Schools at a ‘tipping point'?

Chico’s new superintendent and many others believe the district is undergoing a huge—and hugely welcome—paradigm shift

Connie Chrysler’s “eye-opening” experience occurred during a conference she attended a couple of years ago. A Spanish teacher for 30 years, 24 of them at Chico’s Pleasant Valley High School, she found herself being challenged about, of all things, homework rules.

“Like many teachers,” she said, “I was adamant about not accepting late homework. I just wouldn’t do it.”

But at the conference she was asked to reassess her practice. She was reminded that students learn at different speeds. Some students fail to turn in homework on time, she realized, simply because they don’t understand the subject matter and are embarrassed to say so. They’d rather take the grade hit than face the shame of failure.

Chrysler had to ask herself: What’s homework really for? Is it to instill discipline, or is it for learning?

She returned from the conference re-enthused about her job, and with other Spanish teachers she set up a tutorial program. Students were told they wouldn’t be docked anymore for late homework, as long as they attended a tutorial and got help when they were unable to finish their work on time.

Remarkably, the approach has worked. Now, teachers are aware when students haven’t fully mastered the class content and can give them a hand; and students, in turn, know they have a place to go when they need help. The goal is to make sure that not a single student fails to learn.

“It takes more effort,” Chrysler said, “but in the long run it’s more successful.”

Her experience points to a huge paradigm shift now occurring in the Chico schools, one that many teachers and administrators are convinced is the best way ultimately to ensure that all students in the district do well in school—that, truly, no child is left behind.

<p<b>Change doesn’t happen easily, and that’s especially true for large, complex institutions such as the Chico Unified School District. Getting students, parents, teachers, administrators and unions to agree on something, especially if it’s going to cost money, can be difficult to the point of impossibility.

Dan Sours, a math teacher for 22 years, 20 of them at Chico High School, mentions a state-funded program the district initiated in 1998 that reduced the class size for ninth-grade English and math students to 20, allowing more teacher-student contact in two areas critical for success in high school.

In 2001, however, the district faced a tight budget and cut the program. It was too expensive, then-Superintendent Scott Brown determined.

Sours believes politics shaped the decision. He was president of the teachers’ union at the time and publicly challenged Brown’s contention that teacher layoffs were needed. As it turned out, they weren’t—with the single exception of Sours’ “20-1” program.

Later Sours tried to convince Brown’s successor, Chet Francisco, that Brown’s figures were wrong and that actually the district lost money when it cut the program. He wasn’t successful, but now he’s hopeful that new interim Superintendent Kelly Staley will be more welcoming. He’s working with other teachers to develop and pitch the program.

ALL TOGETHER NOW!<br />Nearly 800 Chico teachers attended a convocation at which Interim Superintendent Kelly Staley announced three goals for the year: (1) making sure every student is successful “no matter what it takes"; (2) improving communication and collaboration; and (3) creating a sense of community in the schools.

Photo By Robert Speer

Historically, most so-called school “reforms” are generated from above. Any long-time school administrator can recite a litany of programs, from Early Childhood Education and the School Improvement Program to Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind—and a dozen others beside.

But such “top-down reforms” often run into resistance from teachers. Experience has shown that the most successful education innovations rise from the bottom up—from parents or teachers or both.

In addition, none of the top-down reforms has solved the fundamental problem that, even in the best schools, some students don’t succeed. They fall behind, never catch up, and too often drop out without graduating high school. And students in the worst schools don’t have the opportunity to succeed even if they have the talent, desire and discipline to do so.

Chico, fortunately, has no failing schools. But it also has no schools that are 100 percent successful at enabling their students to learn.

But shouldn’t that be the goal? Connie Chrysler believes it should, as do many others.

One of them is Kelly Staley. She, too, believes that a tremendous paradigm shift is taking place in public education, and she wants her district to be part of it.

That’s why last Friday morning (Aug. 10), four days before the beginning of the new school year, she convened the first district-wide staff convocation in many years. Nearly 800 teachers and administrators packed Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union Auditorium to learn about and discuss an approach to teaching—an educational movement, really—that has many veteran teachers really excited again about their work.

The most famous proponents of the movement are Rick and Becky DuFour, who for a number of years have been leading conferences on creating what are called “professional learning communities,” or PLCs. Two or three years ago Mike Morris, then an assistant principal at PVHS and now the district’s staff development coordinator, encouraged several Chico teachers, including Chrysler, to attend one of their conferences. The teacher returned enthused and convinced others to check out the program.

Last summer, 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 size of the turnout shows just how big this movement has become.

Morris has continued to lead the effort to implement PLCs in the Chico schools. At the convocation Friday, Staley credited him with organizing and implementing the event, and others have noted his passion for the PLC concept.

In a phone conversation before the convocation, Staley told the CN&R its purpose was to acquaint all of the district’s teachers and administrators with the concepts that had so excited those teachers who’d already been able to attend a conference. The idea was to get everyone enthused.

The featured speaker was Austin Buffum, who retired a year ago as senior deputy superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County. The district, which has 50,000 students, has been using the PLC model for nine years—with amazing results, Buffum said.

Buffum now works with the DuFours, traveling the country and giving presentations. The PLC model, he said, has generated “absolutely the greatest interest I’ve ever seen in an idea.”

Kelly Staley

Photo By Robert Speer

Creating professional learning communities is a way to end the historical isolation of teachers and get them working collaboratively in a way that fosters student learning. In a PLC, teachers in a common academic area—it could be third grade, it could be high school world history—form what are called “teacher learning teams.” Each week, the TLTs meet to discuss and attempt to answer four key questions.

The first is: What do we want our students to learn? It’s up to the team to design a curriculum, taking into consideration all relevant factors, from state and national standards to their own skills, interests and experience.

The second question is: How will we know when students have learned it? This question must be asked and answered often, through a series of assessment tests the TLT designs and agrees to give regularly.

The third question is: How will we respond when they don’t learn? Because the team has taken responsibility for the success of all its students, the teachers can share responsibility for helping struggling students and learn from each other what teaching methods are most effective.

Finally, the fourth question asks: How will we respond when they already know it? Students who move quickly through the course content need enrichment, and the group takes responsibility for this, sharing ideas and time.

Historically, Buffum said, time and support have been the constants in schools, and student achievement has been the variable. Teachers provided a given amount of time, and schools provided a given amount of support. It was up to the student whether he or she would succeed or fail.

Under the new paradigm, he said, student achievement is the constant. That all students will succeed is the given, and the amount of time and support needed to accomplish that is the variable. It may require more work from teachers, but it will also provide efficiencies from the sharing of skills and practices. Most important, it will empower teachers in ways they haven’t known before.

Teacher learning teams are especially valuable for new teachers, Buffum said. Too often, young teachers fresh out of college have been handed a key, shown the classroom door and told to start teaching. In a professional learning community, veteran teachers are there to help and support the newbie.

PLCs are not “a quick fix,” Buffum warned. His Capistrano district has been working on them for nine years, and “it’s just now getting driven deep.” The results, however, are everywhere evident, he said, and API scores have grown steadily every year.

Locally, the Chico district is taking a practical first step this year by carving out a hour on Wednesday mornings for secondary teachers to meet in their collaboration teams. Students will have an extra hour to sleep in that morning, and teachers will be fresh when they sit down in their groups.

Even such a small matter wasn’t easy to do. Staley explained that an effort to build in collaboration time was made during union contract negotiations last year, but it wasn’t successful. So this year, interested teachers at each school had to go back and obtain 85 percent support from their colleagues for a temporary contract waiver.

“That was a bit of a tipping point,” Staley said. “It came about because everybody wanted it. … But Las Vegas was the real tipping point.” After that conference, so many teachers were enthused that the process took on a life of its own.

The CUSD had just been designated an “improvement district” under No Child Left Behind, and this was just what it needed in response, she said.

On the elementary level, however, there is simply no time available at present, Staley said. It will have to be found during the next round of contract negotiations.

Creating professional learning communities in Chico’s schools isn’t going to happen overnight, she said, but in the long run doing so will transform teaching and learning as we know them.

For her part, Connie Chrysler, with 30 years of teaching under her belt, says she “can’t wait to start the year again. This kind of change makes you want to teach again. And I hope it makes the students want to come back to school.”