by Ricki Chapman

Story 7: Facilitating School Change from the Outside In

In this story of successful PLC implementation, Co-Developer Ricki Chapman perceives her responsibilities to include: putting the resources to which she has access at the disposal of her partner school, "shouldering the burden" of PLC planning and implementation in order to avoid overloading faculty, and "getting out of the way" of school-instigated change.

 Prior to joining SEDL’s Creating Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement (CCCII) or Professional Learning Communities (PLC) project, I had served as an external facilitator in the Partnership School Initiative and had enjoyed the privilege of participating in SEDL’s “Leadership for Change” Initiative. Change is my passion! Self-improvement and growth is my life! As far as I’m concerned, what could be more exciting than supporting a school in creating a community of learners?
An external change facilitator plays a unique role in school change. This story describes how an external facilitator can support a school’s change efforts by supporting principal leadership, influencing district decision-making, accessing resources, and building teacher capacity. First, I’ll describe my role, then, the strategies I used to facilitate the school’s development into a professional learning community. It is my hope that through this story, other change facilitators will gain insight in how to create and enable professional learning communities that support school improvement. After all, we’re all in it for the learners—Learning For All.

My plan was to use the vehicle of professional learning communities to move the school toward improved student performance. I wanted to embed the dimensions of a professional learning community into the school’s agenda.

As Title I Specialist at a Regional Education Service Center, I serve thirteen school districts in the extreme northern area of the state. It is my job to plan with district personnel to determine their needs for federal funds, write the federal program application, and negotiate the application for funding. I monitor expenditures and amend applications as needed. In a way, I act as a Federal Program Director for schools too small to support this position locally.

My role was well established with the districts I serve prior to my invitation to participate as a Co-Developer in SEDL’s PLC project. The trust I had built with the superintendent was of great benefit to me as I began to work with my selected site.

As a Title I Specialist at the Education Service Center, I had many advantages. These included a flexible schedule that could be arranged to accommodate the school’s needs; my expertise in district/campus planning, site-based decision-making, curriculum and instruction, staff development, and budgeting; and access to personnel and resources housed at the Education Service Center. My plan was to use the vehicle of professional learning communities to move the school toward improved student performance. I wanted to embed the dimensions of a professional learning community into the school’s agenda.

Site selection

From my work with the Partnership Schools Initiative, I learned how a school’s culture influences change and school improvement efforts. I learned that the best way to gain access to a school was to provide a service to meet a real or perceived need. As I began contemplating the choice of a school to engage in our PLC project, I began to ask myself some questions. “What schools am I working with now that might be ready to move forward? What schools exhibit instructional leadership at the campus? Am I serving any superintendents who are strong instructional leaders? Are any schools in close proximity to the Education Service Center ready for change? Do I serve any schools ripe for an opportunity? Do I know of a school facing a crisis?”

After asking these questions and mentally scanning the districts I served, I began the process of elimination. I weeded out those whom I did not feel were “ready” or did not have strong leadership in place. I reflected about the schools I served and my criteria for selecting a school site to develop into a learning community. I was looking for a school ready for change. I was looking for a school that put children first. I was looking for a school that would welcome me as a partner in the school improvement process.

“What could I bring to the school? How could I support what they wanted to accomplish? How would I gain access to the campus?”

Rising Star Elementary, in the sleepy little town of Farmville, seemed to fit these criteria. A new instructional leader had been hired for the campus in 1997. Though I had not met her, I had “heard on the grapevine” that she was a dynamic leader. In her first year, she had involved her staff in decision-making and planning for improvement—a novel idea at the campus. The campus served approximately 200 PK-3rd grade students. Ethnicity of the school community was 14% African American, 38% Hispanic, and 48% Anglo. With 63% low socioeconomic status, the school qualified for Title I funds.

The district was facing a District Effectiveness and Compliance (DEC) visit from the State Department of Education (SDE) in May 1998. During the visit, the SDE would scrutinize all federal programs for compliance as well as the district and campus improvement plans. This visit was perceived as a threat, thus creating a crisis. The four campuses in the district were hustling to prepare their campus plans and get their data organized prior to the visit.

As I reflected on the purpose of the project, to create a professional learning community, I determined that my services would need to be perceived as a support for the campus. I realized that I could not be viewed as someone with an agenda that would increase work for the principal or teachers. I would need to weave this project into their culture, the way they did things at the campus. I thought, “What could I bring to the school? How could I support what they wanted to accomplish? How would I gain access to the campus?” I decided to offer my assistance in whatever ways they wanted. My motto would be, “Do whatever it takes.” I would be a guide on the side. I would find ways to access resources—from the Education Service Center, from the district, and from my own personal storehouse of expertise and experience. Though it was not my purposeful intention, my first year’s work with the school would be behind the scenes.

Year 1: Gaining Access to the School & Supporting Principal Leadership

To gain access to the principal at Rising Star Elementary, I asked the district superintendent if he would like me to meet with all of his principals in preparation for the impending DEC visit. He agreed.

Gloria Hawkins had been principal at Rising Star Elementary School for one year. Formerly, she had been principal of an alternative education program in another region. Although her experience was in high school, she loved the “little ones.” This was evidenced in my first meeting. As I entered her office, a child was sitting on her lap crying. She was patting him and whispering softly in his ear. He would respond by shaking his head up or down to indicate “yes” or “no.” After about five minutes, she released him from her lap and turned her attention to me. In this first interaction it was easy to see that she put children first. This fit with my philosophy and I thought we might make a good team.

I offered to review the campus plan for compliance so that changes could be made prior to the SDE’s visit. To my delight, Gloria’s face lit up with surprise. She told me that she’d like me to review the plan and suggest improvements. She provided me with a copy of the campus improvement plan, which included a great deal of data about the school. The plan contained lists of activities addressing math, reading, and parental involvement. Student achievement data included in the plan showed me that the school needed to address these areas. The professional development piece was missing, as well as resources needed to support the plan. I jotted down my suggestions and made another appointment with Gloria. At that meeting, she seemed open to my suggestions. She made notes and said the corrections would be made to the plan.

Hoping to use my role as Title I Specialist to provide a service and gain access to the faculty, I offered to meet with the Title I teachers for the purpose of reviewing the DEC indicators and preparing for the SDE visit. Gloria was open to this idea and told me that she would arrange it. Here was a leader who was on top of things and would follow-through on her commitments. These were qualities I was looking for in a leader who would help to create a professional learning community.

In one of my first conversations with Gloria, I suggested that the school consider changing from a Title I Targeted Assistance school to a Title I Schoolwide program. The Targeted Assistance program served few students in a pullout setting, providing them with computer-assisted phonics instruction each day. A Schoolwide program would spread the Title I funds throughout the school to upgrade the entire educational program. When I first broached this subject with the principal, she told me that there was resistance among her staff.

As we visited, I told her that I was working with the Southwest Educational Development Lab (SEDL) on a project to learn how to create a professional learning community, and that I was in the process of selecting a school site. She said, “Pick us! We want to!”

Uh, oh—change is difficult. The phrase “that’s the way we’ve always done it” popped into my head. To drive home my point, I asked if the students in the program were making academic progress. I asked, “Do the identified students ever get out of the program or are they permanently labeled as Title I students?” I asked if she had done a longitudinal study of their achievement. She hesitated a moment before saying, “No.” From the thoughtful look on her face, I could tell I had piqued her curiosity.

By the time I visited with Gloria again, she had met with her staff and they had decided to go “Schoolwide.” During a faculty meeting, she had presented the staff with her longitudinal study of student progress in the Title I program and supplied them with information on the costs of maintaining the targeted assistance program being conducted in the computer lab. She emphasized the point that changing from a Targeted Assisted Program to a Schoolwide Program would enable them to help more children.

After a lengthy discussion, the faculty had voted to dissolve the computer-assisted program and utilize the Title I teachers in regular classrooms. Becoming a Schoolwide program opened up many resources for the campus. After amending the District’s Title I Application for Funding to reflect Schoolwide status, I was able to convince the superintendent to reallocate Title I funds based on the number of low-income children at the school. These additional monies enabled the school to lower student-teacher ratios and acquire an instructional aide at each grade level. Suddenly, the school had money to purchase much needed library books and teaching materials, and attend professional development that would enhance growth toward their academic goals.

Gloria certainly was a “mover and shaker” who acted quickly on information that would help the school better meet the needs of all their children. This reinforced my earlier sense that I wanted to work with Gloria on the PLC project. As we visited, I told her that I was working with the Southwest Educational Development Lab (SEDL) on a project to learn how to create a professional learning community, and that I was in the process of selecting a school site. She said, “Pick us! We want to!”

I explained that it would be a lot of work. If a professional learning community were to gain her teachers’ support and take hold at Rising Star Elementary, Gloria and I would have to shoulder the burden of planning and implementing program concepts. Gloria would need to travel to Austin several times. She would need to appoint a teacher-leader at the campus. She would need to collect data and act on the findings. She would need to let me be her partner in the process. She would need to provide me with access to the school. Our goal would be to imbed PLC structures into the ways the school functioned without adding more to the teacher’s responsibilities. But change itself is difficult, and would not be welcome to all faculty members. I asked Gloria to think about their participation, suggesting that she visit with her faculty prior to committing to the two-year project. She said, “We want to! Pick us!”

I made an appointment with the superintendent to explain the scope of “Creating Communities of Continuous Improvement and Inquiry.” I discussed my role and explained the district’s responsibilities. He was supportive of the school’s participation and said, “Whatever she wants to do.”

Thus began my partnership with Rising Star Elementary and principal Gloria Hawkins. She appointed Teri Wilson, resource teacher, as our Teacher-Leader. It would be Teri’s role to plan with all the teachers and provide support to teachers in meeting the needs of inclusion students. Teri would also keep a pulse on the school’s climate.

Gloria and I met regularly. During our meetings we discussed many issues that concerned her. We discovered that we agreed on many issues and found common ground regarding school improvement. As the campus moved toward an inclusion model, the teachers wanted to provide more and more of the instruction for all the children in the regular classrooms. They did not want “pull-out” programs. Eliminating the Title I Targeted Assistance program was only one step toward ending pullout programs at the campus.
Due to the high numbers of Spanish speaking students attending the school, the teachers decided they needed to learn to apply more strategies to help these second language learners be successful. In order to provide appropriate instruction to all the students, the teachers decided to get their English as a Second Language (ESL) certification. By getting certified, they could eliminate the ESL pullout program and use these strategies in their classrooms. We called on the Bilingual/ESL Specialist at the Education Service Center to provide this training for the teachers.

Another pullout program the faculty wanted to eliminate was the Gifted and Talented (G/T) Program. Gifted students are not just gifted three hours per week. The teachers felt that the children could best be served in the regular education classrooms. When the identified students left for G/T one afternoon per week, they not only missed instruction, but also were labeled and teased by the other students. Returning to their regular classrooms often meant making up the work they missed while attending G/T class. Eliminating the pullout program would require all teachers at the campus to receive 30 hours of training in G/T strategies, curriculum and assessment, and identification.

We were developing a strong partnership for the good of the entire learning community. Throughout the year, I shared research and articles with Gloria about professional learning communities.

What a match of their needs with my expertise! My Master’s degree was in Gifted/Talented Education and this was something that they wanted! I really could not believe my good fortune! It would be my way to get in the door with the faculty and develop trust. To sweeten the deal, Gloria negotiated with the superintendent and School Board to pay the teachers a stipend to attend G/T professional development during the summer.

I explained to Gloria that I would like to conduct a needs assessment with the teachers prior to conducting the G/T training. The assessment would inform me of their existing skills and knowledge regarding gifted learners. I would also use this opportunity to provide the teachers with information regarding requirements in the law. This meeting, in late spring, would be my first inroad with the teachers. Armed with chart paper, markers, and easel I met with the faculty after school. Gloria provided an enthusiastic welcome and eased my way into the school’s culture.

Though I had been seen on the campus by staff every two to three weeks, I first realized that the faculty had accepted my presence on campus in May, during their DEC visit. When I arrived at the campus, I met briefly with Gloria, then made myself at home in the teacher workroom. Suddenly, I heard a commotion in the hall. As I listened, I heard someone say “They’re here!” Someone else said, “Who?” “The SDE!” “Where?” “In the workroom!” “That’s not the SDE. It’s only Ricki.”

During this first year, Gloria used me as a sounding board for her ideas. I truly worked “behind the scenes.” Gloria and I visited on the phone often; she shared her “awesomes and awfuls” with me. I provided a listening ear, thought provoking questions, as well as information about and access to district resources. We were developing a strong partnership for the good of the entire learning community. Throughout the year, I shared research and articles with Gloria about professional learning communities.

In March, I had shared with Gloria a book that had been important to me in the study of school reform, Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools. Gloria loved it! Each time I met with her to assess their progress she shared something else she had learned from reading this book. I listened. In August, Gloria said that she would like for each of her teachers to have a copy of this book.
Finding funds to support her decision was a wonderful opportunity for me to be of service to the school and help them improve! I suggested that Title I funds or a combination of Title I, Title VI, and State Compensatory Funds could be used for this purpose. Not having access to the district’s budget, she asked me if there was money. I said, “There is money in the budget and we need to ask for it.” We met with the superintendent. He was open to this acquisition. The books were ordered and arrived in November 1999. The study of this book by the faculty would serve as the beginning of collective learning at Rising Star Elementary.

Although I made an effort to be on the campus as often as my schedule permitted, I often felt guilty and wished I could be on campus more often. I met with the faculty only once to conduct the needs assessment for G/T. My only other direct interaction with faculty was to provide the 30 hours of training in gifted/talented education in June. This is when I really got to know the faculty and began to gain their trust both as a person and through sharing my expertise.

Year 2: Engaging the Faculty in Collective Learning

In September 1999, SEDL invited the Co-Developers, principals, and teacher-leaders to a meeting in Austin. After this meeting, Gloria, Teri, and I met to collaboratively plan an upcoming inservice day. We decided to include an introduction to PLC, address the concept of quality in student work, and engage the faculty in dialogue about best practices—what to increase and decrease in their classroom instruction. We wanted a better campus improvement plan, one that would guide decision-making at the school. We wanted to focus the teachers on using student achievement data to drive school goals and objectives. We wanted to reinforce that learning together would improve student performance.

Gloria, Teri, and I felt prepared. We had carefully planned the October staff development day. I was excited and a little nervous, for on this day we would finally introduce the concept of Professional Learning Communities to the faculty. After explaining the project, there was only one question from the faculty. Would it add on any work for them? “No,” I told them, “it is our intention to embed the concepts in whatever you want to improve.” The teachers seemed to accept the idea.

In order to gain information regarding the school’s current practices in relation to the practices of a professional learning community, a questionnaire was administered to the faculty called “School Professional Staff as Learning Community.” This questionnaire is an Innovation Configuration Matrix designed to provide perceptual data about the five dimensions of a professional learning community: shared leadership, shared vision, collective learning, shared personal practice, and supportive conditions.

Next we addressed campus improvement planning. I explained how to interpret the student achievement data. The teachers examined student achievement data from last year’s third graders through fifth grade. Even though fifth grade is not at the campus, we wanted the teachers to see how their students were progressing through the system.

After examining the student achievement data, teachers decided to continue their focus on reading. They had the opportunity to visit other schools the previous year and had investigated reading programs being implemented. As a faculty, they decided to adopt the Accelerated Reader program. To encourage and support reading, they wanted to expand the library to include more student and professional books. Again, being a Title I Schoolwide program allowed them to invest in this program to meet the needs of all their students. Toward the end of the day Gloria conducted an informal needs assessment with the staff. She asked them to write down what training they needed, and if they could observe another teacher in the school who would it be. I couldn’t wait to see how this innovative leader would use these data later!

After examining the student achievement data, teachers decided to continue their focus on reading. They had the opportunity to visit other schools the previous year and had investigated reading programs being implemented.

During the summer, Gloria had purchased a copy of Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools for each of her teachers. The books arrived in November, and the teachers began reading and discussing it as a faculty. Teachers set the timeline for the discussion group. They decided to read one chapter per month and discuss it after school at their faculty meeting. Chapter 1: “Renewing Our Schools” was discussed in November; Chapter 2: “Best Practice in Reading” in December; etc. This book study was their embarkation into collective learning. They read, studied, discussed, and argued during these monthly meetings. They learned that they were doing many “good” things for students.

They learned they could improve some of their practices. They got to know one another as professionals. They began to trust in one another’s capabilities and ideas. They learned new strategies from one another. They began to get excited about learning together!

Gloria, Teri, and I continued to use the PLC questionnaire data to plan how to integrate the five dimensions of a professional learning community into the school’s culture. Through the shared study of Best Practice, we were making progress in collective learning, but we really needed to work on shared personal practice. Using the observation list her teachers had given her in October, Gloria created a schedule that would facilitate teachers observing teachers. She thought that by observing each other, teachers would begin sharing strategies and talking about student work.

At the next faculty meeting Gloria announced that each teacher would have an opportunity to observe another teacher—a teacher they wanted to observe. Then she distributed her observation schedule. There was an outcry as teachers exclaimed they wanted to observe, not be observed! She merely stated, “It’s what you said you wanted.” After all was said and done, the faculty complied and even enjoyed this opportunity to see a colleague in action.

The year was rolling right along. While attending a conference, Gloria had discovered training called “TRIBES.” She was intrigued by the concepts presented. When she asked me about it, I loaned her my book to peruse. After reading it, Gloria decided that she wanted to order a copy of the book for each teacher. She wanted this book to be their next collective learning experience. She had determined that it would build teamwork among the staff, decrease discipline referrals, and create a safer learning environment for children. She thought it just might be the glue that would bring the school together as a learning community.
The Education Service Center (ESC) was called upon to provide support. I spoke with our Title IV Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Specialist at the ESC. She thought that the study of this book could be considered professional development under the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) guidelines and supported funding the purchase of a book for each teacher under the district’s shared service arrangement.

By the time I got back to Gloria on purchasing the book, she had provided her teachers an overview of “TRIBES,” and the faculty had decided they wanted the full training. However, the district was a member of our Title IV Shared Services Arrangement. This meant that earlier in the year the superintendent had signed over their entitlement to our ESC.

While I was pondering this dilemma, Gloria located a trainer at another Education Service Center. She talked the superintendent and School Board into supporting and requesting three waiver days for the training. Waivers can be submitted to the SDE for the purpose of adding professional development days to school calendars. The waivers reduce the required number of student attendance days so teachers have additional days during the year to attend professional development. When SDE approved the waiver, all that was needed was a way to pay for this training.

The entire faculty, teachers and instructional aides, met at another site to receive the training in September 1999. This training was instrumental in enabling the campus to become a more a cohesive team.

I met with the superintendent to discuss how we could fund the training. I suggested that since our Title IV Specialist at the ESC thought the content met the Safe & Drug Free Schools and Communities program goals, perhaps Rising Star’s share of Title IV funds could be returned to Rising Star, in order to pay for the training. He seemed delighted with this idea and asked me to check on it for him. When we learned that Title IV monies could be used—but wouldn’t cover the costs of providing this training—I suggested that he combine the Title IV money with Title VI professional development funds. He was very open and even appreciative of this idea. Due to the service center’s flexibility and the district’s support, we were able to schedule the training for Rising Star Elementary—and thanks to the waiver days, all Rising Star staff were able to attend.

The teachers really liked the concepts and strategies presented in “TRIBES.” As a faculty, they decided that professional development would enable them to integrate these strategies into their classroom instruction and activities. Three professional development days were set. The entire faculty, teachers and instructional aides, met at another site to receive the training in September 1999. This training was instrumental in enabling the campus to become a more a cohesive team. The trust building experiences not only built the faculty as a team, but strategies presented are used in the classrooms to help create a safer learning environment for students.

Believing that what has been learned should be applied, Gloria asked each grade level team to use “TRIBES” strategies in their classrooms and at each faculty meeting to share instructional ideas. The grade level teams rotate the responsibility for the meeting. As each team conducts the meeting, they utilize the strategies to share instructional successes and challenges. This sharing reinforces growth in collective learning and provides an avenue for shared personal practice among the staff.

Gloria realizes that follow-up training in “TRIBES” is necessary to fully implement all the strategies and embed them in the school culture. In addition, new faculty needs training in these strategies. Providing this training for the school contributed powerfully to the development of the professional learning community. Teachers have become more comfortable with sharing personal practices by using the strategies to conduct faculty meetings. Conversation at the school is centered more on student work than ever before. Grade level teams are feeling so confident as teacher-leaders that the third grade team offered to provide training for the other teachers in State Assessment of Skills (SAS) strategies so that all students could be successful on the test.


They say, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” It’s already August 2000! As I began my third year as external change agent in the school, I once again met with the teachers to revise and update the campus improvement plan. In examining student achievement data, the teachers quickly saw that scores in reading and math had not improved significantly. What’s next? A new teacher suggested they look at student groups, not specific objectives. In examining the data, teachers saw that males were not performing at as high a level as females. To achieve more equity, teachers will participate in TESA (Teacher Expectations/Student Achievement) training in the fall.

Together, all the players in the school improvement process make a difference for children. It takes all of us to create a community of learners.

Though school improvement never ends, the end of the two-year SEDL project leaves me with a feeling of “what’s next?” I formed a strong partnership with the school. During the partnership, I kept an eye toward service to others and their growth. My attitude of “How can I help you?” helped me to support them—and then to get out of their way as they made changes and improvements to their school. I became a critical friend and resource, providing assistance in negotiating the district and educational service center resources in a way that was empowering to Gloria and other school personnel, and supportive of school initiatives.

Even though the district had three superintendents during the first two years of the PLC project, our knowledge of resources and focus on student learning helped to keep funds flowing. Teachers were paid a stipend to attend the training on gifted/talented education. By having this training on site, the superintendent was able to attend one day and receive his required six hours of training. When the teachers felt they needed English as a Second Language (ESL) certifications, the district supported this decision fiscally by paying each teacher’s certification fee.

The Educational Service Center also provided much appreciated support. Though the PLC project required me to work intensively with Rising Star Elementary and leave the region for several SEDL meetings, our Education Service Center was supportive of my participation. Prior to my acceptance into the project, SEDL required me to submit an agreement of participation signed by my supervisor. This signed commitment helped me to continue with the project, even when service center funds got tighter. The PLC project was even featured in HORIZON, the service center’s quarterly publication, which is distributed throughout the region.

My commitment to the Rising Star Elementary’s continued improvement and development is still strong. If they desire, I will provide assistance to further develop their professional learning community. But I recognize that an external change facilitator is only one factor in helping a school become a professional learning community. There must be present in all stakeholders a commitment to children and to the school improvement process. Many resources must be garnered to accomplish the school’s goals and objectives.

I cannot take credit for this school’s growth in the dimensions of a professional learning community. Any other Co-Developer, willing to put herself and the resources at her hands to the service of the school, could have been as helpful to Rising Star Elementary. It was the dynamic principal, who mustered support and guided the school’s vision, who was crucial to creating the learning community. Faculty who loved children and worked untiringly for their success were necessary. Superintendents who supported the school’s initiatives fiscally and School Boards who supported time for professional development were needed. Together, all the players in the school improvement process make a difference for children. It takes all of us to create a community of learners.

Readers' Response

In her efforts to instigate, support, and "get out of the way" of change at Rising Star Elementary, Co-Developer Ricki Chapman played a number of different roles throughout her partnership. What are those various roles? In what ways do roles change as the relationships and project evolve? In what ways are various Co-Developer roles static and defined through the Co-Developer's relationship with various school populations (i.e, trainer to teachers, coach to principal, etc.)?

Co-Developer Ricki Chapman asserts that "any other Co-Developer, willing to put herself and the resources at her hands to the service of the school, could have been as helpful as she was. Substantial external resources play significant roles in other school stories. In Story 1, Foxdale School undertakes significant change, and addresses the challenges of change, after receiving an Alternative Program grant; in Story 2, external resources including grants and partnerships with local businesses play a critical role in the improvement and continued strength of Deerfield Elementary. Taken together, what do these stories suggest about the amounts and kinds of resources schools need? Does the responsibility for developing resources lie most appropriately with campus personnel, district personnel, or others?

Ricki Chapman warns principal Gloria Hawkins that she must be willing to "shoulder the burden" of beginning a PLC and reassures Rising Star faculty that PLC initiatives will not significantly add to their work. Beth Sattes also places much of the responsibility for PLC success at the hands of the principal. Compare these stories to Anita Pankake's story of teacher leadership, and Jane Huffman's consideration of leadership throughout her partner school. Do any "truths" about the interplay of school leadership emerge?

Next Page: References and Other Resources

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