by Jane B. Huffman

Story 4: Northland Elementary - A Learning Experience for All

Shared leadership is one of five defining characteristics of professional learning communities. At Northland Elementary, support for shared leadership allowed for individual growth and professional development of the principal and a teacher-leader, and expanded responsibilities for the Campus Leadership Team.

When Northland Elementary’s students and patrons walk in the front door, they read a banner proclaiming, “Northland Elementary—A Great Place to Grow.” This slogan promises the opportunity for all participants—students, staff, faculty, and patrons—to learn and grow. Northland has worked to make good on this promise for some time now. The opportunity provided by Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL), for Northland staff to work toward developing a professional learning community (PLC) in their school, instigated further growth and change among school leaders at every level. This story recounts the journeys taken by principal Grayson Dawson, the Campus Leadership Team (CLT), and PLC project teacher-leader Heather Holton during their involvement in the PLC project.

The School

 Northland Elementary, a K- 5 school located in a city with a population of 90,000, is located within 30 miles of two major southern cities. The city has two large universities and serves as a central service center for the northern part of the state. The school was built in 1973 and operates with an alternative calendar that serves students year round. The student community is 50% Hispanic, 38% white, 11% African-American, and 2% other. Students’ families are mostly low-income semiskilled and unskilled laborers. Most of the parents have acquired a high school diploma. In the school, there are 42 certified staff, 10 paraprofessionals, and 10 support personnel. Sixteen percent of the staff is male, and 84% are female. In the ethnicity category, 61% of the staff are white, 30% are Hispanic, and 9% are African-American. Twenty-one percent of the staff have master’s degrees. Twenty-two staff members have 0-10 years teaching experience. Twelve teachers have taught at Northland more than 11 years, and fifteen teachers are in their first or second year of teaching.

Principal Leadership

“We [faculty] should be concerned about speaking the same language and having the same focus. We should continually be recharging a sense of community. We must remind ourselves what our focus is. We should provide support and staff development.”

Grayson Dawson had worked at Northland Elementary for fourteen years when the PLC project began in 1998. He had served as assistant principal for several years before being selected for the principalship. He characterizes his early leadership style as control-oriented and rigid in regard to rules and regulations. While district and state standards categorized him as an effective principal, Grayson sought to gain additional leadership knowledge, and in so doing, more successfully address the complex problems and situations he and the school were facing during the early and mid-1990’s. Also, as the state mandated site-based decision making for each school, his leadership style changed to reflect these new behaviors and expectations. He began to view his role as that of a facilitator of organizational development and effective decision-making.
Grayson’s interest in personal growth and flexibility in leadership style paved the way for a Campus Leadership Team able and willing to consider progressive and collaborative educational initiatives. Their growth and learning activities were made possible and enhanced by the forward-looking attitudes and skills of Grayson. While the overall direction and final responsibility for the school accountability measures rested with the principal, important operational, financial, and curricular decisions were made by the CLT, which was chaired and facilitated by Grayson.

In 1998, even though his initial response to the PLC project was positive, Grayson’s attitude was guarded and somewhat hesitant. He respected the faculty and regarded their opinions highly—his concerns about PLC centered on the faculty’s need to be included in and consulted about major school initiatives. As the PLC project proved to be an effective vehicle for facilitating input from the CLT and the faculty as a whole, the initiative gained Grayson’s unmitigated support.

Throughout the PLC project, Grayson provided focused direction and consistent messages for his faculty. In the fall of 1999, he offered the faculty this challenge: “We [faculty] should be concerned about speaking the same language and having the same focus. We should continually be recharging a sense of community. We must remind ourselves what our focus is. We should provide support and staff development.”

Faculty Leadership

Northland’s journey toward school improvement began in the early 1990’s, when the CLT initiated a discussion to determine a unifying instructional focus for the school. During the deliberations, the team considered a variety of concepts and plans, finally adopting learning styles as the instructional focus for the school. As a result of this research and decision-making process, Northland faculty and staff developed clear communication procedures and organizational practices that allowed for participative decision-making during the early 1990s. These steps formed a strong foundation for the PLC project.

The results confirmed the strengths of Northland’s professional community, especially in the areas of shared leadership and collective learning. The results also helped the faculty decide on two dimensions—shared personal practice and shared values and vision—for more focused efforts.

During the 1992-93 school year the faculty studied the possibility of a “Year Round School.” A task force was formed and study groups explored the research. The district approved a pilot for implementation of an extended calendar. A proposal was developed in 1993 by the CLT and meetings were held with faculty and parents to get feedback and suggestions. In July of 1994 the school started its first year on the new “Alternative Calendar,” and during the following years there have been several reviews of the program. Recognizing the benefits of the pilot program, in 1997 the school board voted to establish the calendar as a regular program for Northland. This initiative contributed to the development of a feeling of empowerment for faculty and staff.

The SEDL PLC project thus fit easily into an existing structure of review and reform. In 1998, the first year of the SEDL project, the Northland staff re-considered their focus and strategies by responding to Hord’s (1997) PLC questionnaire. This questionnaire posed questions organized around the five PLC dimensions: shared leadership, shared values and vision, collective learning, shared personal practice, and supportive conditions. The results confirmed the strengths of Northland’s professional community, especially in the areas of shared leadership and collective learning. The results also helped the faculty decide on two dimensions—shared personal practice and shared values and vision—for more focused efforts.

As a means of strengthening shared personal practice, the staff requested more time to observe each other’s classes in order to increase individual and organizational capacity. They also wanted to visit other schools as needed. Grayson offered support and substitutes to cover their classes. While these visits provided some experience of shared practice, faculty quickly realized the limitations they faced without a systematic way to share the information gained in one another’s classrooms. They have had the opportunity to visit about student work in the tutoring time after school, but again, there was no formalized method to accomplish this. Staff realized they needed to discover alternative ways to share practice and personal relevant knowledge.

Faculty have recently requested more time and opportunities during the school day to meet in grade level teams for long-range planning. A proposal for three early release days for common planning has been discussed. If this is accomplished, it will certainly provide time for Northland faculty to continue their efforts in strengthening communication and curriculum alignment.

The other identified focus area was shared values and vision. The staff felt they needed to revisit the existing vision to identify what was needed to achieve high quality learning experiences for all students. This exploration of vision developed quickly into action. The faculty instigated a Saturday School to address students’ need for more study time, and to assist students in developing knowledge and skills for the state test. A committee of teachers developed a structure, curriculum and instructional strategies for a four-week program that would assist student who volunteered to attend. These teachers also staffed the four Saturday mornings. In the second year, this program resulted in student improvement on the state test. Perhaps more importantly, teachers felt empowered by their experience of making a clear difference in student achievement.

Individual Leadership

Heather Holton, the PLC teacher-leader, had seven years’ experience teaching fifth grade science and math when the PLC initiative began. Heather was also completing her masters and certification in Educational Administration, and was interested in the PLC project as a means of gaining experience in administration and school reform efforts. An important learning opportunity for Heather occurred during the 1999 summer SEDL meeting. After journeying with me to the SEDL conference, Heather returned to Northland and proposed to Grayson and the CLT a more formal induction and mentoring program for the new teachers. Heather saw this program as an effective means of communicating and reinforcing school vision. When the
proposal was accepted, Heather took responsibility for program development.

This program has provided new teachers a clearer understanding of Northland’s vision, policies, and procedures.

This program has provided new teachers a clearer understanding of Northland’s vision, policies, and procedures. In the same spirit as Heather’s orientation program, a faculty retreat was held at the beginning of the school year to increase teacher collaboration and support. Also during the year, Heather organized and began a faculty study of Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach. These efforts marked a shift in Heather’s leadership role from an involved classroom teacher to an organizer and initiator. For her, it seemed the possibilities presented by the PLC project finally became realities.

To clarify school needs in order to develop the 1999-2000 Campus Plan, Heather again took the lead, administering the PLC questionnaire to the entire staff. The teachers identified three major areas of concern. First, they wanted early release days so they could conduct long-range planning. Second, they wanted more time to plan and learn in teams on a weekly basis. Third, they again wanted to visit each other’s classes and provide one another feedback. These areas defined the focus for the year. They were placed on the agenda for the CLT and implementation plans were begun. A healthy and effective flow of leadership has characterized Northland Elementary, and helped guarantee the success of the PLC initiative. PLC structures and concepts, in turn, supported the initiative and action of an individual teacher leader, who helped to clarify the needs of the whole school, contributing to an improvement agenda for faculty and principal leadership.


Northland’s progress over the past two years has been highly encouraging. The dynamic and flexible leadership structure at Northland has facilitated a schoolwide understanding of the PLC concept and how that relates to the school culture. Northland’s faculty now seem to fully understand the professional learning community concepts, and are energetically adapting and refocusing the dimensions for their use to best serve students.

There were many factors important to this effort. A historical organizational trust in leadership provided a firm foundation for PLC growth. Through their commitment to provide strong leadership, and their own willingness to grow, Northland’s leaders made progress seem natural to the school. Grayson, a strong organizational leader, provided the consistency and direction for the faculty to be responsible decision-makers in relation to school programs and strategies that would benefit students. The CLT membership felt confident their role was critical to the governance of the school, and they worked diligently to define issues and make representative decisions about important school issues. Heather gained confidence through the two years as she stepped up to the plate and clearly assumed a needed leadership role. As a result, the faculty became even more committed to providing the best program for their students as they work to achieve their motto “Northland School—A Great Place to Grow.” The faculty moves surely toward that end.

Readers' Response

The PLC project at Northland Elementary truly provided an opportunity for Northland faculty to grow and learn together. Northland's principal, and teacher-leader Heather Holton were also able to advance their individual and professional goals and interests through the PLC initiative. Leadership development at Northland took many forms—not everyone would want to pursue the administrative track that interested Heather. Identify those factors that seem to contribute to the graceful sharing of leadership that Northland experienced. In what ways do broader definitions of leadership and leadership development aid in the sharing of school leadership?

Fortunately, many of the PLC partner schools seem to have experienced success in developing shared leadership. Consider this story, as well as the stories of Ruth Hinson and Beth Sattes. Do these schools share structures or practices in common, which might support developing leadership, or contribute to an "atmosphere" of leadership within the school community?

At Shoreline Elementary, the staff researched and adopted a school improvement model (the Coalition of Essential Schools) that matched their own identified areas of need. At Northland, PLC efforts matched the ambitions and interests of Principal Grayson Dawson and teacher Heather Holton. To what extent should this element of "match" be built into the planning process, and to what extent can it be left to chance?

Next Page: Story 5: Teacher Leadership - A Story of Hope

Published in Multiple Mirrors: Reflections on the Creation of Professional Learning Communities