Teams are critical to PLC development in several of the stories found here, including Ruth Hinson's, Kris Hipp's, and Jane Huffman's. Should leadership teams be mandated, as they are in some states? Are leadership teams the best or the first embodiment of shared leadership within a fledgling professional learning community?
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