Collaboration on a Broader Scale: Partnering With Higher Education to Build Capacity
One of the three big ideas of a professional learning community is building a collaborative culture. We build collaborative teams and relationships within our organizations to increase our capacity to meet the learning needs of every student. As we began that work in Sanger Unified, we quickly realized that while building our collaborative culture was essential to our success, building collaborative relationships with partners was also necessary for our success.
Located in the heart of the Central Valley of California and serving a high-poverty, high-minority and high English language learner population, we had failed for many years to adequately meet the needs of most of our students. In 2004, when we were identified as a Program Improvement District, we realized that we ranked in the bottom 10% of school districts in California in terms of overall student achievement. We quickly embarked on a journey of improvement with the development of PLCs across the district as our foundational improvement initiative and a strong focus on developing high quality initial instruction as a secondary point of emphasis. While we saw immediate gains due to our efforts, we realized that we needed to build greater capacity if we were going to sustain those gains over time.
We are fortunate to have two universities, Fresno Pacific University, a small private university, and California State University Fresno ( Fresno State) less than 20 miles from our district. We also realized that a supply of qualified and quality teacher and administrative candidates prepared to do the work of our district from these Universities was necessary to fill openings due to the district’s growth and a wave of retirements that were facing the district. We had a history of difficulty attracting student teachers to the district and averaging just 3 to 5 in seeking placement in our district most years.
We approached both universities and explained our desire to increase the number of student teachers in the district but also to change the placement model of student teachers. Our schools had embraced the professional learning community process, and we sought to embed student teachers in a collaborative team within a school rather than the traditional placement model of assigning a student teacher to a single experienced teacher. Both universities responded positively. Embedding student teachers into the collaborative teams of our PLCs led to greater support and learning for these student teachers. Within two years, we had increased student teacher placements in the district to between 40 and 50 a year.
Furthering the work with Fresno State, we moved to form a teacher training partnership program that places 25 elementary teaching candidates in our district each year for intensive training towards gaining their credentials. Sanger Unified provides classroom space for the cohort to meet, and Fresno State conducts the required teacher training coursework in the district. All courses are taught collaboratively using a Fresno State professor and a Sanger Unified teacher or administrator. The participating Fresno State students work in our classrooms in the morning and take their coursework in the afternoon, all within Sanger Unified. These students are able to complete their credential requirements in three intensive semesters in a focused, pragmatic, hands-on, learning environment.
The benefit to the district from this relationship is enormous. Each of these student teachers is a part of a collaborative PLC team, they become familiar with strong instructional delivery strategies, develop classroom management skills, and work with a team of teachers to provide interventions and supports for the students who need additional time and support for learning.
In a similar fashion, we met with the California State University Fresno (CSUF) staff to discuss our need to develop future school and district leaders. The result of that conversation was the creation of an administrative leadership Masters program and a Curriculum/Reading Masters program focused on attracting Sanger teachers into administration and curriculum leadership. Again, these programs are housed in our district with courses being offered after the normal workday of teachers; a benefit to our teachers by reducing the need for travel to the university. Both programs were organized by cohorts so that the participating teachers could collaborate and move through the program together.
The cohort concept allowed our teachers to work together for a year and a half as they complete their coursework. This fosters the development of strong relationships between the teachers and strengthens our collaborative culture. An additional benefit has been the fact that the university has hired several of our staff as adjunct faculty to teach courses.
In the last four years we have had four cohorts complete their Masters; two in Education Leadership/Administration and two in curriculum/reading. This year two more cohorts are beginning, one in Administration and one in curriculum. Because of this partnership augmenting our own internal leadership development efforts, we now have a leadership depth chart in our district that is amazing. As our collaborative partnership with the universities has strengthened over time, the number of opportunities to partner has increased as well. We have partnered to successfully seek several grants that support professional development and capacity building.
In this era of increasing demand and diminishing resources it is even more imperative that we develop strong collaborative cultures. Our experience has shown us that effective internal collaboration can be greatly enhanced by the development of external collaborative partnerships with institutions of higher learning. Our increase in student achievement over the last 6 years has been dramatic. We have been recognized as a national model for successful implementation of the PLC process on a districtwide basis, and our university partners have contributed greatly to our success.