Our PLC Story: Eureka Springs Elementary School
At Eureka Springs Elementary School, we began our PLC at Work journey primarily focusing on Response to Intervention (RTI). We had many students performing below grade level in math and literacy, and so we believed that the RTI model would be the solution for closing the learning gap for these students. We found that while our students were indeed making progress in intervention, they were not making progress on grade level standards. And, despite our best efforts, more and more students were being added to our intervention list. What were we doing wrong?
We began seeking out professional development, and we happened upon a Solution Tree training with Mike Mattos that led us in the right direction for the work we are doing now. While the workshop focus was on RTI, Mattos also discussed scheduling and the importance of an accessible and viable curriculum for all. While we were proud of our level of support for our struggling students, we had not taken into consideration that they were missing grade level instruction. Our students just continued to stay behind.
Our classroom teachers were overwhelmed, often teaching below grade level because so few of their students were “ready” for grade level work. The mindset was that students should be pulled by an intervention teacher for tier 3 services and return to grade level learning when they were “caught up.” Obviously, we see now, we were creating a bigger gap for ourselves and our students.
In 2017, we applied to be a pilot school with the Arkansas PLCs at Work project. We did not receive the grant that year, but we began building the structures that would prepare us for our grant award in 2019. Our teachers were given collaborative planning blocks of 80 minutes per week in addition to daily common planning time. We began educating our staff about tier 2 interventions, and teachers provided support to students through small group instruction in their classrooms. But, because this time was not built into the schedule, interventions were often inconsistent. We also had yet to understand or commit to common formative assessments. We also could see we had a tier 1 issue (core instruction), but we mistakenly thought this could be fixed with the right math or literacy curriculum. We made all the common mistakes we would later read about in our PLC books. But, in all fairness, we were really trying and doing the best with what we knew at the time.
Our journey since we began working with our Solution Tree coaches has had less pitfalls, but has required a change in mindset and culture in our school. As we began to address the four critical questions, it became evident that we were not clear about our core content. So, we began the work of unpacking our standards and identifying our essentials using REAL criteria (Readiness, Endurance, Assessed, Leverage). As teams narrowed down and identified their essential standards, we began to have a manageable amount of instructional goals. We also saw that our curriculum materials, while a helpful resource, were just that… a resource. We had to empower our teachers to be the experts and make instructional decisions outside of our prescribed curriculum.
We also began working on our mission/vision and collective commitments. It was important that we shifted from a “my students” mentality to an OUR students approach. We needed the best of what each member brings to the team in a collaborative effort to close the gaps. We also needed to have all staff members committed to this work. And, our Solution Tree coaches helped us understand the why of the work and coached us and empowered us to actually DO the work as we learned. At times it felt like a leap of faith as we struggled with old mindsets and challenged the work we had been previously committed to. Yet, we had many structures in place that we built on, and we had a hardworking instructional team.
When the pandemic hit in spring of 2020, we were so thankful for the opportunity to address these new challenges with our coaching team. Our coaches helped us continue our learning while at the same time supporting us through changes in instruction (virtual) and identifying essentials to address two months of lost learning. In a sense, the work became more urgent. Teachers who were still hesitant to work in teams now found that they needed to work together to manage the heavy load. We also needed to be clear in our instructional goals and assess students frequently to ensure learning was happening and to respond appropriately when it wasn’t.
As our understanding of team processes grew, our teams became more effective in creating and administering CFAs and responding as a team. Once having experienced the growth students have when tier 2 is focused and timely, working any other way was not a consideration.
We are very proud to have gone from beginning stages of implementation to sustainability in all areas of the PLC continuum. While we will always be working to improve our team processes as we address the four critical questions, we have the tools and mindset to successfully address (and even minimize) future challenges. In spite of all the challenges and missed learning that the pandemic has brought, our students are above the state average on testing, and we continue to move up in our ranking among area schools. The outlook is so positive for our staff and students moving ahead. We look forward to sharing our journey with others and will be presenting at the ADE Summit this year on question 4 (extending learning).