Spotlight

Site-Based Teams Customize Chula Vista's Instruction

by JOHN M. NELSON III

Chula Vista Elementary School District, like many districts across the country, is dealing with achievement gaps in each of our 45 schools. English language learners continue to lag behind their peers, especially in reading/language arts.

Instead of fearing the accountability measures associated with No Child Left Behind, the school district has embraced the federal law for establishing a sense of urgency at all levels in the organization. We have developed a culture of continuous improvement, resulting in significant gains in achievement for English learners and all other students over the past five years.

John NelsonJohn Nelson


Students' learning results began to change when we focused on sustained, content-specific staff development. Instead of pursuing a more conventional approach (such as focusing on mathematics, science or history instruction), we focused on English language development for all students during this five-year period, not just those designated through state measures.

Customized Training
Using a model of instruction known as Gradual Release of Responsibility, we concentrated our staff training on improving the academic language necessary for students learning English to achieve proficiency. To do this, Chula Vista has been building the capacity of teachers and administrators through school-based teams, called instructional leadership teams that customize their professional learning to meet the needs of their specific school sites' content.

In collaboration with Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, the San Diego State University professors who devised the Gradual Release of Responsibility, our district has focused on improving the quality of instruction for all students. Instruction by highly qualified teachers within the general education classroom is the basis for Tier 1 in response to intervention. Fisher and Frey's model consists of four phases of learning:

•  Focus lessons establish purpose, model, demonstrate and think aloud to expose the cognitive moves of the expert, the teacher.

•  Guided instruction supports learning, primarily in small groups, through the strategic use of questions, prompts and cues.

•  Collaborative learning promotes productive group work, with students interacting with peers to clarify their conceptual understanding.

•  Independent learning finds opportunities inside and outside the classroom for review, extension and enrichment.

This instructional framework became our district's outline for all content-specific professional development. The model's linchpin was the collaborative learning phase of instruction, where students work as partners to discuss, interact and produce.

Site-Level Decisions
Implementing the Gradual Release of Responsibility in nearly 1,400 classrooms spread across 45 schools represented a major challenge. The schools (six of them charters) covered a range of diversity. A one-size-fits-all approach would not be successful. However, we had a significant tool at our disposal, site-level instructional leadership teams.

Chula Vista has spent the past 10 years establishing instructional leadership teams at every site. Their primary role is to lead each school's improvements in teaching and learning. Each team decides the school's instructional program and leads and monitors its implementation. The leadership teams consist of teachers (usually one per grade level) and the principal. The teams meet regularly to discuss instruction and review teacher assignments and analyses of student work to determine schoolwide needs.

In addition, the site-based teams monitor full implementation of promising practices, planning and adjusting professional learning as needed. Their most important responsibility is developing a plan to build the capacity of all staff. They collect, organize and display schoolwide data on student performance and monitor the effectiveness of current allocation of resources and make adjustments.

Using this structure, each instructional leadership team participates in five full-day professional development sessions each year. The first half of each session focuses on a status check among school teams and expands their knowledge base concerning the instructional model. The second half of each session focuses on capacity building. Teams construct plans for professional development they will lead, and work with individual teachers who can benefit from additional coaching and mentoring.

The instructional team decides how to customize training for the school's staff. The team determines how it will deliver the relevant information over a nine-week cycle. The cycles include presentations of new information, implementation with positive feedback from coaches and site administrators and peer observations.

Evolutionary Tool
Over the last several years, the instructional leadership team has evolved from being a conduit for professional learning into a creator. For example, during several recent professional development sessions, these teams created a bank of language frames for each grade level and content area to support the development of English learners. Similarly, teams have created content and language objectives derived from state standards for each discipline and grade level. Establishing what will be learned and how students will use it is critical for students who are learning English.

In addition, the site-based teams conduct instructional walk-throughs at different sites as well as at their own schools.

These efforts have resulted in breakthrough results across the system. In 1999, only four schools met their state performance targets; last year, 40 of 45 schools had done so, and only two schools remain on California's program improvement status. While the results are impressive, we will continue until we eliminate the achievement gap in total.

John Nelson is assistant superintendent for instructional services and support in the Chula Vista Elementary School District in Chula Vista, Calif. E-mail: john.nelson@cvesd.org