A quiet revolution in learning

Chico schools are implementing a new approach designed to ensure that, truly, no student is left behind

ALL TOGETHER NOW<br>Andy Wahl (left), Tony Chinchay and Mary Anne Pella-Donnelly—science teachers at Chico Junior High School—get together every Wednesday morning to collaborate on how best to help their students learn.

Andy Wahl (left), Tony Chinchay and Mary Anne Pella-Donnelly—science teachers at Chico Junior High School—get together every Wednesday morning to collaborate on how best to help their students learn.

Photo By Ginger McGuire

A growing trend:
Nearly 90 school districts across the nation have adopted the professional-learning- community model, including 15 in California. For a full list and other information, go to www.allthingsplc.info.

When teachers get together to talk about their students, what do they say? Let’s listen in at a recent weekly meeting of the five science teachers at Chico Junior High School. They were discussing the fact that their students understand what a slope is but can’t read a graph illustrating the concept.

“They know about rise over run, but how to interpret that on a graph [is something some students do not understand],” said department chairman Mike Emmons. “When they look at a graph, all they [see] is numbers.”

What can we do about it? the teachers wondered. Then they began collaborating on ideas and teaching methods that could help students learn the material.

One teacher, Brad Armstrong, said every student should be taught how to answer the question: What is this graph trying to tell us?

Another, Mary Anne Pella-Donnelly, said she had never focused extensively on graphing in her lectures. But after hearing the discussion, she said she would incorporate graph education next school year because it is a vital life skill.

And so it went, with the teachers working together to think of ways to foster students’ learning of an important mathematical and scientific skill.

The meeting was the result of the Chico Unified School District’s adoption of a new approach to teaching and learning focused on what are known as “professional learning communities” within the schools. Superintendent Kelly Staley outlined the new approach during a convocation at the beginning of the school year.

At the time it was to be implemented just in the secondary schools, but it has proven so popular that the elementary schools also have become involved.

There’s a simple way to characterize the PLC approach: It puts the emphasis on learning, not teaching. But that’s just the beginning.

Eric Nilsson directs the district’s Smaller Learning Communities program, which includes such “schools-within-a-school” as the Academy of Communication and Technology (ACT) at Chico High and the ACE-LIFE academy at Pleasant Valley High. He explained that, before the district adopted a PLC approach, teaching was often a “hit or miss” situation: The teachers did their jobs—that was the constant—and the students either got the lesson or didn’t.

In the new system, the focus is on making sure they get it. Now, Nilsson said, student success is the constant and teachers are adjusting to make sure it happens. That’s why they’re getting together in small groups each week to collaborate.

“We change our system to give students more time and support to be successful,” he said. “[The PLC approach] asks us to focus on learning, not on teaching.”

The PLC incentive is more of a “cultural shift,” and that takes time to implement, said Michael Morris, instructional-support coordinator for the district.

Historically, teaching has been an isolated profession, Morris explained—one classroom, one teacher. PLCs, also known as “teacher learning teams,” are an effort to get rid of isolationism and create a system in which teachers can share ideas and insights about methods and their students. The goals are to foster enthusiasm, increase skills and ensure that students don’t fall through the cracks.

Other school districts have been using the PLC model for years, with great success, but it is in its infancy in the CUSD, Morris said, and every school in the district has been working at a different pace.

It’s too early to have any data to measure student achievement, but teachers and administrators agree there is increased eagerness to teach again—an important morale booster at a time when a budget crisis and possible teacher layoffs may cause many educators to doubt the public education system.

“People are excited about teaching again,” said George Young, president of the Chico Unified Teachers Association. “I’m all for it. I think it’s one of the best things that has happened in education.”

In CUSD secondary schools, an hour every Wednesday morning has been carved out for teachers in the various subject areas to meet and collaborate. Students can work on homework or sleep in on those days.

Even though most elementary schools do not have a designated time period for grade-level teachers to meet, Morris said every school is making it work. Union negotiations could make it possible for elementary schools to carve out a weekly time period for collaboration, he added.

“It’s a model of more heads are better than one,” said Tina Keene, a fourth-grade teacher at Rosedale Elementary. “It keeps the emphasis on student achievement.”

In these collaborations, teachers are creating common assessments, or tests, to determine how each student is responding in the classroom across the board. The teachers are able to bring ideas together to create exams that are tailored to the specific needs of the students, Keene said, rather than using a standard test taken from a textbook.

Those who teach elective classes are working with teachers at other school sites or branching out regionally to collaborate with others who instruct the same type of subject or student population. For example, a Japanese instructor at Pleasant Valley is working online and in weekly teleconferences with teachers in other school districts who teach foreign languages.

At Chico Junior, music and art instructors, as well as technology and industrial-business training educators, have been meeting with high school teachers to make sure students are prepared for advanced training at the next level in these electives.

And, Nilsson said, both Chico High and PV have been discussing how to include an intervention period into the school day—a shorter class period dedicated to working with students who need extra assistance learning a specific subject or working on a specific homework assignment.

This intervention period needs further discussion, as well as a waiver in the union contract to be implemented, he said.

It’s important to realize this shift in approach is actually a nationwide phenomenon, Morris explained. Locally, it began about three years ago, when Morris, then an assistant principal at Pleasant Valley, encouraged several teachers to attend a conference led by Rick and Becky DuFour, the most famous proponents of the PLC movement. They returned excited and enthused.

Then, in summer 2007, the district used federal Title 1 money to send 146 teachers to Las Vegas to join 15,000 other teachers for the DuFours’ Professional Learning Communities at Work conference. The excitement teachers felt following that event was only enhanced in August, when nearly 800 teachers and administrators filled Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union Auditorium to learn more about the PLC approach.

The notion didn’t stop there: CUSD, in collaboration with Chico State, this year received two of 11 new California Math Science Partnerships that support the efforts to establish professional learning communities within the school district.

The three-year grants, for a total of $1.08 million, will allow teachers not only to work together in a PLC, but also provide these teachers with advanced workshops to build and develop content knowledge about math and science, said Katy Early, a CUSD elementary math specialist and resident instructor at Chico State.

Based on state standards data, “too many of our students are not prepared for algebra in the eighth grade,” she said. Hopefully, she added, the grant will help teachers begin to change that pattern.

Early said the PLC approach has opened both physical and mental doors in teaching.

“You really do look at what students understand—that’s the key,” she said. “There’s a difference between ‘I taught it’ and ‘They got it.’ “