Feature                                                      Pages 14-20


Culture of Collaboration

What Sanger, Calif., learned about developing a professional learning community to generate marked gains districtwide


I began my second day as the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Sanger Unified School District in California’s Central Valley by reviewing the newly received 2004 state test scores. As I pored over the student achievement data, a chill ran down my spine and a mental picture formed in my head — I may have just been named first mate on the Titanic.

There before me was the indisputable evidence that Sanger Unified had been named one of the worst 98 school districts in California. My new employer was not only one of the worst-performing districts in a state with 1,042 districts, but it also had been flagged as one of the first to be named a program improvement district under No Child Left Behind.

Rich Smith

As I mourned my district’s plight, my superintendent, Marc Johnson, appeared in my doorway. “Something wrong?” he asked. I struggled to find the words. “We are in program improvement, and we’ve been classified as one of the worst 98 districts in California.”

“How could we be that far on the bottom?” he asked.

 When we jointly reviewed the data, it became clear that, although everyone in the district was working hard, we were working hard on random acts of improvement at every school and at the district leadership level. We were doing a lot of stuff, but none of it coordinated or focused on what our student achievement data were telling us. We were functioning not as a focused system, but as group of independent operators joined only by the common name Sanger Unified.

Cathartic Moments
Our conversation that day was the first cathartic moment on our path to finding solutions. Our status and label as one of the “worst 98” forced us to come to grips with what we believed about education, the reality that we were not serving all students, and the fact that we needed answers to unify us and provide focus on learning for all students.

That afternoon, Johnson and I drafted the three foundational beliefs that we maintain districtwide to this day: Hope is not a strategy; we don’t blame the students; and it’s all about learning.

What these foundational beliefs mean in practice is this:

  • We must become strategic in what we do for students.
  • Our students’ ethnicity, socioeconomic status and home language will not be excuses for adults who are responsible for their learning.
  • We must hold ourselves accountable for ensuring our students learn what we set out to teach them.

In Sanger Unified, the child poverty rate is two to three times the national average, with families locked in a cycle of poor educational outcomes and poverty for decades. The district is challenged to educate students from families with limited educational backgrounds; 28 percent of adults did not graduate from high school. Eighty-two percent of district students are poor, 80 percent are minority, and more than 49 percent of Sanger students come from homes where the adults do not speak English.

Until 2004, these were all reasons cited for the school district’s perennially poor academic performance. It was easier to assign blame than it was to ensure all students learn.

An External Spark
We began comprehensively looking at all of our curriculum and instructional programs and systems. We brought all textbooks up to current adoption standards, ensured all teachers were trained in the use of their curricular materials, instituted a districtwide assessment program to provide student learning data and ensured consistency of support for all programs and schools. But something was missing. We had attacked the logistical and material problems but still lacked a system that would translate our foundational beliefs into meaningful actions at the classroom level.

In the spring of 2005, Johnson and I traveled to a conference in Riverside, Calif., to hear Richard and Rebecca DuFour speak on professional learning communities. This would be the second cathartic moment on our road to districtwide improvement.

The DuFours described collaboration in a professional learning community, or PLC, as a system of support for students and teachers. PLCs provide a structure where student learning data are reviewed and used by teachers to focus their work and implement best practices that ensure all students learn. (See related story, page 18.)

The premise that PLC collaboration leads to the best instructional decisions resonated with our beliefs and what we were trying to accomplish. It was clear to us the premise of PLCs, educators working collaboratively to achieve better learning outcomes for all students, was exactly what we were seeking. We spent the next five hours planning how we might go about implementing PLCs on a districtwide basis.

Upon our return, we called all Sanger Unified principals to a meeting where Johnson announced we now would become a “professional learning community district.” We passed out the book Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, a primer on the subject by the DuFours, Robert Eaker and Thomas Many. This was the third cathartic moment in our road to improvement.

Intensive Training
It didn’t take us long to realize that distributing new copies of a book and declaring “we will” doesn’t lead to meaningful change. We needed to build a guiding coalition of leaders who understood the process and the outcomes we were seeking. It also became apparent that, in the history of the district, initiatives had come and gone with little or no impact. The belief that “this too shall pass” was not stated, but it operated as a widely held belief based on past experiences.


The 'Golden Gate' approach to starting an initiative

Richard DuFour on professional learning communities

Additional Resources

If we were to lead the district down the path of PLC implementation, we, as the leaders of the district, had to be committed to supporting and promoting the development of professional learning communities for more than one moment in time. We had to be willing to move from knowing about PLCs to functioning as a PLC so that it prevailed as our culture.

To create a guiding coalition of leaders who understood the goals and concepts of implementing PLCs, we sent every principal and a cadre of teacher leaders to participate in a workshop led by the DuFours. We followed this with intensive district-led training of each site’s leadership teams, principal and lead teachers for each PLC. We created a common understanding and focus on collaboration at each of Sanger’s 19 schools. These teams met for five additional trainings throughout the first year of implementation for clarification and assistance when they faced a hurdle.

As a districtwide commitment, we created early-release days at the elementary level every other week to allow the professional learning communities to meet. At the secondary level, late start days were created every other week. These regular times enable teachers to convene, without students, to collaborate on strategies for meeting every student’s particular needs.

We reminded the principals that PLCs were the priority during these sessions and every effort would be made not to preempt them for another purpose. Our principals responded accordingly.

PLCs are not a formula where staff do all these separate processes, but rather a mind-set that infuses every aspect of the school’s operation. Teachers were mutually accountable for a common goal — the academic success of students.

A Stumbling Block
As with any new program or process, we encountered pitfalls and obstacles to overcome. Initially, we found our teachers fearful that PLCs would become, as one teacher put it, another “brick to be borne on the backs of the teacher.” Teachers were stressed and believed this meant their already overbooked schedules would be spent writing planning documents that would sit on a shelf.

The superintendent and cabinet recognized teachers already were working hard to help students. As such, the principals made certain the focus was on collaboration and not on paperwork. Over time, teachers realized the PLCs were about teachers supporting one another to ensure student learning. More commonly, we heard teachers express appreciation for the supportive culture, despite the initial startup work.

At several schools, implementation was almost instantaneous, while others struggled. A major stumbling block for the PLC teams that ran into walls was the lack of norms — the rules and accepted behavior that guide a team.

Teams that bypassed this critical component found themselves struggling with team members who resisted participation or dominated the meetings. In most cases, when the PLC team instituted norms, these issues were alleviated. In more severe cases, an outside facilitator, the school’s resource teacher or a lead teacher from elsewhere would come to assist the team and work toward learning-focused collaboration.

We found most team norms focused on eliminating those things teachers hated most about meetings. The norms created by teachers were very pragmatic — ensure all team members were on time to their PLC meeting, that a clear written agenda was available for all members, that the team focused on the agenda rather than sidebar conversations, that all members would participate and that meetings would begin and end on time. Teachers learned that fewer specific norms were better than a “rule book” approach.

Across all teams, the biggest hurdle related to teachers who had not reviewed and understood learning data beyond an average score and who never had the opportunity to share best practices. In the first case, further staff development and training helped them to meet this need. Our teachers had an abundance of learning data to review but making sense of what it means in regards to individual student learning required explanation, which was provided by district staff and outside consultants.

Once the data about students’ learning needs were understood, the professional learning communities identified the best practices to ensure learning. Many of the answers our teachers were seeking could be provided by the PLC team member who teaches in the classroom next door. As trust and sharing grew within teams, teachers began not only to share best practices but to use opportunities to observe one another teaching, to group students for reteaching of concepts by learning need among teachers in their PLC and to develop and use common formative assessments as a team. The PLC truly became a system of teachers supporting teachers to ensure the learning of all students.

Recognized Status
Seven years after our implementation of PLCs in Sanger Unified, we continue to improve our use of the process. We provide ongoing training and support for our PLC leaders and principals as they manage their PLC teams. Those who initially believed “this too shall pass” have come to realize that professional learning communities are part of our district’s culture and what we do.

Two years into the implementation of professional learning communities, a highly active teacher union representative, who had taught for more than 20 years and was skeptical of any new district program, sought out the superintendent during one of his school visits to let him know how she truly felt about PLCs.

She admitted she fully believed PLCs would be abandoned in short order as so many other initiatives had been abandoned in the past. Having experienced the collaborative approach to teaching, she told the superintendent she never wanted to return to the old way of doing things — when teachers all worked behind a closed door. She said she was sure she was a better teacher today as a result of the PLCs.

The most significant result in Sanger Unified, though, are the gains we have made in overall student achievement.

Two years after being targeted as a school district with serious academic deficiencies and one of the worst in California, we were able to exit program improvement status and our lowly state designation. In the past seven years, Sanger has had nine state distinguished schools and three National Blue Ribbon Schools. Eleven of our 13 elementary schools scored over 800 on the Academic Performance Index (800 is considered by the state to be a high-performing school).

The Education Trust — West, an Oakland-based foundation that promotes high academic achievement, recently named Sanger Unified as the 3rd-highest-rated California district of 10,000 or more students in closing the achievement gap. This would not have been possible without the focus and collaborative effort of teachers, staff and administration working together as a professional learning community.

We would not have been able to achieve so much in such a short time without an organizational focus, a wholly new culture, new structures that lengthened class periods for remedial study and teacher sharing, better instructional practices and a more focused response when students failed to learn.

Richard Smith is deputy superintendent of the Sanger Unified School District in Sanger, Calif. E-mail:


Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue