As noted above, the study of Cottonwood Creek School is intended to provide more knowledge and understanding about how a school professional staff becomes a community of learners. A basic feature of professional learning communities is the consistent collaboration among the staff. A review of the current research base reveals at least five major dimensions of the professional learning community: supportive and shared leadership, collective learning and application of learning, shared values and vision, supportive conditions, and shared personal practice. These attributes are present to various degrees in schools and are implemented in unique ways by different staffs. But the literature agrees that they are the defining characteristics of a professional learning community.
What is not so clear in the literature is how these characteristics are developed among the professionals of a school staff. Studies currently being conducted by SISS staff in schools such as Cottonwood Creek School are shedding light on this question.
Data were collected for the research study of Cottonwood Creek School in order to discover how the professional learning community characteristics were expressed in this particular school and how the school staff evolved into a professional community of learners. The data were gathered through personal interviews conducted by SISS staff with 30 members of the Cottonwood Creek School staff, the current principal, and the previous principal (who served the school for five years). In addition, an interview was conducted with the previous instructional guide who served in this role to support teachers' effective practice. Three parents, a central office staff person, and a professor from a nearby university who has been involved with the school for the past decade were also interviewed. All but three of the interviews were tape-recorded and later transcribed. This story of Cottonwood Creek School is a report of the case study research conducted by SISS researchers.
Cottonwood Creek School Description
Cottonwood Creek School is housed in a building that was constructed in 1923. Over the years it has been well maintained and modernized, yet it retains its original identity and charm. The campus now includes a number of portable buildings, as well as some additional permanent structures, such as a gymnasium. The school is located just minutes away from the central business district of a large city. As one approaches the campus, businesses, industries, warehouses, and freeways are much more evident than homes.
Approximately 500 students are enrolled in Cottonwood Creek School, which includes pre-kindergarten through grade 5 classes. The teaching faculty comprises 36 people. Also on the staff are a principal, an assistant principal, an instructional guide (as noted above, a person who serves in a full-time instructional support role), and twelve aides.
School History and Development
From the comments of the school staff, the history of Cottonwood Creek School as a professional learning community began about ten years ago. A significant factor in this decade-long story is the association of the school with Hilltop University (HU). In 1987, following some key state-level decisions regarding teacher education, HU secured some grant money and asked Cottonwood Creek School to collaborate in planning and executing a high-quality teacher development program. After deliberation, the staff accepted the invitation to work with HU, a decision that led to numerous meetings between HU and the school staff, with grant monies used to release teachers for the meetings.
The state had also announced that extra funding would be available to 80 schools in the state to work toward educational excellence. A group of teachers at Cottonwood Creek School worked diligently and entered the school in the competition, and Cottonwood Creek was selected as one of the 80 schools, thus gaining visibility and recognition.
In the summer of 1988 the district assigned to Cottonwood Creek a new principal. This principal was not supportive of the plans under way. Within three years (spring 1991) serious conflicts had developed, and in the summer of that year the district assigned another new principal.