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The ‘Golden Gate’ Approach to
Starting an Initiative
BY RICH SMITH
Skepticism and cynicism are openly shared within our profession whenever someone at the top of the leadership chain introduces a new initiative. We’re all familiar with the common mantra “This too shall pass.” Anyone who has spent more than a few years working in K-12 education can name schools and districts that have begun and ended a much-touted new program or practice with the same frequency most people change their socks.
When the Sanger Unified School District introduced the professional learning community initiative, the naysayers began to chant that familiar refrain. And they were justified in doing so. Up until 2004, the school district had developed a reputation among teachers and principals of beginning initiatives attached to great promises but never keeping them long enough to develop the foundational knowledge to ensure effective use.
The pattern was familiar. Annually, the school district would introduce a new initiative. A smattering of staff development would follow, and then, due to a lack of follow-through, the initiative would collapse due to neglect.
To combat this and to ensure follow-through with our professional learning community initiative, we implemented the “Golden Gate” approach.
The Golden Gate Bridge stands at the opening to San Francisco Bay in California. The bridge is under constant attack by the corrosive effects of the salty seawater that surrounds it. To ensure that the bridge does not rust away, painters are constantly working to paint the bridge with “gold” paint, though it’s actually an orange color. The painters start at one end of the bridge and paint until they reach the end … and then they turn around and begin the process again. The continuous brushing protects the structure but also deepens and enriches the color with each subsequent coat of paint.
Our approach to introducing and implementing the PLC concept followed the same process. Before we commenced any training, the full district-level leadership, superintendent through directors, came to an agreement that PLCs were going to be the way Sanger Unified would do business henceforth. The district’s leaders fully committed to long-range implementation and support.
After the initial training and foundational work with site administrators and teacher leaders, we committed to provide additional training annually for teachers. For the first seven years, between 50 and 70 teachers and administrators each semester received training by Richard and Rebecca DuFour. In addition, PLC teams were given support and training from district personnel. In most cases, teachers participated in two to three training and support sessions each year.
With each session, we found school-based staff moved closer to believing that the PLC initiative was not going away. We “painted” and “repainted” the professional learning communities to ensure they were deepened and enriched. With each new training, we found staff members developed a stronger understanding and internalized the PLC concepts.
Recently, while I was shopping in a local supermarket, I overheard two teachers in the next aisle discussing their schools and districts. One teacher explained to her friend, “I work in Sanger Unified. We are a PLC district, and it works.” I smiled, knowing I had just received proof the Golden Gate approach works.