How Meridian Middle School accelerated student learning through a combination of collaborative quality school review, authentic action planning and challenging the beliefs and systems that were inhibiting progress.
Meridian Middle School is one of the largest middle schools in Kent, Washington School District, and like many schools in Kent has been part of a major demographic shift in the past ten years. Kent’s number of Title 1 students has increased significantly, as has the population of English language learners. Like many schools, Meridian worked hard to respond to students’ and families’ changing needs but found that their student performance data didn’t always reflect the efforts of students or staff. The school invited Class Measures in with the hope that an outside perspective might help the team pinpoint the key efforts that would grow the school; the effects were clear for all.
“Students change every year, we need to too”
One move Kent made to respond to shifting needs is to look closely at the school leaders they hire. Darice Johnson was a leader with extensive experience as a teacher and leader and an innate ability to respond to students on a personal level. Her ability to embody a student-centered approach is clear within moments of meeting her, and combined with over 20 years of education experience, she was ready to serve as a model of student-centered learning. With Darice’s leadership background supported by assistant principal Michel Tang, a 20+ year veteran of the district, they seemed well set up to affect the change that Meridian needed. More than half of the students at Meridian were performing below basic and far below basic on SBAC tests (level 1 and 2). However, after four years with these two leaders in place, the school still wasn’t meeting their improvement goals and though staff continued to feel valued, student culture was on the decline as evidenced by attendance and discipline data. Teachers also sensed the decline; one teacher told us he had been teaching at the school for nearly twenty years, and thought that at this point he would be an expert but reflected that instead he has learned that, “students change every year, so we need to too.”
Collecting the right data and owning the process
Darice invited Class Measures in with the hope that an outside perspective might help her and her team pinpoint the key efforts that would grow the school. Darice knew that they had been looking at “hard data” like SBAC scores, attendance rates, and suspension data and still weren’t finding the key levers to pull to improve learning for students. As an educational leader Darice knew that there were other data sources that might offer more insight and, through her work with Jo Cheadle of Class Measures, they were able to develop a plan to go hunting for the right data. Darice explains why Class Measures were seen as such a good fit,
“Class Measures had the tools and practical experience to get our school review in motion. They knew how to prepare our staff to ask the right questions to begin identifying what was working and what wasn’t for students and staff. More importantly the team of consultants each had different areas of expertise and leadership styles that fit the different members of our staff and the strengths and personalities they bring to the work.”
After collecting some informal data through classroom observations, discussions with key stakeholders, and an analysis of past performance data, Darice, Jo and Class Measures consultant, Amber Leage, realized other staff members needed a chance to see and hear broader perspectives across the school and look closely at the whole body of information together. They began to build a team to lead the school through a Collaborative School Quality Review (CSQR) and with that team built the tools and agreements they would need to carry out their work with integrity and courage - the kind of courage needed to look honestly at their own practices and recognize what to hold onto and what it was time to let go of. The CSQR team knew more data was needed, and began to design a process to incorporate many voices in the CSQR process and invite all staff members into the work of the school review. The CSQR team made up of nine school staff members, guided and supported by Class Measures, created a tool that spoke to their vision of a great school and a research-based rubric to measure themselves by. Reflecting on the process Darice said,
“From the beginning, it was evident the Class Measures team was highly invested in our school community. This helped me as a leader bring together and engage all stakeholders: staff, students, parents and community partners to honestly contribute their own thoughts and beliefs that culminated in the final report that identified the school’s strengths and areas for growth. Based on this we created the action plan for the 2019-20 school year. This process was so inclusive that the buy-in from staff was overwhelmingly positive.”
Hard work and heart work
During the CSQR the team worked in groups of three, led by Class Measures consultants to ensure they saw every class on campus (a total of 780 minutes of instructional time) and spoke with every staff member (46 in total). Through this observation and focus group data the team took time to discuss together - to share both challenges, reflections, and feelings. They agreed to be direct with each other about what they heard, what they saw, and what it meant to them. In debrief discussions members of the CSQR team reflected on how much good teaching they saw, how articulate students were and how committed and hard-working staff members were - most of these reflections confirmed much of what the team already knew and felt about their school. The harder work, that resulted in what we called “heart work”, was focused on the things people didn’t necessarily hear regularly. For example, team members were surprised to find that many classes were not structured or student-centered and that many staff members voiced feeling frustrated, isolated, or ineffectual, and many students felt unseen by their teachers and unsuccessful or detached from their own learning. When they looked at the breadth of evidence the team identified three big trends:
- Learning in many classes was over-scaffolded and under-differentiated.
- Even though students were generally engaged in lessons and worked hard, they did not make the rapid progress needed to meet academic goals due to insufficient checking for understanding to adjust instruction.
- Teachers did not maximize their collaborative time to analyze all student data and plan work that matched students’ needs.
“Our team learned so much over the two-day school review. By discussing classroom observations, student and staff focus group input, and working to reconcile that with our individual perspectives on the school, we began to understand that we were all having different experiences and setting different priorities. Those differences were keeping us all very busy but we were rowing in different directions, which meant we weren’t moving very fast.” - Darice Johnson, Principal
Narrowing the focus for greater impact
Teachers and leaders began to reflect on how many initiatives were in place, how many different goals they were tracking, and how difficult it was to measure the impact of the many systems. The team quickly came to consensus about one thing - they would need to narrow their focus if they were going to help students make notable improvement. Choosing the key focus areas to improve student achievement was not so easy. Though everyone agreed they needed to narrow their priorities, knowing which efforts to prioritize was more challenging. Again, the data from the CSQR report offered a data-based starting point. The CSQR team led by Class Measures, got together to plan for a two-part professional development activity, firstly to share the results of the CSQR and reflect, and secondly to help choose the best place to start improvement efforts. All staff engaged in further analysis of the report, and worked within Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) groups to generate a list of the structures that best support school improvement - as a staff they decided to focus their 2019-20 efforts on improving the impact of PLCs, peer observations, and curriculum alignment.
Planning for impact
Based on a wide source of data and the input of all staff, Darice and Michele now had the information they needed to create an authentic action plan based on the strengths of their staff and key structures that were already in place. They also knew each of those structures needed more rigor, consistency and accountability - the three qualities staff had identified were lacking. With support from three Class Measures consultants and expertise in the areas of accountability and progress monitoring, leadership development, and data analysis, the team worked for three days to create an action plan that was actionable and included plans to develop the leadership capacity of key staff, measure progress through hard and soft data, develop success criteria for each key action, and ensure that all goals were measurable and aligned to the school’s mission and vision. The team developed 3 goals for the following school year:
- Establish a shared vision of how quality teaching and collaboration impact student learning and belonging.
- Empower educators to utilize student data to facilitate relevant learning experiences for all students.
- Gather and reflect on evidence of student learning to make informed decisions and adjustments to drive rigor and support.
Darice connected the impact of the school-wide CSQR to her development as a leader, noting,
“I especially appreciate the guidance the Class Measures team provided to me in my personal growth as a leader. In no way has this process been easy, and it involves a level of perseverance and investment of time to affect the change to support students and staff. That’s the beauty of working with Class Measures and particularly this team of consultants. Each member brought a specialized skill set that was well suited to the needs of our school. As a team, they respectfully challenged our beliefs and systems that were inhibiting our progress. Throughout the school year we had scheduled visitations, phone conferences or email communications that contributed to the overall effectiveness of the finished product. These last two years have had a tremendous impact on my leadership as well as helping staff to shift the focus from what teachers are teaching, to how students are learning.”
Each goal was supported by 2-3 measurable strategies to improve the most high-impact structures within the school:
- Professional Learning Communities
- In the past PLCs happened inconsistently, lacked a common approach and leaders were not supported
- PLC leads are now part of a monthly meeting facilitated by the ILT in which they plan, measure impact, and collaboratively problem solve
- Collaborative planning (horizontal & vertical alignment)
- Historically collaborative planning has been haphazard and teachers noted common skills, content, and themes in their curricula through lunch-time conversations or seeing student projects on display
- Meridian has now added a full-time instructional coach to co-plan with teachers, attend grade level and department meetings in order to identify and facilitate opportunities for collaborative planning. They have also established an expectation for grade-level cross-curricular projects and fieldwork experiences embedded into every curricula
- Effective Learning Observation (peer observation tool)
- Though the Meridian staff was trained on the ELO process two years ago, it had not become a regular practice within the school and no one was spearheading it
- ELO is now an integral part of the school’s action plan and nearly every teacher has participated in it. Moving forward the school’s department leads are tasked with gathering ELO data to measure the impact of their PLC meetings and engage in more meaningful collaborative conversations about what is and isn’t driving learning for students.
Teacher feedback that noted every structure needed more consistency, rigor and accountability, so in the planning process Class Measures crafted the three questions below to ensure each strategy was guided by clear measures and criteria for success:
- Consistency - Does our work happen within a cycle of continuous improvement?
- Rigor - Is this structure being executed in a way that yields significant measurable results for student learning?
- Accountability - Do we help each other recognize and strive for a professional commitment to learning for ourselves and our students?
Criteria for success
The action plan that the ILT developed ensures that PLCs, collaborative planning, and ELO are ongoing, rigorous efforts and their action plan includes weekly and monthly monitoring plans.
- Weekly ILT time increased from 45 minutes to 2 hours
- ILT now includes a full-time Instructional Coach to spearhead academic improvement
- All efforts link back to student performance goals and instructional leaders are monitoring adult inputs as well as student outputs
Reflecting on the CSQR and action planning process Darice observed,
“These structures have given me everything I’ve been asking for to grow my leadership capacity and develop other members of my team. Now I know exactly what my focus is and can connect my daily tasks back to our three big goals and ultimately to our school’s mission and vision. I can’t accomplish that mission on my own and have to trust that others will help us get there. Whenever I work with the Class Measures team I walk away thinking, ‘I’m about to make some big changes here.’”