Feature                                                      Pages 26-29


A Rural County Journeys

to the Common Core  

A four-step collaborative process to put standards in place in small districts in central California


Small, rural school districts face a special challenge when implementing the next generation of academic standards known as the Common Core State Standards.

This is the task facing the instructional consultants with the Tulare County Office of Education. The county, located in central California with its dominant agricultural economy, has 45 school districts enrolling 98,000 students. About 25 percent are English language learners, and only 57 percent of the high school graduates continue their education at postsecondary institutions. Thirty of the districts operate a single school.

Pansy Ceballos
Pansy Ceballos (center)

Many of these schools have limited access to instructional resource personnel, which defines the model of service provided by the county office, an education service agency. The Tulare County Office of Education meets the rural districts’ needs through content experts, who provide expertise and support on using instructional practices. The county office has six English language arts consultants, four math consultants and one consultant each for social studies, science and technology.

In working with the small school systems, the consultants develop and implement a multilayered system of support. What has resulted over the past two years is a model for districts to follow as they begin to transition from the current state standards to the recently adopted California Common Core State Standards.

The team of consultants initiated its work by exploring these questions: How will we support Common Core implementation with the limited resources available at these small schools? How will we prepare teachers for this major change? What will principals need to lead the changes in teaching practices and assessment called for by the new standards?

Our four-step plan supports the belief that you learn the work by doing the work.

Step 1: Building Awareness
Building a deep understanding of and enthusiasm for the new Common Core State Standards was an important first step. Before leadership teams in each district could develop implementation plans, they first had to understand fully the depth and rigor of the new standards.

Our consultants dedicated considerable time to in-depth study of the standards to develop their own expertise. This meant hours analyzing the standards and the supporting appendices, including foundational research. This deep study included a review of the professional literature and attendence at professional conferences in and out of state where we learned from nationally recognized leaders.

Richly informed, the consultants then designed two distinct professional development tracks. Administrators in each district were offered full-day, K-12 overview sessions, one day for English language arts and the other for math. For teachers, we developed two-day, grade-level-specific workshops for both math and English. The first overview sessions were offered in summer 2011 and have been repeated every three to four months, since districts are beginning their transition to CCSS at different points in time. Districts commonly stagger attendance of their staff members at the training sessions due to budget constraints or scheduling logistics.

These workshops deepen staff understanding of the standards and new assessments and help staff realize CCSS implementation is not about throwing everything out and starting from scratch, but rather building on what already is working and weeding out practices that are no longer appropriate. Educators returned to their sites and planned collaboratively for CCSS implementation.

Simply stated: Understand the work.

Step 2: Mapping the Journey
The next step is to develop a sample CCSS implementation-planning template to guide districts in their work. The sample implementation template devised by the county consultants recommended planning actions in each district (http://commoncore.tcoe.org). As the consultants prepared their organizational plan, they explored the professional development needs that districts might encounter. For every recommended action noted on the template, a professional development session or resource was provided.

The creation of these resources, tools and training sessions became the essence of Tulare County’s organizational plan and work.

District and site teams attended half-day sessions or worked on an individual basis with consultants to develop their own plans. The importance of inviting representatives from various stakeholder groups (teachers of all subjects, instructional technology personnel, counselors, etc.) in this process was recommended.

Once plans were developed, districts publicized them to showcase both transparency and the collaborative effort endorsed by the team. The districts were encouraged to develop both long- and short-term goals, along with a process to ensure these working documents would be updated and revised. The California Department of Education developed a similar planning tool. Both tools incorporated timelines and identified who would be responsible for document changes and professional development considerations.

School districts chose the tool appropriate for them, making modifications as needed. The message our county office conveyed was that there wasn’t one right method or path for Common Core standards implementation. Rather, districts were encouraged to develop customized plans that were strategic, intentional and, most importantly, attainable.

At this point, several districts, including Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District (K-12), Alta Vista School District (K-8) and Tulare Joint Union High School District (9-12), partnered with the county office of education in moving forward. As other counties and organizations learned of our work, we extended an invitation for them to join us in this collaboration, and several did.

In the Sundale Union School District (K-8), Tulare City School District (preK-8) and Dinuba Unified School District (K-12), teachers have been meeting by grade levels to plan for the Common Core. Each district adopted the template developed by our county office’s Action Plan for Implementation of the CCSS.

Educators from these districts are attending CCSS updates, planning professional development timelines for teachers, reviewing technology needs, making reports to parents and school boards, and determining the additional training and resources teachers will need. Some already have revised pacing guides and aligned report cards to the CCSS.

The schools select the areas they want to address first, which makes the action plan specific to the locality and the staff. The template gives administrators and teachers enough guidance and a way to jump in and start the work.

Simply stated: Plan the work. 

Step 3: Designing and Developing
Once implementation plans were in place, the consultants and practitioners began the true work of the Common Core. Districts were encouraged to form collaborative work groups to take on various aspects of implementation. By doing so, not only would the load be distributed, but more importantly, teachers and staff could contribute and build a sense of ownership in the implementation process.

School districts followed various pathways at this stage. A Tulare County high school district chose to include department chairs of both content and elective courses, counselors, IT personnel and administrators in the development phase. Team members made decisions about necessary changes in professional development, materials, course descriptions and assessments. On the other hand, an elementary district decided to focus solely on the development of writing skills in math and language arts and across the curriculum. This included the development of lessons, tasks and rubrics.

Similarly, the county’s consultants jointly developed an array of resources and Phase 2 CCSS Professional Development Sessions. The sessions included content, grade-level and topic-specific workshops, such as collaborative conversations, the continuum of literacy and vocabulary development.

This fall, teachers participated in collaborative instructional planning workshops. The intent of these workshops was twofold: Teachers would develop their skills in designing rigorous and meaningful instructional units for use in their own classrooms and share their work in an open manner. These practices will especially benefit teachers from the county’s small rural schools. Similarly, administrative training focused on CCSS instructional practices and the new assessments.

To assist fellow educators in Tulare County schools, the county office of education began a repository of information and resources (http://commoncore.tcoe.org). In addition to a set of well-received tools we developed, the repository houses presentations, videos and links to other sites that support implementation of the CCSS. The consultants organized the information after sifting through a plethora of sources and corralling relevant resources.

In addition, the partnering districts and the consultants used cloud-based applications, such as Dropbox, to develop and share site-specific CCSS lesson plans and assessment tasks. The use of cloud-based technology promoted continuous collaboration and access for districts in remote, rural areas of the county.

Simply stated: Do the work.

Step 4: Aligning and Sustaining the Work
The final step in the process involves both “looking around” and “looking ahead.” Looking around involves the process of systems alignment, while looking ahead is focused on sustainment, reflection and evolution of systems.

An analysis of existing practices, procedures and supporting documents for a district’s Common Core implementation plan is a vital yet often overlooked step. Once districts in Tulare County have taken on the new work, they are encouraged to inventory what already is in place and determine what is or is not supportive of, or in alignment with, the desired outcomes of their plan.

Some alignment work already tackled includes the revision of the report card and instructional pacing calendar. Other areas for consideration might be parent education and outreach to community resources. Our county consultants are in the process of aligning their work to that of their partners, including institutions of higher education, school-to-career programs, early childhood education, after-school programs and migrant education.

The need to give all of our students the greatest chance to meet the new standards has created a renewed sense of urgency to take advantage of every moment we have with students. Not only are we asking teachers to instruct differently, but also, the tasks given to students must challenge them to think and produce at a higher level.

In Tulare County, we see these challenging tasks as four types of outcomes: presentation, performance, problem solving and projects, or a combination of the “Four P’s.” To this end, the county office of education is aligning its sponsored student events, which include History Day, Math Super Bowl and CyberQuest, to the Common Core’s anchor standards for mathematical practices and college and career readiness.

Tulare County districts are encouraged to participate in at least one county-sponsored event as a means of providing students with real-world, application-based experiences. A guide explaining the alignment is available at http://commoncore.tcoe.org and www.tcoe.org/ERS/StudentEventsBrochure.shtm.

Finally, once a plan is in place, it must be sustained and extended. School districts must develop systems to communicate effectively, archive tools and data, collaborate, assess and disseminate what they have discovered. Time must be allotted for revisiting the systems, and the organization leaders need to be responsive and ready to adapt.

In Tulare County, we support districts in this effort by exploring, initiating and facilitating professional networks and collaborative efforts. We recognize we must continue to build capacity through shifts in how we deliver professional development.

Simply stated: Synchronize and support the evolution of the work.

Pansy Ceballos recently retired as assistant superintendent of instructional services of the Tulare County, Calif., Office of Education. E-mail: pansyc@tcoe.org. Contributing to this article were colleagues Charlene Stringham, educational resource services administrator; Connie Smith, director of early childhood education programs; and Guadalupe Solis, assistant superintendent of instructional services.


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