Denver Secondary School
- Number of Students: 430
- Percent Eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch: 13%
- Percent of Limited English Proficient: 0%
- Percent of Special Education: 16%
- White: 97%
- Black: 2%
- Hispanic: 0%
- Asian: 1%
- Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 0%
- American Indian or Alaska Native: 0%
- Multiracial: 0%
- Other: 0%
OUR TEN YEAR JOURNEY 2008 - PRESENT
In the fall of 2008, our teachers were introduced to a chapter from On Common Ground, The Power of Professional Learning Communities and also Mike Schmoker’s, Results Now. Since then, our school hasn’t looked back, and we continue to press forward nine years later to ultimately prove that every child can and will learn at high levels within the Denver Community School District.
At the beginning of our PLC journey, Iowa adopted the National Common Core. In order to ensure that we were providing a guaranteed curriculum, we first identified where within our current curriculum that we were addressing the Core standards and determined if there were missing components.The responsibility for this fell on the shoulders of all teachers to complete their respective courses through the planning and alignment web-based program, Curriculum Manager. Throughout that first year of our PLC journey, we focused on building a collaborative culture. Content teams began to meet to make sure that our vertical curriculum was articulated, course by course. Teachers met during staff development, or classes were covered so content area teams could work collaboratively. This commitment by all faculty to work together to achieve this lofty goal was instrumental in articulating our dedication to beginning this important work.
Year two forced us to focus on time in our schedule - if we wanted to grow this “Professional Learning Community." We created a schedule and realigned personnel, which allowed teachers approximately 30 minutes of collaborative time to focus on our guiding questions each week:
What is it we expect them to learn?
How will we know when they have learned it?
How will we respond when they don’t learn?
How will we respond when they already know it?
As a small secondary school, one challenge that we have is that in most subject areas, only one teacher is responsible for the teaching of one course’s curriculum. For example, we have five English/Language Arts teachers, but each teacher is responsible for one grade level. The challenge for teachers in each vertical content area was to design something that they could collaborate on so they could provide common formative assessments. They used this idea for collaboration to set their SMART goal for the year. Teams of teachers worked interdependently to achieve a common goal.
In preparation for the year three, it was decided that a leadership team and more of a “shared leadership” approach would be essential to continue to forward this process. We developed our leadership team and headed for Minneapolis, and after returning from our very first PLC Institute, and learning from the experts, we knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. We got down to business in year three, and continued to focus on the big ideas, and perhaps, it was this year, that we started to turn the corner on really defining what it means to FOCUS ON LEARNING!
In year four, we headed back to Minneapolis for another learning adventure and to continued the depth of our PLC knowledge. At this point, we felt that we had a solid foundation of the three big ideas, but we definitely knew that our system needed refinement. As our leadership team returned, we worked hard to implement a schedule that continued to allow for common collaborative time, but this year would be our first year of implementing time for a systematic approach to answer the final two questions: How will we respond when students don’t learn? And how will we respond when they already know it? Our intervention and enrichment time was crucial in our process in order to guarantee that all students can and will learn at high levels, and our results indicate that was the case. This was our YEAR OF REFINEMENT!
The fifth year, another leadership team of teachers in need of formal training attended a different valuable institute, this time in St. Louis. That year, we went into the institute prepared to answer some questions based on some roadblocks, and to work at successfully aspiring to reach goals set forth by the previous year's leadership team. We went in this time with more of a focus on attending various breakout sessions that would support our “PLC Plus” model, which incorporates more RTI principles. This was a natural next step for us, as we found it very obvious that a successful PLC cannot exist without the fundamental principles of RTI, which is why that next year, we implemented a revision of the original current response to instruction, at the core, supplemental and intensive levels. We now had a more systematic process to ensure that we focused on prevention. Mike Mattos was a great support to us in this learning process, and we will use his formula to ensure high levels of learning for all students, Targeted Instruction + Time = Learning (TI + T = L). That year, we first become a Professional Learning Community PLUS (PLC+)!
In year six, we focused on building capacity. We continued to build upon the things we had established earlier and still strive to perfect our PLC structure. We incorporated unit planning guides and reflection forms to enhance our past structure. In year six we created a schedule that allowed us an uninterrupted 90-minute block every Wednesday (2:00 dismissals) for our PLC teams to meet to discuss and plan how we can best serve our students. We also implemented a 25-minute intervention time 4 days per week to fully meet the needs of our students. This structure continues currently.
In years seven through ten, we have focused on the unit and lesson planning that was started in year six. Most recently, we have incorporated an item in which teachers reflect on a Problem of Practice--a goal for instruction that they would like to achieve for themselves. Additionally, we have replaced Cognitive Process to Dimension with the phrase Depth of Knowledge to utilize the vocabulary of the Iowa Core Curriculum. With that, we have been able to employ Karin Hess's Cognitive Rigor Matrices. Also, we have emphasized the use of frontloading of vocabulary and bolstered writing integration across content areas. As you can see, we are consistently looking for ways to deepen how we perform as a Model PLC.
During the past two years, our school has also been participating in new TLC structure that was implemented recently in Iowa. This structure has also provided us with opportunities for enhancing our current PLC design through the implementation of an instructional coach and several teacher-leader positions. These TLC team members have provided numerous ways to support and enhance our past structures to redefine how we are meeting our student learning needs. We created pod cross-curricular teams to compliment our past PLC content teams to provide our staff members with opportunities for deeper conversation in relationship to instruction and learning. Each pod team is led by an individual teacher-leader team member. The pod structure has increased our teaching capacity because our conversations have expanded and deepened to a larger areana of educational topics.
There are many substantial areas of growth individually for students, teachers, for collaborative teams that are not mentioned above, however, the foundations listed above are noted in this section in large part because these successes were teacher-driven. The success that we have had is not a result of some “top down” mandate. Our success is grass roots, but of course, it is important to mention that this wouldn’t be possible without the annual opportunity to “refocus” with the experts at the PLC Institute. We took one year off from attending the PLC conference, but since then, we have sent a group of teachers and leaders that have either been newly hired or did not have training in the past. It is critical that the resources are allocated to attend these conferences as it continues to strengthen the foundation for a common language and professional development, and we foresee attending in the years to come.
The other important generalization about our work is that our system wasn’t created overnight; not “finished” in one year or even two: we are in year ten of the process of sustaining and enhancing a systematic culture where we ensure that every child will learn at high levels, and our hope is that we continue to grow and improve each year in order to do what is best for our kids!
1. Monitoring student learning on a timely basis.
Denver Secondary Schools has implemented various structures to monitor student learning on a timely basis. These structures include a no zero policy, data day, unit planning guides with reflection forms, and a daily 25-minute intervention structure. From the implementation of these support systems, we have observed a lot of positive student growth in all content areas. The no zero policy structure has clearly defined the expectations that all students will complete all assignments. Through this structure everyone is working together to support this policy through a shared Google document form to ensure completion in a short time frame. The data day is implemented at the beginning of the school year and provides all staff members with academic insights that help meet the educational needs of each individual student. With the creation of the unit planning guides and reflection forms, staff now have a quality designed unit before instruction actually takes place. The reflection component provides each staff member with an opportunity to evaluate and reflect on each student's individual performance on the summative assessment along with the other activities that took place during the unit. These reflections help determine what students will be served during our daily intervention structure. I can not emphasize enough the importance of the daily intervention and the outstanding results we have gained through this implementation.
2. Creating systems of intervention to provide students with additional time and support for learning.
Our daily intervention structure continues to be one of the most vital components of our whole PLC structure. The 25-minute block allows each staff member to serve a small group of students (usually 3-6 in size) to reteach and review essential skills and concepts that the student may have not originally mastered. This structure is now a very common educational practice for our students and most of them welcome the opportunity for instruction in a small group setting. We have experimented with various implementation times for this structure and found that the structure works best for us during the last 25 minutes of the school day. The staff has also welcomed and embraced the additional time that each are allowed to support a small group of students. The daily activities that take place in the intervention settings vary daily based on the needs of those being served. This structure has produced very valuable results for our school.
3. Building teacher capacity to work as members of high performing collaborative teams that focus efforts on improved learning for all students.
We continue to evaluate our PLC structure yearly to make sure that we are experiencing positive growth and improved student learning. The staff members have been outstanding in providing input and insights to building a high quality program. As a district, we continue to see the positive results we have gained from implementing a true PLC structure and its various support systems.
As a small secondary school district, we have challenged ourselves to be creative when designing our collaborative PLC teacher teams to maximize their potential for positive results. Currently are teams are structured in content specific grade-ranged teams (grades 6-8 and 9-12) for the majority of our PLC activities. Occasionally we do implement grade-level team discussions and activities to maximize the full potential of analyzing and evaluating instructional practices, data, and student needs. Most of our PLC teams include three staff members; with some only having two team members. No matter the number of team members on the team, we still have the same expectations for each team that includes establishing norms, writing a team S.M.A.R.T. goal, collaboration, implementation of results-oriented activities, implementing formative assessments, and reflective individual and team activities. Our PLC teams have been great at establishing S.M.A.R.T. goals that are relevant and meaningful to all staff members who are members of the grade-ranged teams. Based on the results of the analyzed data identifying student academic need areas, teams established goals with end results in mind. Various established content specific S.M.A.R.T. goals have included some of the following educational topic areas: academic vocabulary (all content areas), volume and measurement (math), employability skills (vocational), lifetime fitness (physical education), IEP awareness and understanding (special education), civic and economic knowledge (social studies), artist and style (art), and informational reading (science). With each of these S.M.A.R.T. goals, the PLC teams incorporated a pre and post assessment, a meaningful and relevant curriculum, and intervention structures throughout the school year to support student learning. At the midpoint of the school year and at the end of school year, each staff member is asked to reflect on his/her S.M.A.R.T. goal to gain a true understanding of what the results were demonstrating in relevance to the established goal.
A major component of any successful PLC structure is the continuous implementation of common formative assessments throughout the process. This component has been a little challenging for our secondary school because we only have one staff member teaching each content area at each grade level. However, through quality discussion and hard work, my PLC teams implement periodic formative assessments that are relevant to their S.M.A.R.T. goals to help gain a deeper insight on the level of student understanding and to redesign instruction to meet student needs throughout the year. These formative assessments also provide a means of identifying students who would benefit from a small group of intervention instructional time to re-teach necessary skills and concepts. The design of these formative assessments are often more broad in nature than those of an elementary setting because of the grade-level range of students rather than one specific grade-level of students. These formative assessments are invaluable to supporting the success of our PLC structures and achieving student growth at the secondary level. In summary, the results of these formative assessments challenge my teachers to redesign their instruction along the journey to best meet students needs; to reflect on their instructional approaches and practices; and to create and design meaningful supplementary instructional interventions to support struggling learners to gain positive results.
*2017 Classified as "Exceptional" schools on the Iowa State Report Card. (Denver Middle School: Top 3%; Denver High School: Top 1%)
*2017 Recognized in National Rankings: U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools
*2016 Recognized in National Rankings: U.S. News & World Report Best High Schools
*2016 Classified as "Exceptional" schools on the Iowa State Report Card. (Denver Middle School: Top 4%; Denver High School: Top 1%)
*2015 Classified as "Exceptional" schools on the Iowa State Report Card. (Denver Middle School: Top 4%; Denver High School: Top 3%)
*2014-2015 Class 1A Bank Iowa Traveling Challenge Cup Champion
* 2011-17 School Year – Denver Community School District hosted several district teams from throughout the state of Iowa and Wisconsin into our school setting to share our “Professional Learning Community Plus” model.
* 2010 High School Administrator of Year Finalist (I listed this recognition because it wouldn’t have happened without my staff “team”.)
* 2008 National Blue Ribbon High School (1 of 22 high schools selected for this prestigious award-only high school from Iowa).
* 2007 recipient of U.S. News “Best High Schools In America” award.