Story 3: Shorline Elementary
Co-Developer Ruth Hinson shares the story of "good school" in a "good community" that undertakes significant school-wide improvement efforts. Although the school does not face a "crisis," significant changes in school structure and state mandates help to instigate the process of reflection and improvement.
The story of Shoreline Elementary is not one of “at-risk to riches.” The title doesn’t read “School In Big Trouble Makes Good!” On the contrary, the Shoreline story represents the plight of the American public school stuck in the middle. Shoreline is a school that serves the middle ground population. It’s not wealthy. It’s not poor. In the middle, Shoreline qualifies for the basic public school resources available in its school district, with little leverage for increase. Shoreline is a “good school” in a “good community.” So what is the story? The real story is about a faculty who have taken responsibility for their own success. This faculty became unwilling to accept “good enough.” So they have created within themselves an unquenchable appetite for learning and growth that focuses on their crystal clear vision: Every single child will reach his learning potential. “We are responsible for our students’ success.”
A quick glance around the classrooms and twenty-acre campus tells the newcomer that order and cleanliness are important values at Shoreline. In fact, the school is a “looks-like-new” facility that was built in 1986. Designated as Shoreline Primary at its opening, the original faculty served grades K-4. A decade later, the fifth grade class from a nearby middle school moved to Shoreline, where the growing faculty inaugurated the newly built fifth grade wing. But it was in August 1998 that the big jolt hit: Grades 6-8 were added, to make Shoreline a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school. To house the new grades, a third wing was completed. The faculty doubled in size. The lower and upper grades were set on different time schedules. Shoreline Primary became Shoreline Elementary and a new era began for the faculty, administrators, parents, and students.
The ever-increasing population in this section of state, just south of the state’s capitol, prompted the sudden growth of the school. The local economy is flourishing and residents are moving in from the metropolitan area in order to enjoy the pleasant, rural aspects of this community, yet still have the convenience of the city nearby. The demand for increasing academic quality from the petro-chemical based economy has been an outside influence helping the school recognize that it must work more diligently to prepare Shoreline students to compete with students from area private and parochial schools.
The local community considers Shoreline Elementary a source of pride. The population is non-transient, parents are positive and lend cooperation to teachers, students are generally motivated to learn, and as a result, there are few discipline referrals—about 30 in a student body of 1,000. Shoreline enjoys a 96% attendance rate, and a slim 1% grade retention rate. Nearly one-fifth of all parents are college educated, and 64% graduated from high school. Forty percent of parents are in professional careers, 41% are employed in technical fields, and 19% work in skilled trades. Seventeen percent of parents did not graduate from high school; 27 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.
In a state with a 30% minority population, the ethnicity of the school student community is somewhat unusual: 98% of students are white, .5% are African American, and 1.5% represent other ethnic identities. The faculty are somewhat more representative, at 82% white and 18% African American. The 61-person faculty is predominantly (94%) female, and almost half (47%) have masters degrees. The staff is professionally young—45 teachers have five years or less of teaching experience. Surprisingly, all 16 other teachers have more than 15 years of teaching experience.
Learning to Collaborate
Peter Senge (1990) defines learning communities as “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free and where people are continually learning how to learn together” (3). Long before the faculty or the administration at Shoreline set out to develop a professional learning community, they had made great progress toward becoming one.
Each leadership team hosted and facilitated public planning forums that were collaborative in nature and focused specifically on school improvement.
Through a series of community meetings, faculty, community members, parents and administrators generated a collective vision of what they wanted for their students’ future. These meetings were facilitated in 1993 teachers at Shoreline Primary. This vision was a critical first step in Shoreline’s membership in the Alliance for Education Reform (AER), a non-profit organization at a nearby university.
As a member of the university’s resource team, my role was to serve as external change facilitator, coach and mentor to the school. I worked with a team of teachers, administrators, and community representatives as they trained to facilitate strategic planning at the school site. Each leadership team hosted and facilitated public planning forums that were collaborative in nature and focused specifically on school improvement. Parents, community members, faculty, and administrators developed consensus on the key elements of context or history of the school, the vision for the future, barriers to the vision and new directions to achieve the vision. With the new directions serving as their goals, the schools then developed an action plan for one semester at a time, in large and small groups.
The non-traditional approach of the Alliance is designed specifically to establish teachers as the front line leaders of school improvement, not front line followers. The purpose is to cultivate a core of teachers in each school who are trained as a team with the principal in the leadership skills necessary to lead innovation, plan strategically, redesign schools, work productively in teams, and change belief systems across the school and school district. These competencies enable schools to stay the course of change and improvement over the long term—even when there are significant changes at the school.
Testing Shared Leadership
In August 1998, both the strength and quality of shared leadership at Shoreline were put to the test. Three new grades were added and two schools were essentially established beneath one roof. All faculty and staff were challenged to accomplish the transition with a maximum benefit to students. Primary teachers may have been under particular pressure to communicate the procedures and practices of shared leadership to their new 6th, 7th, and 8th grade colleagues. In this process, the school’s approach to continuous school improvement has been honored, translated, challenged, and reinvented in the “new” Shoreline School. The old has not been lost, but rather joined with the new to become a dynamic force for refreshed commitment, renewed energy, and the re-evaluation of who and what the school is and can be for all those who are a part of it.
The current need was for whole faculty staff development, especially in light of the school’s expansion, the different operating schedules of primary and middle grade teachers, and the difficulty of bringing the faculty together to learn, grow, and build community.
In September 1998, the PLC project hosted by Southwest Educational Development Laboratories provided an opportunity for members of the leadership team to travel to Austin and meet with other teachers and Co-Developers. This meeting helped Shoreline personnel focus their attention from all of the possible problems of the change they were undergoing to two significant issues that they could address: raising the bar on Shoreline achievement, and finding support for professional development.
The experience of meeting colleagues from across the country prompted Shoreline faculty to commit to addressing an issue they had known about for some time. Compared to other schools in the district, Shoreline had very high student achievement levels. But when they compared Shoreline students’ achievement to that of students in similar schools on a national level, they did not fare so well. The faculty chose the wider, more challenging view and committed themselves to an effort to bring Shoreline up to national standards.
In order to achieve this goal, Shoreline faculty would need ongoing staff development—another longstanding concern at the school. In the past, professional development had been targeted to the needs of individual teachers, to address both grade and subject level concerns. The current need was for whole faculty staff development, especially in light of the school’s expansion, the different operating schedules of primary and middle grade teachers, and the difficulty of bringing the faculty together to learn, grow, and build community. Although the student body, curriculum design, and social milieu of the school had been profoundly altered, financial resources barely increased. Finding the funds to provide faculty development would be the team’s first challenge.
Through the State Department of Education (SDE), the leadership team heard about funds available through Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) grants. Officials at SDE encouraged Shoreline to apply for funding, explaining that the process of writing the grant would help the faculty to clarify the school’s needs and strategies for meeting those needs. This clarification process, they assured, would be both beneficial in its own right and would increase Shoreline’s chances for receiving funding elsewhere, if the CSRD proposal was unsuccessful.
The leadership team decided to follow the advice of SDE, and took up the responsibility of writing the CSRD grant. CSRD called for proposals that would allow schools to choose and implement a school improvement model that fit, or could be adapted to, the grantee’s needs. Shoreline chose the Coalition of Essential Schools model because they recognized a high level of congruence between this program and the progress they had made through their work with AER. As they gathered to write their proposal, the predictions for clarification made by SDE and a clear benefit of the new PK-8 structure became apparent.
Prior to the addition of grades 6, 7, and 8, scores of Shoreline’s fifth grade students on standardized tests were sent on to area middle schools. Now that these students—and their scores—stayed at Shoreline, a troubling pattern became apparent. After fifth grade, girls from Shoreline scored significantly lower in math and science than did boys. This discovery led the leadership team to further broaden their arena of research. They met with faculty from the local university, and looked critically at their community culture. They found that the strong family structure of the area furthered the reluctance of women to pursue the many professional position available in the local petro-chemical industry. As a result, those positions went disproportionately to men and to non-natives.
The evidence that they were somehow discouraging girls from success in the very fields that would provide them stable, high-paying, and local employment helped galvanize interest in staff development among Shoreline faculty. With funding from CSRD, six teachers and one administrator from Shoreline attended Critical Friends training during the summer.
The Ebb and Flow of Goals and Improvement
As a result of seeing the way learning in each grade relied upon prior learning in earlier grades, the entire faculty took greater responsibility for state test scores in 4th and 8th grades, and helped to ease the pressure on those teachers.
The decline of girls’ scores in math and science during adolescence is an issue that has received national attention, and which has resisted many efforts at redress. Shoreline Elementary could not solve this problem overnight—but convincing proof that this dynamic was negatively affecting their students helped to convince faculty of the need for Critical Friends work, and provided a specific focus for sharing personal practice.
Once the faculty were committed, the leadership team set goals for implementation of the Critical Friends program. One goal was to have every teacher videotape themselves in their classroom and share that videotape with a critical friend during the first year. CSRD’s focus on matching school improvement models with school needs and culture was recalled, as the leadership team discovered that goal was too ambitious. Before faculty could face the perceived vulnerability of videotape and peer critique, they needed to meet with one another, discuss their practice, and build trust.
Vertical teams were developed. These meetings opened many eyes among the faculty, as they discovered the wisdom in their peers and acknowledged their responsibilities to one another.
A new staff development focus emerged as 4th and 8th grade faculty expressed their sense of being under particular pressure from state mandated tests. These discussions led to the review of learning goals in each grade level, and the practice of writing the curriculum on large pieces of paper that were posted in the meeting rooms to clearly show the relationship between the grades. As a result of seeing the way learning in each grade relied upon prior learning in earlier grades, the entire faculty took greater responsibility for state test scores in 4th and 8th grades, and helped to ease the pressure on those teachers.
Experiences like this one raise the level of enthusiasm and trust among the faculty, and increase the likelihood that all Shoreline faculty can come together and achieve success on their other goals, including video-critiques, and improving the math and science scores of adolescent girls. Based upon their earlier experience with AER, Shoreline staff are already quite sophisticated in their planning for change. They know to expect resistance, and acknowledge resistance as a product of the change process—not of individual personalities. They also know the benefit of concentrating on the positive, focusing efforts and sharing leadership roles with those teachers who show themselves to be enthusiastic, willing to take risks, and eager to improve.
Leading Is Trusting At Shoreline
When asked to characterize leadership at Shoreline Elementary, one teacher put it this way: “Leadership is shared by teachers across all grade levels. We have different people heading up different areas and new faces are taking on leadership roles in different areas all of the time. For instance, we have a faculty council that is lead by teachers. We have people writing grants who are taking the lead in that way so that the same people are not doing the work all of the time.” As she was pressed to answer why, she relied, “Teachers take on leadership roles because everybody’s ideas are listened to. I think everybody feels that they have a right to have input. It lets everybody take ownership and I don’t think that anybody is afraid of the administration stepping on their feet and saying ‘No you can’t do that,’ because they’re open to anything that’s going to benefit the kids.”
“Leadership is shared by teachers across all grade levels. We have different people heading up different areas and new faces are taking on leadership roles in different areas all of the time. For instance, we have a faculty council that is lead by teachers. We have people writing grants who are taking the lead in that way so that the same people are not doing the work all of the time.”
Shoreline Elementary has consistently developed teachers into both formal and informal leaders. Positions such as Grade Level Chairperson, Task Force Coordinator, Facilitators and School Leadership Team members all represent formal opportunities for leading school improvement work. In addition, informal leadership has developed at every opportunity. For example, the strategic planning facilitators who were trained by the Alliance for Education Reform have mentored other teachers to be facilitators. This work increases the number of facilitators at the school, reduces resistance to change as more individuals are involved in it, helps to reduce burnout of teacher leaders, and increases trust among all faculty.
Professional learning communities breathe and survive on the oxygen of trust and openness. These qualities are not developed overnight. They are initiated, nurtured, cajoled, fostered, pushed, then finally they become routine—as they have at Shoreline. Another faculty member describes the way shared leadership is routinized at Shoreline in this way, “When new teachers come into the Shoreline faculty, they are kind of ‘gun shy.’ They’ll say, ‘I can’t believe they let you do that here’ and all of that kind of stuff. But it doesn’t take them long to jump right in—and they like it. I think the administration here has a lot of faith in their faculty, that we’re going to do what’s best for kids. We live up to what’s expected of us!”
Shoreline Elementary managed to take advantage of significant restructuring to instigate research, reflection, and collaborative learning for staff development. State mandated testing of 4th and 8th graders created tension among the teachers that ultimately led to a greater school-wide awareness of the interplay of grade-level curricula. Based upon your reading of the Shoreline story, and your own knowledge of school systems and school change, do you think schools require external impetus to take on the challenge of school change and improvement? How likely does it seem that a school might instigate comprehensive school improvement without an external "push?" What qualities and resources would a school require to do so?
At Foxdale School , substantial funds were made available to address a "high number of student behavioral problems;" Beth Sattes provides a detailed description of the Appalachian environment in Deerfield Elementary school students struggle–and the numerous partnerships and supports the school receives to address these issues. The Shoreline Story, on the other hand, is described as representing the "plight of the American public school stuck in the middle." To what extent are schools "in the middle" neglected by institutions that could provide support for improvement? To what extent does the self-definition of being "in the middle" prevent pressure for improvement from building within a school?
Shoreline Elementary's experience with the Alliance for Education Reform laid significant groundwork for PLC development by providing Shoreline faculty with structures for shared leadership, prior experience in collective learning, etc. At Deerfield Elementary experience gained through work with the regional education laboratory also paved the way for PLC development. Should this kind of previous experience with school-wide change be considered in assessing a school's "readiness for change?" How might Co-Developers and school leadership best introduce PLC concepts and practices, when PLC represents a school's first step toward continuous change and improvement?