Patricia Christie •
Rhodes Junior High • Mesa Public Schools
Rhodes to Success
In 2010 when I was the principal at Fremont Junior High in Mesa Public Schools, our district began a journey to assuring success for all students by becoming a Professional Learning Community. Initially, I was a bit of a skeptic about the process but when asked to participate in the training to bring collaborative teams to our schools, I was compliant. I selected teacher leaders who would ultimately become our guiding coalition to join me in the professional development process. We quickly internalized the value of developing collaborative teams on our campus, and immediately dove into the process of broadening buy-in among the rest of the faculty. Within two years, we had high functioning teams that shared data, personalized the learning for students and embraced the four questions that led to believing that all students will learn.
Several years later, I moved as principal to Rhodes Junior High, also in Mesa, and that change was a gift. I had spent three years at the district office after working at Fremont and missed being with students. I came to realize that the Rhodes faculty was not as focused on student learning as I would wish. Collaborative teams were inconsistent, and student standardized test scores were falling. While this staff had also been trained in the PLC model, it seemed as if they had taken some shortcuts that were getting in the way of their success. To rectify this, I quickly convened a leadership team that adopted the processes of collaborative teams: norms, agendas, minutes and purposeful conversations around data and the four questions. My goal was to model what I expected of all teams on campus through the work of the guiding coalition and to help support the teacher leaders as we determined the vision for Rhodes. I expected success in moving forward with the Professional Learning Community model.
While there was no doubt our mission was to assure high levels of learning for all students, we also recognized there was a hang up. Teachers felt the school had barriers, barriers that hindered conversation around what we wanted students to learn, know or do. The most pressing barrier was time.
Realizing time was the issue, the leadership team and I began a discussion on removing time as an element. We wanted to create a school without bells and periods. We began building a “school within a school” where students would be assigned to a team of teachers, and using data, those teachers would be able to personalize the learning of every student on the team with time on their side!
Formulating the teams of teachers was important. Creating schedules that would individualize the learning of kids was necessary. But having high functioning, collaborate teams that could communicate around the PLC crucial questions was essential, and I was determined to give them the tools embedded in Professional Learning Communities to ensure their success.
Using the knowledge I had gleaned over years of implementation at Fremont Junior High, I took a group of pilot teachers through professional development to embrace the power behind collaborative teaming and conversation around the four crucial questions. Norms, data analysis, constructive use of time through agendas and practiced collaboration skills all became part of their identity. They began meeting daily, learning to depend on one another as an interdisciplinary team; planning for student academic success through projects and inquiry. Every meeting encompassed the four questions, and they seemed to be easier to answer since the barrier of time had been removed. Responding to students who did not learn and responding to those who had learned did not require days to accomplish. Instead, flexing time was a certainty, and students could be remediated or enriched in the moment using the team’s data.
For the first year of implementation we decided to include students in the pilot program we called “Rhodes to Success” who were at or below grade level and whose standardized tests showed only partial mastery of grade level standards. Eventually, “Rhodes to Success”or RtS would become part of the school’s academic tiered intervention. We knew this would be a challenging group of students to address in our pilot because many of these students had discipline and attendance issues, and we attributed most of those problems to a lack of success in school. We believed that this group of students, however, would most benefit from the team structure. Our immediate plan was to select data points to track through the year, but they were not to be limited to academic data. Deciding on passing rate (we were implementing mastery learning to strengthen the implications around grades), attendance and discipline, we started the year using this data to drive collaborative team meetings.
RtS has traveled through many programming iterations in the last six months. What has remained constant is the use of collaborative teams and the reminder that all kids will learn. Teams meet at least bi-weekly, and data is the driving force behind the meetings. Interestingly, they speak of students and their individual needs, making data the crucial force behind each student’s “schedule”.
Hidden curriculum is playing an important role in the program as well. Students are also learning effective collaboration practices, problem solving and perseverance. Educators often wish to teach these skills but are hindered by time. Without the boundary of time, students can explore soft skills within the academic curriculum. Student successes inevitably increase.
The Professional Learning Community cycle has been the hero of RtS. Our teams know the value of establishing individualized outcomes for students. They rely on the solid structure of their collaborative team, including defined goals and data analysis, and they utilize data to ongoingly remediate and enrich their students. Our current data shows an increase in passing grades, a decrease in discipline referrals and an increase in attendance. To that end, we know students are learning.
The 2018-2019 will bring the school-wide implementation of Rhodes to Success. Five teams of interdisciplinary teachers with embedded elective teachers will develop personalized learning plans for students. These collaborative teams are adopting the values behind the PLC model. The training I have received from Solution Tree is now changing the learning experience for students at Rhodes Junior High School. With the intent of replicating this “bell-less” schedule at other junior highs, I know the Solution Tree Professional Community model will be invaluable to their success.