Story 6: Sunset Middle School
Administrative personnel changes at Sunset Middle School disrupt change efforts during the second year of the PLC project. A principal who also served as project Co-Developer finds that efforts to maintain her Co-Developer role after leaving the principalship are perceived as a threat to the new administration.
During the first year of the professional learning communities (PLC) project hosted by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, I was able to serve Sunset Middle School as both project Co-Developer and principal. Since I had been principal at Sunset for the previous eight years, and had been instrumental in the complete renovation of the school and the restructuring of the educational process, I had a strong vested interest in seeing this new improvement initiative take hold. That was not to be.
A year into the PLC project, I moved into a new position at the district level; this great opportunity for me turned out to be the practical end of PLC development at Sunset Middle School. A new principal came to Sunset—someone who was not a strong proponent of PLC, and who did not develop the necessary support and commitment to the program in her first year. Progress in PLC development came to a halt; the only PLC initiative that was fully and perhaps permanently integrated into the educational process at Sunset turned out to be the noon study hour—which had strong faculty support, as it provided a mechanism for increasing students’ completion of homework.
The change of staff in any district is inevitable. The unfortunate truth is that one can also reliably predict a new administrator will feel some resistance to to embracing the projects of his or her predecessor—even it they could prove valuable to their new schools and students. The pressure for administrators to “make their mark” can put ego and ambition in the way of stability and improvement. In order to prevent personnel changes from disrupting education and improvement efforts, the good things that happen for children must be institutionalized, and teacher leaders must be developed—with the confidence and ability to continue positive change efforts, and to maintain and expand the pockets of excellence that develop through these efforts.
In Sunset District, the appointment of a new superintendent led to changes throughout the school administration: the high school assistant principal became the principal at Sunset Middle School, an athletic director became the new assistant principal, and I moved to the central office as the Associate Superintendent for Instruction. These reassignments led to many changes that could in no way be considered “improvements.”
Sunset Middle School
Sunset Middle school is located in a small southwestern community with a large Hispanic population. In fact, 85% of the 650-member student body is Hispanic, 12% are Anglo, and 3% represent other ethnicities. The 60-member faculty mirror the student population—87% are Hispanic and 13% are Anglo. Sunset Middle School has the highest number of teachers with masters degrees in the district—but there is little ethnic or cultural diversity.
One Sunset teacher voiced the frustrations of many of her colleagues when she exclaimed: “This is the worst year I’ve ever had!”
As principal, I sought to stay cognizant of our need to add diversity to our staff, in order to give our students a more global picture of the world—a glimpse outside their small community. Many times, school board members did not appreciate my hiring staff who were perceived to be “outsiders.” However, parent groups later expressed their belief that looking for potential teachers outside of the small university town would be healthy. I felt it was essential to providing our students many new and different perspectives.
Our state is not immune to the nationwide sweep of the standards movements and its accompanying accountability. The accountability model being implemented in our state is based on test scores. Teachers are being held accountable—primarily through performance standards testing—to ensure that the state standards and benchmarks are being addressed. Teachers are pressured to ensure their students do well on the state-mandated tests, in order to prevent their school from being placed on school improvement or probationary status. As a result of these changes and pressures, many teachers are retiring or leaving the profession. One Sunset teacher voiced the frustrations of many of her colleagues when she exclaimed: “This is the worst year I’ve ever had!”
Prior Change Efforts Pave the Way For Continuing Improvement Efforts at Sunset
When I first looked for teacher leaders to assist in the development of a professional learning community at Sunset Middle School, I sought teachers that were well respected by their peers, had the best interests of students at heart, and demonstrated the desire to improve education for all students. Two teachers immediately came to the fore.
These five-member teams were themselves a product of a restructuring program designed to improve the educational experience for adolescents. Using the 1989 research tenets of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, each of the grade levels were divided into two teams, which each took responsibility for the education of approximately 100 students.
The two PLC teacher leaders were sixth grade teachers; their colleagues, who worked with them on two separate sixth grade teams, knew and trusted these teacher leaders and were flexible and amenable to change. We carved time out of a previously scheduled professional development day and used that time to introduce the concept of PLC to the sixth grade teaching teams.
These five-member teams were themselves a product of a restructuring program designed to improve the educational experience for adolescents. Using the 1989 research tenets of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, each of the grade levels were divided into two teams, which each took responsibility for the education of approximately 100 students. Team leaders were elected by their teammates, and represented the team at monthly meetings of the school advisory council. The teaming approach to dealing with pre-adolescent students encompassed a “school within a school” concept. It provided teachers the experience of teaming, interdisciplinary instruction, shared decision-making and shared celebrations.
The sixth grade staff met and brainstormed in order to develop a focus for improvement. We asked each teacher to write down five things they felt needed improvement in our sixth grade program. These items were grouped by categories—and the lack of homework turned in by students was quickly acknowledged as a concern shared by most of the staff. Teachers discussed the causes of this problem. Many felt that students were being pulled in too many directions outside of school. Many teachers reiterated that homework was a priority that needed to be addressed.
During the same discussion, concerns about the lack of time for all faculty to meet together were shared. The staff decided to meet at 7:00 a.m. once a month. In order to facilitate this commitment, I provided coffee, juice, and burritos—that was one small way of rewarding staff for their willingness to go the extra mile for this important work. We decided during our first meeting that bringing students in during lunch might help make them more responsible. That move required me to arrange sack lunches for students eligible for free or reduced cost lunches through the cafeteria manager. We also had to rearrange the daily lunch count, to assure that every student had his or her lunch. I was able to relieve a cafeteria duty person in order to provide supervision for the study hour—and to provide compensation for that supervising teacher.
The first day of noon study hour was “standing room only”—and quite overwhelming to the teacher who volunteered for the duty. But as the year progressed, we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of students referred—from a high of 63 students in January to a low of six in May. Additional interventions, including parental contacts, conferences, and counselor referrals were attempted with these six students, with whom many teachers reported difficulties. The whole staff felt the noon study hour had proved itself to be an effective strategy for increasing student success at and involvement with their curricular assignments, and for identifying those students experiencing significant difficulties.
Improvement Efforts Derailed By Administrative Changes
The promise of our first year of PLC implementations was not fulfilled in the second year. Based upon the success experienced by the sixth grade teachers, the eighth grade staff decided to try a noon study hour. Perhaps because there was little perceived consequence to missing this study hour, or perhaps because eighth graders value the peer socialization that the lunch hour provides more than sixth graders do, students did not attend in numbers that could make a measurable difference. Unfortunately, time and attention to discover ways to meet the different needs of eighth graders were not available—the school focus changed with personnel reassignment.
Several attempts were made to schedule meetings to review PLC concepts with both the new principal and new superintendent.
I did not want the new administration to feel I was undermining their authority in any manner; because I was perceived in that way, my visits to the school decreased.
I sent a packet of information on professional learning communities to both the principal and superintendent. I then asked the teacher leaders to prepare a packet of information and visit with the principal about PLC, in order to develop administrative commitment to the project. But, given the demands placed on the principal by the new superintendent, these efforts were futile.
Furthermore, my appearance at the school was perceived as undermining the present administration. As I walked down the halls, I was warmly greeted by staff and students alike. I did not want to interfere with the operation of the school, nor did I want to hear concerns about the management style of the new administration from the staff or students at Sunset—all I could say was that they needed to visit with the new principal to voice their concerns directly. I did not want the new administration to feel I was undermining their authority in any manner; because I was perceived in that way, my visits to the school decreased. During the third year of the PLC project, I heard that the seventh grade teachers at Sunset were experimenting with noon study hour, and experiencing some success. I was too far removed from the life of the school at that time to confirm these reports.
The State Department of Education is moving into a standards-based model with accountability at every turn. Clearly, every school is right to prioritize efforts to avoid being placed on school improvement or probationary status. In addition, any new superintendent will bring to his or her work a list of priorities designed to accommodate the school board. These new priorities will filter down through the schools, requiring time from school principals as they learn about new procedures and take on new responsibilities.
New relationships between administrators should be allowed time to develop, without undue pressure to demonstrate unrealistic levels of abject loyalty or independent initiative.
In the training I received as a PLC Co-Developer, I heard a great deal about the need to build trust among teachers before undertaking comprehensive school change. Ironically, administrators seem to require deep trust in one another in order to continue school change efforts that may “carry the mark” of their predecessor. Even if such initiatives are still in the early stages of development, attention to their growth provides stability for teachers, and honors the investment teachers have already made to the project.
Administrators should be supported in trusting that the individuals they follow or replace were also committed to high quality education for all students. New relationships between administrators should be allowed time to develop, without undue pressure to demonstrate unrealistic levels of abject loyalty or independent initiative. In a professional learning community, these professionals need more time to learn—about their new staff, their new positions, and the best ways to make progress for the new students they serve.
Despite the difficulties inherent in changing school structures, despite the foibles of all the human personalities involved, I continue to be optimistic. We must forge ahead in our efforts to serve all students in the best ways we can—someday soon, we’ll learn how to put it all together for the sake of those children.
The slow decline of Sunset's PLC initiative represents both a loss to the school and a personal loss to former principal and Co-Developer C.L. Jacoby. Successful Co-Developers have strong relationships with their partner schools and the staff in them. Is principalship a relationship that is too close to effectively pair with being a Co-Developer? Weigh the strengths Jacoby brought to her Co-Developer relationship against the difficulties she faced when one of her joint roles was ended.
C.L. Jacoby attributes the decline of the PLC initiative at Sunset Middle School, at least in part, to the pressure on administrators to "make their mark" quickly and clearly. In Story 5, district level personnel seem unwilling to recognize the significant contributions to school improvement made by teacher-leader Hope Tchrnowski. In what ways does the pressure on administrators to stand out translate into pressure on teachers to conform? How might those pressures be more successfully utilized and aligned to support cooperative and collaborative leadership roles throughout school and district hierarchies?
State mandated testing placed additional, debilitating pressure on faculty at Sunset Middle School. But at Foxdale Middle School and Shoreline Elementary, state mandates helped to fuel efforts to align curriculum and share responsibility across the faculty. What factors helped these schools manage the pressure, and prevented Sunset from doing the same?