The ‘House’ in Half Hollow Hills

Five pillars comprise a district’s professional learning community in pursuing systematic improvement by Sheldon Karnilow

After 33 years in education, the time seemed right for me to move to a superintendency. In 2001, I took over the helm of a unique Long Island school district, one that encompasses 34 square miles and seven towns, boasts a socioeconomic and ethnically diverse population and enrolls more than 10,000 students. What an incredible challenge!

As the new superintendent, I had an uncommon perspective from which to view the Half Hollow Hills school community. Until 1999, my family called Half Hollow Hills home. In fact, my children are graduates of the district’s schools. So when I stepped into the superintendent’s office I brought with me experience as both a connected parent and an impartial observer.

I also brought a vision of education closely aligned with a belief expressed by best-selling author Jim Collins, whose works on the dynamics of leadership have elicited national attention. “Good is the enemy of great,” Collins said in his 2001 book, Good to Great. Perhaps the vast majority of successful school districts like Half Hollow Hills never reach true greatness because they are already identified as good. My primary goal was to bring Half Hollow Hills from good to great, and I was fortunate enough to have the full support of my board of education in doing so.

Although I came to Half Hollow Hills with a deep understanding of the models of systemic change, I did not bring with me a specific prescriptive plan for improvement. The framing question for my initial discussions with individual board members, building and central-office administrators and represent­ative members of every stakeholder group was a critical yet somewhat obvious one: “What should a graduate of Half Hollow Hills know, understand and be able to do in order to be a successful citizen of the 21st century?” A plan for systemic improvement for Half Hollow Hills crystallized based on the answers to that question.

Professional Learning
Our first action was to establish the Leadership Council, a group composed of all district administrators. We did so to provide a vehicle for professional development, create a common vision for quality instructional practices and afford all district administrators a real voice in the systemic improvement process.

Administrators needed expertise in exemplary instructional models to support and evaluate staff, so our monthly meetings and summer retreats became staff development sessions. This strategy differed from previous administrations when a small group of district administrators met regularly with the superintendent and assistant superintendents to discuss the management and operation of the buildings rather than focusing on the real work of schools — maximizing student achievement.

During the initial work of the Leadership Council, the concept of a districtwide professional learning community emerged. This enabled our administrative team to see the relevance of focused discussions about the steps we needed to take to improve our schools. Conversations now centered around teaching and learning. We knew at the beginning that if our professional learning community was going to support the districtwide goal of raised expectations for all, we would have to extend the conversation about how to improve our schools to all stakeholders in the community. This revised agenda would ultimately enable all of our children to achieve at higher levels.

Effective communication remains a critical component of our change process. In their 1997 seminal work Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership, co-authors Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal said, “In a professional learning community, as in any successful relationship, effective communication combines advocacy with inquiry. Through advocacy, individuals communicate what they think, know, want or feel. Through inquiry, individuals seek to learn what others think, know, want or feel.”

Rick DuFour, in his May 2004 article in Educational Leadership, describes a professional learning community as a powerful means for working together to profoundly affect the practices of schooling. He writes, “As the school moves forward, every professional in the building must engage with colleagues in the ongoing exploration of three crucial questions that drive the work of those within a professional learning community:


  • What do we want each student to learn?



  • How will we know when each student has learned it?



  • How will we respond when a student experiences difficulties in learning?


The answer to the third question separates professional learning communities from traditional schools.”

Planning Improvement
To find answers and to help us develop the framework for a long-range systemic improvement plan, we formed Think Tank, a sub-group of the Leadership Council. The members of Think Tank included the superintendent, four assistant superintendents, the coordinator of English Language Arts, the director of instructional computing, the director of social studies, two elementary principals, two middle school principals and one high school principal.

Before beginning our work we attended training sessions at the Kellogg Institute of the University of Chicago and the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University to deepen our conceptual understanding of the systemic improvement process and promote open and meaningful dialogue. Peter Senge defines this phenomenon in The Fifth Discipline as “a free flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually.”

These practitioners examined the latest research on programs purported to improve instruction and visited well-regarded school districts that were involved in systemic change. Based on this fieldwork, we decided that in order for teachers to maximize the achievement of all students, they needed the very best tools.

This led to the development of a comprehensive plan that we call our district “house.” Designed as a blueprint for systemic improvement, it is helping us define a new educational paradigm based on extensive research, sound learning theories and our own experience as educators. Although our plan is detailed, the format is easy to understand and, most importantly, the plan makes sense to everyone.

Through the work of Think Tank, we soon realized that differentiated instruction needed to be a central focus for our work, so we made the need to know each child well the foundation of our “house.” University of Virginia Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson, who has spent the better part of her professional life examining the impact that differentiation can have on the teaching/learning process, writes in the October 2003 issue of Educational Leadership: “Differentiation can reinforce status or differentiation can liberate students from stereotypical expectations. ... If we reframe the questions that we ask, a tectonic shift might occur in how we make decisions on behalf of academically diverse learners ... What can we do to support educators in developing the skill and the will to teach for each learner’s equity of access to excellence?”

Five Pillars
Our house stands strongly fortified by five pillars, each of which addresses an aspect of teaching and learning:


  • How students learn - Teachers can do a better job if they understand cognitive theory and apply that knowledge to their unit and lesson plans.



  • How to design instruction - The Understanding by Design model provides teachers with the tools they need to design curriculum that focuses on understanding rather than just knowledge and skills. If we want students to have the ability to transfer their knowledge into new learning challenges, then unit design must honor the need to go well beyond teaching to a test.



  • How to organize curriculum - We cannot provide a world-class education unless we have a powerful standards-based curriculum and curriculum plan. We also have successfully integrated national standards with New York state’s educational priorities.



  • Tools for instruction - Staff members have the opportunity to participate in a plethora of courses that equip them with best practices in each discipline. In addition, an extensive technology program helps teachers deliver instruction.
  • Assessment - Collecting both quantitative and qualitative data ensures that we are, in fact, improving, developing a common vision of good teaching and upgrading the quality of instruction. We use data to improve, rather than audit, instruction. The ongoing analysis of data enables teachers to maximize the achievement of all of our students.
    Implementing Vision
    “School success depends, more than anything, on the quality of teaching we provide,” writes prominent consultant Mike Schmoker in On Common Ground.

    We established our house to support quality instruction and teacher improvement. Our ongoing professional development plan provides an excellent grounding in knowledge in relation to all areas.

    We brought in nationally known consultants to work with staff and administrators. Grant Wiggins worked with our administrative team on his Understanding by Design model of instructional planning. Tomlinson provided a large corps of our teachers with an intensive differentiated instruction summer institute at the University of Virginia and instructors from the University of Virginia worked as consultants in each of our schools. Charlotte Danielson helped us to develop a performance appraisal program that is helping staff members improve their professional practice.

    We developed a new teacher collaborative to provide all newly hired staff members with mini-courses related to our initiatives as part of their orientation process and more in-depth courses they must complete before they are awarded tenure. Our professional development plan requires that all members of our professional staff complete 15 hours of course work in relation to the house each year. Our own administrators and master teachers teach many of these courses.

    Differentiated instruction laboratory classes were designed to support teacher learning in each of our 11 schools. Those teachers who attended Tomlinson’s summer institute had the opportunity to purchase an abundance of instructional materials. We asked them to open their classrooms so that other teachers in their buildings, as well as teachers districtwide, could visit with them as they demonstrated best practices in relation to differentiated instruction. These turnkey staff developers worked with principals and assistant principals to support the professional development of the entire staff. Workshops continue to be provided at faculty, grade-level and department meetings.

    Differentiated instruction laboratory teachers meet regularly with our assistant superintendent for districtwide administration, as well as with our assistant superintendents for elementary and secondary education. At these monthly meetings, participants discuss classroom practices and the professional development responsibility each one of them fulfills in their schools. Many of them have become teacher-researchers, studying the impact of differentiated instruction on student learning.

    We also created daily professional collaboration periods at all levels, enabling staff members to plan curriculum, discuss best practices and visit each other’s classrooms.

    The formation of districtwide elementary and secondary committees in each discipline enables teachers and administrators to discuss and share best practices. Districtwide committees of teachers and administrators are revising our curriculum in all disciplines using a template we developed based on the Understanding by Design model. This new curriculum incorporates both New York state and national standards and provides students with a deep understanding of content through rich learning experiences.

    Stakeholder Contact
    We’ve discussed our new initiatives in various venues, including board of education meetings, superintendent/assistant superintendent roundtable meetings with groups of elementary and secondary parents and monthly superintendent luncheons with secondary students. Our work has been featured regularly in editions of our district newsletter and in our annual curriculum review bulletin. It also has been the topic at curriculum coffees with district parents and highlighted on our newly designed state-of-the-art website (www.hhh.k12.ny.us).

    During the past two years our exemplary technology programs were recognized by eSchool News and AASA. Standard & Poor’s identified us as an “outperforming school district” because we were able to significantly improve the achievement of all students when compared to districts with similar socioeconomic levels. They also recognized us for our work in reducing the achievement gap (www.schoolmatters.com).

    We have been invited to share our work with state and local school boards and superintendents’ organizations, as well as with other professional organizations that are seeking to improve the education of children. Recently, the New York State Assembly’s Successful Schools Task Force awarded Half Hollow Hills the prestigious Excelsior Award for excellence in education. This award recognizes exceptional achievement. The members of the task force held a forum in Half Hollow Hills to learn about educational best practices that could be replicated in other districts.

    Systemic improvement is a complex process that takes a long time and an unwavering commitment. It is an exciting yet arduous journey. Even if it emanates from the top, it can become part of the culture of a district and permeate the entire organization, instilling passion in all stakeholders. Most of them now understand, support and are willing to travel the often winding road that we are taking to reach our destination.

    None of us can get where we are going alone. If we are to fulfill the promise of creating a significant districtwide professional learning community, we must work together in the spirit of community to ensure learning environments that celebrate our differences, define our commonalities and take pride in our accomplishments. The responsibility for the education of every child in our district belongs to each and every one of us.

    As we move closer to actualizing the reality of a Half Hollow Hills districtwide professional learning community, we have demonstrated that systemic improvement is a dynamic process. Ultimately we must be the mortar that strengthens and stabilizes our house.

    Sheldon Karnilow is the superintendent of the Half Hollow Hills Central School District, 525 Half Hollow Road, Dix Hills, NY 11746. E-mail: skarnilow@hhh.k12.ny.us