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"This Is Parkway" Digital Magazine

Professional Learning Communities

Experience at South High

South High Principal Gary Mazzola was surprised at the test results. He prides himself on hiring the very best teachers, and like other principals across the country, he always thought one outstanding teacher could propel an entire class into an educational stratosphere of sorts.

But the test results showed something slightly different. The test results showed greater success when teams of teachers worked together in “professional learning communities” (PLCs) to help all students.

Ever since his English II teachers had come to him four years ago and asked if they could start a “professional learning community,” South High English II student test scores had improved on end-of-course exams. The jump in test scores was for everyone, from lower-level students who typically struggle in English II, to the highest achieving students.

Noting their success, the English I teachers came to the English II teachers and asked for advice on how to start a professional learning community. After the collaboration, test scores improved for all English I students. Then the Algebra and geometry teachers wanted in on the action. And so on. Through it all, Mazzola made sure the teachers had plenty of time in summer and throughout the year to implement the professional learning community model, which also includes supplying lots of intervention for students.

As a result, roughly every student moved up one level in every subject on the MAP test from one year to the next (2010-2011) at South High.

South High is one of the first Parkway schools to pilot professional learning communities, and its success is similar to schools across the country with PLCs. Nationally, students in school districts that have implemented PLCs have experienced tremendous academic growth.

Parkway will begin implementing PLCs in the 2012-13 school year, as an important part of its strategic plan. Using professional development days, teachers will meet for two hours on the first Wednesday of most months. Teams of teachers will:

  • Scrutinize data about their students’ academic performance
  • Identify students who need extra help
  • Identify students who need more challenging work
  • Review teaching strategies that will help all students
  • Take action to help each child improve

They will focus on how best to help individual students. If one teacher, for instance, is extremely adept at explaining circumference to accelerated learners in geometry class, he will share his teaching strategies with other geometry teachers on his team. As the team continues to meet monthly, teachers will monitor individual student progress through test scores. If the circumference strategy doesn’t work, it will be revised.

“These teams measure their effectiveness on the basis of results for students, rather than intentions or good ideas,” says Liz Morrison, coordinator of professional learning at Parkway.

“We won’t be flooding our kids with tests, but we will check their understanding frequently with a variety of assessments,” says JoAnn Brenner, an Algebra II and Trigonometry teacher at South High. “And we will share and pool strategies to reach the kids. Often, it is re-teaching, re-teaching, re-teaching a particular concept in four different ways. It’s about pooling strategies using the best ones that work for visual learners, auditory learners, etc.”

To questions such as, “Haven’t teachers always been doing targeted instruction for kids,” Brenner answers yes. “But it wasn’t as frequent. And there wasn’t a structured format to collaborate and pool strategies. Teachers never have enough time because of after-school activities, etc. This model allows them to meet in the morning once every month to go over everything.”

The model is also strengthened by strong intervention. If a student is struggling in say, Algebra 1, that student is “more than invited” to participate in an after-school study session. The teachers call parents to ask if a particular student can stay after school on a Tuesday, for instance, to receive extra help. In other cases, with Algebra I or English 1, South High relies on teachers’ aids and academic coaches to sit in on classes with students to monitor their progress and give them help on the spot if they need it.

“We used to think if a student didn’t understand a concept in the first two weeks of class, he would catch up eventually with an outstanding teacher,” says Mazzola. “Now we know that if a student doesn’t understand in the first two weeks, he’s likely to be lost for the rest of the semester.”

Mazzola and Brenner expect this model to raise student achievement throughout Parkway. The sense of excitement at South High, they say, is everywhere. “You have to have your intervention strategies set up, your after-school sessions and academic labs,” says Brenner. “And I am not just talking about for lower-level students. I am talking about the bright students, too. It is taking each child as high as they can go. It feels like a simple change, but one that makes a huge difference.”

“Supporting my teachers in implementing PLCs has been my most rewarding job as principal,” adds Mazzola. “We are winning the game with this.”