From Independence to Interdependence
The story of Quitman Public Schools (QPS) does not begin or end with us. For more than 150 years, QPS has been the heart of the Quitman community, and the staff has demonstrated high levels of commitment to the school’s mission.
Members of our schools and community—current and past—truly care about each other and the overall well-being of the schools and their students. This is evident from the testimonies of students, parents, current and past educators, and the rollercoaster of historical state test data. These groups of people have been working hard for years, yet their efforts have often not been directed toward the right work.
Thanks to Solution Tree and the PLC at Work® process, our new laser focus on the right work has drastically changed the impact our teachers are having on our school, students, parents and community. QPS has gone from working independently to interdependently in almost three years. This is a small piece of our story.
From Michael Stacks, high school principal:
I discovered six important truths about QPS soon after assuming the role of high school principal in 2016:
- The district was without a true mission.
- Not all staff believed all students could learn at high levels.
- Teachers were working independently.
- The importance of a strong collaboration between building principals in a district our size
- That many teachers were teaching the way they had been taught
- There was great potential for success at QPS across academics and athletics.
Our superintendent and board of education fully supported and encouraged the change that was needed at QPS, and recognized that change would not come easily or quickly.
Staff collaboration began when we started the arduous work of identifying beliefs and a vision that led to a living mission all stakeholders committed to—a process that spanned two years. It was through this work that I was able to begin building relationships with the leaders among our staff and community who would help me create a culture of high expectations, and ultimately, change mindsets. Leaders emerged, and staff with belief systems in conflict with our new vision and mission soon left the district. We experienced turnover in 27 of the 62 certified positions over three and a half years.
These new leaders began to assume responsibilities within their respective departments, including serving on important committees—such as interview committees—that ultimately paved the way for welcoming new staff with values that aligned to our new vision for QPS. We also worked closely with our education cooperative to address our problems with curriculum. We began the work of identifying essential standards, developing unit plans of study with common formative assessments, but I lacked the expertise to lead this work with fidelity.
Soon, our students began to experience new successes in academics and athletics, and a culture of high expectations took root; however, the vast issues in K-12 curriculum and instruction became more evident than ever. I started to work more with our elementary staff to bridge the gaps that had long existed between elementary and high school at QPS, despite being on the same campus.
Like the high school, changes took shape in the elementary, but it was not until we hired Julie Wallace as elementary principal that an authentic transformation in teaching and learning took hold. Julie’s expertise in instruction and curriculum, and past experience with establishing professional learning communities, proved to be the vital component needed to move QPS toward interdependence.
When reviewing QPS’ recent accomplishments, there is one commonality; they are all results of hiring well. A practice of hiring people who share our commitment to high expectations and high levels of learning for all is the foundation necessary for a school’s success. Whether focusing on the many athletic accomplishments, the academic accolades, the grants received, or the many new and upgraded facilities, all are results from hiring well. When drastic changes are made in a school, not all will get on board, resulting in turnover. When working to get all the right people on the bus, schools must hire well.
Significant changes were recently made to our hiring policy. A committee is now used for every position, and is made up of members from our guiding coalition and principals. The interview questions are reflective of our beliefs and commitments as a professional learning community, versus open-ended questions about a candidate's strengths and weaknesses. The committee commits to reaching consensus on a candidate whose beliefs most strongly align with ours, and a recommendation is made to the superintendent who recommends to our board of education for hire.
This practice has ensured strong staff are hired, and our reputation as a professional learning community has greatly increased our pool of applicants. Seven of our current team leaders are new to our Bulldog Family, and were hired using this practice, further strengthening our interdependence.
From Julie Wallace, elementary school principal:
When I was hired two years ago as the elementary principal, Mr. Stacks was very aware of the needs of Quitman Elementary, and after sharing those needs with me, I only agreed to join his team if he agreed to apply for the PLC Pilot. I had previously been involved with a PLC Pilot School, so I knew how life-changing the work was; I believed deeply in the work. Mr. Stacks and I applied, and the entire district was awarded. Looking back, this was the first step toward interdependence for our staff. This was the beginning of a fast and furious ride that has brought about a complete 180-degree change in our school.
As we continued into year two of the PLC Pilot, it was evident that we needed to do more to unite our elementary and high school into one cohesive district. During year one, we learned a lot about ourselves as leaders; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Mr. Stacks and I quickly realized that his strengths were my weaknesses and vice versa. We decided that our district would greatly benefit from us serving as K-12 co-principals. When we began year two, we introduced our staff to the co-principal model, including the shared responsibilities. In the beginning, there were challenges, but we’ve pressed through to move toward interdependency.
Establishing a Guiding Coalition
One of the first steps in the process was establishing a Guiding Coalition. The names of all K-12 teachers in all content areas were written on a board. First, we highlighted staff who had any power or influence in the district. Then we considered their personalities; were they pessimistic or optimistic, were they in a leadership track, and did they have the power to influence others? We attempted to reach a balance of all personalities. After looking at each teacher individually, their personality traits, and the grade/content they taught, we believed a wide array of members who could collectively make decisions as a Guiding Coalition had been selected.
To help build excitement for the members of the coalition, snail mail invitations were sent to invite them to a meeting to explain the journey we were embarking on together. Our Guiding Coalition team plays a vital role in the PLC at Work process and decision-making for our school. Some of the roles and responsibilities of the Guiding Coalition are creating and implementing protocols, leading professional learning, using data to guide and make decisions, serving on interview committees, actively working to problem solve, using research to promote best practices for all staff, and modeling collective commitments in their daily work.
We began with 11 members, and we currently have 14 members, including the team leaders from every grade level or content area. It’s important for school leaders to know that their guiding coalition team doesn’t have to stay the same. Members can be replaced and added as the needs of the school change. Our Guiding Coalition is truly the backbone of our school and makes working interdependently possible.
Collective Commitments & Celebrations
Our stakeholders spent two years developing a mission that would guide all we do at QPS. The mission statement was eloquent and hung beautifully in every hallway and classroom, in addition to being the background of our webpage and social media homepages. However, as we moved deeper into becoming a professional learning community, we quickly found that our mission statement was often little more than words on the wall.
Led by the Guiding Coalition, our teams soon developed collective commitments through an “all-on-the-wall” activity based on our mission statement. In groups, teachers highlighted important aspects of the mission statement, then they determined what action behaviors that looked like. On the wall, we put like behaviors together, and from that list, we created our collective commitments. Our commitments are the foundation of the work we do daily. It drives our daily behaviors and celebrations. When teachers meet weekly as a PLC, they begin their meetings by reviewing and reflecting upon the collective commitments. Our staff meetings and professional development always begins with a review of our collective commitments.
Are celebrations important? We’ve found that most educators will ask themselves this at some point in this journey. From our perspective, the answer is, yes, celebrations are very important. This work is difficult, and celebrating what’s right gives you the motivation to keep going. We feel that it's equally important to celebrate students and staff.
When we began our journey with Solution Tree, we knew that our collective commitments were an important foundational piece of the work. At Quitman, we have tried to implement celebrations on all levels and from all perspectives. Our mascot is a bulldog, so we work to incorporate a bulldog whenever possible. One of our more common celebrations is a monthly staff member recognition. We call this award the “Bulldogs’ Best.” We choose one staff member (or sometimes a team) who has gone above and beyond exemplifying our collective commitments throughout the month. Another award that is given out is called the “Top Dog.” This award is passed on from staff member to staff member each week. The Top Dog gets a sign that is hung on their door, and at the end of the week, the staff member signs the back of it.
This year, many different staff members have recognized each other as the Top Dog; classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, secretaries, maintenance workers, counselors, and coaches have been celebrated. Staff members celebrating and acknowledging each other is very powerful. When passing on the Top Dog award, our faculty recognize each other for exemplifying specific collective commitments.
Each quarter, a team is recognized for their collaboration and dedication to the work at our honors assembly. We are able to use social media platforms to recognize and celebrate with our community and families. Without our collective commitments and frequent celebrations, we would never be able to work interdependently toward common goals.
A Shift in Mindset for Teachers
As we grew into a professional learning community, the isolation of the special education department became glaringly visible. Our special education teachers felt as if they were working on an island, struggling with feelings of hopelessness and no opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues. Two honest, heartfelt conversations with special education teachers led to a transformation in our special education department. We added a special education teacher to our guiding coalition team who provides our special education department with a voice and ensures the needs of our students with special needs are being met.
Inclusion did not exist at QPS until last year. Our committed special education teachers have worked collaboratively with our K-6 teachers to completely transition kindergarten through sixth grade from an isolated resource classroom setting to all inclusive classroom settings. In addition, our special education referrals have dramatically decreased, special education students are performing at higher levels, and almost 15% of our special education student population has been dismissed or transitioned to a 504 Plan. All of our special education teachers now serve on collaborative teams and meet weekly to plan for student learning, further moving QPS toward interdependency.
To function as a true professional learning community, teams must have intentional common time set aside to meet at least weekly. This meeting time was easier to accomplish in our elementary school where most teams already had a daily common planning time. Making this time available in the high school was more challenging and was something we had to address immediately.
We knew during the very first meeting with our Solution Tree coach Regina Stephens Owens that in order for our teams to perform at high levels, we would need to make changes to our high school schedule that currently had no times set aside for common planning much less times for teams to meet. So, we worked closely with members of the guiding coalition (in September) to make the necessary changes to our master schedule that would provide common planning for high school math and language arts. Year two now boasts common planning periods and weekly team meeting times for all core content teachers.
Our teams have created team meeting protocols that continue to evolve based on where we are in the process. Prior to last year, elementary teachers didn’t meet at all in teams. When we began meeting during year one, our meetings were full of housekeeping items with minimal focus on student learning. We improved our team meeting protocol to focus more on the four questions:
- What do we want students to learn?
- How will we know they have learned it?
- What do we do if they don’t learn it?
- What will we do if they already know it?
All of our teams at different stages, and that’s okay. It’s important as leaders to know where your teams are in the process, and lead them accordingly.
Teams have also established SMART goals for each content area that shape and guide each team’s work, and each goal has a specific timeline. Our teachers are working within their teams to improve instruction by sharing instructional strategies, modeling for other teachers, and participating in learning walks across grade levels and content areas including athletics. All teams are now interdependent professional learning communities planning for student learning and success in and outside of the classroom.
Our Journey Continues
We aren’t perfect, but we aren’t striving for perfection. We’ve made mistakes, and we often fail. No matter how many times we fall short, we are always looking for ways to improve, grow, and learn in order to be better for our students the next time; thus the continuous improvement cycle is alive and well at QPS. Many think of success in terms of a linear model, but we argue that success is actually best measured with a circular model. We often ask our staff to reflect on our story, so we will always remember our journey. These calls to reflection not only remind us of how far we have come but also prompts us to revise our mistakes, so we can continuously improve our practice as we work toward true interdependence.
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