How Clover Park School District addressed school improvement needs across a group of schools each with unique student populations and priority goals.
Clover Park school district identified 3 schools that were particularly struggling with the needs of their diverse communities, which in turn was creating discord between district and school and sometimes between principals and staff, despite some strong resources and teachers at their disposal. Class Measures school improvement specialists led an innovative program of School Quality Reviews, Effective Learning Observations, and on-site training and coaching that developed trust across staff, schools and district and the increased skills to better realize the missions and visions of their schools.
Clover Park school district serves twenty-three schools in the community of Lakewood. Many of the teachers and leaders grew up attending the schools they are now leading. The continuity and tradition are evident from nearly every staff member you speak with, but many of the students and families have had a very different experience. The district serves a diverse community, and there are many families that have recently immigrated from Central America; others are recently relocated military families, there to serve at Join Base Lewis-McChord Army and Air Force Base.
Meeting high demands in changing and challenging times
Families’ expectations for teachers and leaders to better meet the needs of their current student population have changed in recent years. Though the district has many strong resources, they were not being leveraged in a way that teachers found accessible and comprehensive. District leaders recognized that frequent shifts in expectations had created distrust between district and school, and at times between principals and teachers. They invited Class Measures to work with three key schools that had particularly high demands put on them – Lakeview, Tillicum, and Park Lodge elementary schools.
The need to identify a flexible improvement plan to serve multiple schools
Class Measures consultants led Collaborative Quality School Reviews (CQSR) to determine the strengths and areas of need within each of the three schools then worked with individual schools to look closely at the areas of need and create a plan for improvement. Each of the schools created unique approaches but through a trend analysis of the three reports and action plans – the Class Measures team was able to identify three commonalities across the schools. Each of the schools wanted;
- A stronger school culture
- More distributive leadership
- More authentic collaboration among teachers
All three schools felt they were being pulled in many directions, but once they identified common goals they began to develop collaborative approaches that would give them measurable impact. Each of the schools had structures in place to support these efforts – but the structures were too complex and weren’t giving them the information or investment they were looking for. Each of the schools was working hard to develop a culture that brought families, students, and staff together and in each school the barriers to this were different but the result was the same – people within the school felt disconnected. The schools were developing more complex systems to increase rigor and support but most of those systems relied on teachers doing more and teachers already felt burnt out. Finally, emerging leaders had roles and responsibilities and weekly meetings, but few opportunities to develop their leadership skills.
Increasing capacity to continuously improve – for teachers and leaders
The schools needed a simple, grounded approach to hang their hat on. The CQSR in each school made one thing clear – teachers wanted more face time with their leaders. They wanted to see leaders in classes and to be coached by them so they could keep getting better. Emerging leaders also needed more time in classes to have a stronger sense of what teaching and learning really looked like. However, both district and school leaders had identified the deteriorating trust between different levels of leadership – work to build trust within the schools was needed – asking teachers to observe one another and give informal feedback was a big ask. Synette Melluzzo, the Principal of Park Lodge noted,
“We had a lot of work to do to build a culture of trust with each other and a belief in our own efficacy as professionals. Effective Learning Observations gave us a clear, simple approach to talking about instruction.”
Even though the schools identified struggles with communication and trust between teachers and leaders, teachers and staff were open and willing to talk to the Class Measures team about their struggles and perceptions. This openness proved to be a major asset in the improvement process and talking about Effective Learning Observations (ELOs) was no exception. Teachers and new leaders told us they were anxious, fearful about giving feedback, but also acknowledged their willingness to be brave and try something new because they knew “doing the same thing and expecting different results was insanity” as one instructional coach told the team. One of the principals noted that,
“ELO has become a really important structure for our team. One of our ILT members, a great teacher I’d always identified as highly proficient, wanted to support other teachers, and she reflected that when she plans she is really just taking information from one place and putting it in another. She wanted to model good planning for our new teachers but reflected that she needed practice to plan more intentionally by thinking in terms of what students need, rather than just using the different pre-made curricular tools. In most of our classes all students are doing the same thing but they don’t need the same thing. This has been the biggest change in thinking for teachers.”
Class Measures hosted an ELO training day with all three schools – their principals, assistant principals, and key teacher leaders came out to spend the day diving into this thing called ELO – the simple process of watching someone teach and asking, “Where was learning best? Where could learning be better?” Jo Cheadle, Vice President at Class Measures School and District Transformation, led the training with school improvement specialists supporting each of the three schools. Sessions started by talking about all the reasons that formal evaluation rarely has the impact schools are looking for – Class Measures specialists heard teachers express the nervousness about “the big day” and their struggle to connect the formal evaluation tool to their daily reality. They heard leaders talk about the time commitment and pressure to do formal evaluations that kept them away from the daily realities of school life. And both teachers and leaders talked about the process as an obstacle to building trust. With all that context Class Measures then introduced the ELO process and outlined the ways in which it is structured to respond to those fears and anxieties.
How do we know when learning is happening? (Can you pirouette?)
Taking the focus off of “what the teacher is doing” and putting it instead on students is the ultimate ice breaker because teachers are invited to think about students and learning, rather than their own teaching. Teachers are typically a self-critical bunch and even the most talented teacher clams up when asked to talk about their own practice. Luckily, teachers are also, generally speaking, a group that loves to talk about students and their learning – it’s what drives them to do a job that is otherwise highly demanding and not highly paid. Taking it a step further, to talk not just about what students are doing, but what are they doing that may serve as evidence of learning, launches some great debate, fiery questions, and ultimately gets at the heart of the matter...How do we know when learning is happening?
In one practice observation the team watched a video of a masters-level class of the Paris Opera Ballet Company. The evidence of learning the team found was uncanny – despite the language barriers and lack of content knowledge most of us faced – the incredible evidence of learning or lack of learning was so clear and examples included toes that pointed too much or not enough, students that incorrectly mimicked their peers’ movements, the uniformity or lack thereof in position four – suddenly teachers and leaders were on a hunt, together, looking for learning. The educators in the room were also laughing at what they didn’t know, getting curious, and relying on one another to capture this allusive thing that is learning. Suddenly there was room to breathe and room to grow.
Overcoming internal perceptions and rebuilding trust (by looking together)
One teacher noted, “Of course I want to see other people’s classes, I just don’t want to make them nervous…. I know I feel nervous when other people come into my class, but I still want people to come in.” This simple comment launched a discussion across the three schools about the perceptions they were battling. Most people believed that going into a colleague’s class would make that teacher uncomfortable. However, though the teachers in the training noted they too might feel a bit nervous, ultimately, they wanted their colleagues and leaders to come into their classes. They didn’t feel successful and wanted support and feedback. They looked around at the twenty plus educators in the room and reflected, “We’re probably not the only ones who feel this way.”
The foundations they needed to rebuild trust for adults and increase learning for students were already in place – but would require people stepping out of their comfort zone. Class Measures’ training methodology has been built to offer many opportunities for just that. Through practice feedback sessions and mock observations, teachers and leaders began to see beyond their initial discomfort. In doing so, they began to experience the opportunity that was available by being more transparent and brave with one another so that student learning could take center stage. The vulnerability that team members shared extended to leadership planning, Synette reflected,
“Working with Class Measure has pushed me to shift my leadership practices. Jo really challenged me to make sure all teachers had their class lists and data before the end of the school year. I wasn’t sure I could get it all ready in time. In the end it really stretched me. The difference is that now I can plan summer PD with the expectations that teachers know their incoming students, their proficiency levels, and are ready to plan.”
Suzy Kontos, Director of teaching and Learning at Clover Park School District, echoed the impact the Class Measures team brought about,
“Class Measures staff have gone above and beyond to work alongside our schools, ensuring that schools are leading the process and that the work aligns to each school's unique student population and priority goals. The collaboration has been an extremely positive experience for school-leadership and staff.”
Extending the impact through ELO
The Class Measures team followed up with on-site training at each school where they modeled, coached, and gave feedback to teachers and principals doing ELOs for the first time.
In the first observation the whole team went together – 9 adults watching one kindergarten class. A veteran teacher was teaching five year olds about the letter E – the team was able to hear a lot of talk about eggs and elephants and then was able to debrief separately as a team – one of the school’s instructional coaches said “Ooooh, if only all teachers could teach like that” and many heads nodded in agreement. “But that’s not what we’re here to talk about,” responded Jo, “it’s not about how good or bad the teaching was – it’s about the level of learning we saw from students.” The team got quiet for a beat then someone said “Angel sure was learning a lot....” and they were off to the races. The team learned that Angel was learning best when he explained how his drawing matched the words he was writing; Juliana learned best when her seat partner asked if she had ever seen an elephant; and Jaiye’s learning could have been better if he’d had a more challenging task. Jaiye not only knew the letter E but the entire alphabet and rattled off letters and words with such animation the students around him stared in amazement (as only kindergarteners can). As they prepared to give the feedback teachers were nervous and expressed all the typical concerns - that the teacher was so talented, and had more experience. But when the teacher came into the room and heard the feedback and when the team asked, “How could we make learning better for Jaiye?” she said, “I’m not sure, I never really thought of it like that – I’ve been teaching the letters that way for years even though I know that many of my students already know the whole alphabet.” Proving she really was the master teacher we’d all suspected she turned to the other teachers in the room and said, “How do you do this with your students?”
Generating impact and exceeding goals using ELO data
- Park Lodge exceeded their goal with 100% of teachers participating in ELOs - teachers were observed by colleagues and observed their colleagues with two-way feedback cycles in place for every staff member
- Park Lodge end-of-year focus groups also provided data on the structures in place that teachers felt best supported their development
- ELO was identified as the number one structure that gave teachers clear models of, and feedback toward, realizing the mission and vision of the school
- Tillicum used ELOs as a measure to meet their goal of “Reinforcing, celebrating and holding people accountable for reflecting the vision/mission” by setting up a process for staff member recognition - staff members identified ELOs as the main source of evidence they used to recognize colleagues and learn new practices
- At Lakeview the school set a goal to train the whole ILT in the ELO process. They exceeded that goal by training not only ILT members, but an additional group of teachers, interventionists, and paraprofessionals. Nearly half of the staff was trained to conduct ELOs in order to gather evidence of how these three groups of educators could more strategically align their approaches
- The team created a unique rubric and evaluation system that aligns with the mission and vision of the district.
- For each school, the team created specific goals and an action plan that included embedded coaching work, a progress monitoring system, and whole school professional development
"In all my years in education and working with consultants, working with this organization has been one of the most professional experiences that I have had. Their knowledge of effective schools, leadership, and instruction is vast, and their ability to analyze and message that to educators is unequaled. I would highly recommend Class Measures LLC., for any school improvement work.
- Suzy Kontos, Director of teaching and Learning, Clover Park School District