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Moving Up From Mediocre

The use of professional learning communities in Schaumburg, Ill., since 2005 has brought outstanding progress to student learning

BY NICK MYERS AND ED RAFFERTY

School District 54 in Schaumburg, Ill., always viewed itself as a great school district. Unfortunately, many parents and community members in the district, located on the outskirts of Chicago, thought of us as less than stellar. Student achievement had remained stagnant for several years, and our district had become complacent as we made excuses for this lack of progress. It was easier to blame students and our changing demographics than to take a hard look at what we were not doing to address the learning needs of our students.

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Nick Myers

Staff members were becoming increasingly frustrated and complained of low morale. Although they were working hard, they were not seeing the gains in student achievement they hoped for. They asked the district administration for specific guidance about how to do a better job of teaching our 14,000 students.

This was happening at the same time the accountability movement exploded and achievement results became fully transparent to the entire community. Staff and parents now could see firsthand how a particular school was doing and began calling for change.

Parents and community members questioned whether the students were reaping benefits from their tax dollars. In fact, the mayor of one of the communities we serve refused to introduce our board of education members at community gatherings because, he said, he was embarrassed by the district’s overall performance.

Guiding Light
After a great deal of research that included discussions with representatives of highly successful school districts, we concluded that a district-wide implementation of professional learning communities was the way for us to go. PLCs offer a guiding framework within which district staff learn together and collaborate to improve the achievement of all students.

Seven years later, Schaumburg School District 54 students are showing unprecedented gains in academic achievement in math and reading. Overall, the district has moved from being ranked 241st out of 740 Illinois school districts in academic achievement in 2005 to 65th in 2011. Much of that success can be attributed to the district’s commitment to implementing and nurturing professional learning communities.

Several key strategies proved beneficial.

Ambitious Aims
During 2006-07, before we began professional learning communities at our schools, the board of education established a district goals committee comprised of stakeholders. The committee was charged with establishing District 54’s mission, vision, collective commitments and goals. Strong PLCs are anchored by a shared understanding of these elements, so the committee’s work was critical to charting the future course of the school system.

The new mission, ensuring student success, captured the essence of the notion that it is the collective responsibility of all staff members to do whatever is necessary to educate students to achieve at high levels. Excuses for low levels of student achievement would no longer be -tolerated.

The committee also established three ambitious goals to guide the work of all 27 schools and the system as a whole:

  • Students who have attended District 54 schools for at least one year will read at grade level upon entering 3rd grade.
  • Each school will close the achievement gap for all students in reading and math as measured by both district and state assessments.
  • At least 90 percent of all students will meet or exceed standards in reading and math as measured by both district and state assessments.

At the time the board of education adopted the three overarching goals, no school in District 54 had 90 percent of its students meeting or exceeding state academic standards in reading and math. The district hoped the PLCs would remedy that.

Sharing Knowledge
As District 54 rolled out the professional learning community model across all schools in the system, educators continually discussed the question “Do we believe all children can learn?”

In schools where the staff was committed to PLCs from the beginning, implementation progressed quickly and

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Ed Rafferty

smoothly. However, some school teams initially set low student performance goals, arguing it was not realistic to expect students from low-income, English language learner or special education backgrounds to achieve at high levels. In some schools, staff members resisted PLC implementation because they were not convinced that strong systems of support could affect student learning.

To build shared knowledge around the concept of professional learning communities and thus build more support, the district brought  together teacher and support staff leadership teams from all 27 school sites, members of the school board, all building- and district-level administrators and the presidents of the teacher and support staff unions to participate in a two-day staff development session on PLCs facilitated by Richard and Rebecca DuFour.

During this training, all groups participated in thoughtful dialogue about the foundational concepts of professional learning communities. Participation by the entire district administrative team was significant because it illustrated the district’s commitment, and it provided an opportunity for all district personnel to air their concerns about implementing the PLC framework. A portion of each day was devoted to an Ask the Superintendent activity, during which participants shared their reflections and concerns and gained clarity with questions about the implementation of professional learning communities across the system.

By the end of the second day, participants echoed widespread support and enthusiasm for implementing the PLC concept. Immediately after the training, school leadership teams took a hard look at their schools and formulated strategic plans to transform them into true professional learning communities.

Support Structures
Successful systemwide use of PLCs is strengthened when the central-office monitors implementation along with student achievement data.

As such, District 54 requires school leadership teams, consisting of teachers, support staff, parents and administrators, to meet with the superintendent and cabinet every 90 days. During these meetings, school teams review their student achievement data and discuss their next steps for moving student achievement forward. This process calls upon schools to identify growth opportunities and the specific instructional strategies they will implement to bring about desired results.

The superintendent and cabinet suggest ways to proceed, but the real focus is on the needs and concerns of the school teams and how the district can provide additional supports to help the schools engage in this challenging work. As schools across the district developed strong support structures and generated impressive results with all subgroups of students, the naysayers recognized that, with the right structures in place, all children truly can experience measurable degrees of academic success.

Scheduled Dialogue
The central office can provide resources, training and support for the PLC concept, but talented, passionate and skilled principal leaders and teacher leader teams are essential to successfully transforming schools into high-performing PLCs.

Principals and teacher leader teams conduct site visits to other district schools to observe PLC implementation and learn ways to enhance the systems in place at their respective sites. Additionally, District 54’s principals meet regularly in cluster teams of elementary schools and their junior high feeder groups to share effective strategies and to brainstorm solutions. This collaboration enables the administrative team at each school to model the collaborative processes that inherently are part of the PLC framework for school improvement.

Providing scheduled opportunities for teams of teachers to engage in thoughtful dialogue around the critical questions of learning also is a vital component to the PLC framework. Schools across the district schedule art, music, physical education and learning center sessions at times that enable grade-level or content-area teams to meet in their PLCs during the day. During these meetings, teachers co-plan lessons and learning activities, talk about the best way to teach a particular concept and spend time analyzing both common and district-level assessment results to monitor student progress.

To further promote collaboration, the district worked with the teachers’ union to refine contract language to eliminate set start and end times to the teaching day and to develop an early-release schedule for students one day per week. Teachers now have an additional 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoons to hold collaborative team meetings focused on examining data, identifying outcomes and developing strategies to improve student achievement.

During District 54’s initial implementation of professional learning communities, some fine arts and phys-ed teachers were unhappy with the way the new master schedules were designed. Recognizing the value of enabling fine arts and phys-ed teachers to engage in the PLC process in their respective areas, the administrators encourage these teachers to hold departmental meetings twice a month and during district in-service days to engage in the PLC process. This has allowed these departments to build their own essential outcomes, design common assessments tied to their instruction and share effective teaching practices based on the data gleaned from these assessment measures.

As the schools in District 54 experience more success with PLC concepts, these successes are shared with the entire district. In fact, the teaching staff is invited to present their successes during PLC-related staff development sessions.

Last summer, the district hosted its first professional development symposium, which featured more than 30 teacher-facilitated breakout sessions focused on ways to improve student achievement through the implementation of PLC practices. More than 350 teachers participated; the exchange of effective practices among teachers further demonstrated that the collaborative work of teacher teams is bringing about tremendous success to the district as a whole.

Fixed Focus
We see professional learning communities as the overarching framework for all district school improvement. Effective implementation requires educators to engage in ongoing staff development and process training and to continually reflect on ways to refine and strengthen each component of the PLC model.

Limiting competing initiatives is important as a school district moves forward with PLC implementation.

The district provides time during the day for teams to meet, and because staff members are clear about district expectations, goals and processes, they stay focused on what they need to do to promote student learning. The essential outcomes the teachers developed are aligned to the new common core stand-ards as they become available. These outcomes guide the teaching that takes place in every classroom and enable teachers to focus on what is important for students to learn.

Turnaround Performance
How are we doing? The collective efforts of the entire district team — certified staff, support staff, administrators and board of education members — resulted in 2,400 more students meeting state academic standards in 2011 than did in 2005. The district increased its percentage of students meeting state proficiency stand-ards in reading from 76 percent in 2005 to almost 91 percent in 2011. Achievement gains in math have been equally as dramatic.

In fact, 17 of the 27 schools attained the distinction of having at least 90 percent of students meeting or exceeding state academic standards in reading and math in 2011. This translates into significantly more students experiencing measurable degrees of academic success that will prepare them for success in high school and beyond. We sustain the momentum by honoring individuals for their achievements, inviting teacher teams to present their successes to their colleagues and honoring schools that have met the board of education’s 90 percent goals. By recognizing and celebrating the successes along the journey, the district ensures staff morale and enthusiasm are high.

Today, the entire District 54 learning community is passionately committed to upholding its mission, ensuring student success.

Nick Myers is assistant superintendent of student learning in School District 54 in Schaumburg, Ill. E-mail: NicholasMyers@sd54.k12.il.us. Ed Rafferty is superintendent in Schaumburg, Ill.

 

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