Sparkman Middle School
- Number of Students: 841
- Percent Eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch: 47%
- Percent of Limited English Proficient: 3%
- Percent of Special Education: 14%
- White: 44.9%
- Black: 41.1%
- Hispanic: 7.7%
- Asian: 1.2%
- Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 0%
- American Indian or Alaska Native: 3.2%
- Multiracial: 1.9%
- Other: 0%
Our PLC journey began in the 2017-2018 school year when our district introduced PLC@Work. At that time, teachers in our school operated largely in isolation. Our academic performance was typically below the district average, and our discipline numbers were among the highest in the district. Challenges facing many of our students often seemed insurmountable. Our school’s leadership embraced the PLC process as our greatest hope for significant improvement.
Our schoolwide structures and processes reinforced teachers working in isolation, so our first step was to create an environment that would encourage collaboration. Teachers were organized into interdisciplinary teams with common planning time, and a guiding coalition was established to lead the significant cultural change we were about to begin. The master schedule was revised to include a 30-minute intervention period for Tier 2 instruction, and interventionists were hired to support Tier 3 instruction for both academics and behavior. (See schedules in the resource section.) Collaborative teams began creating a guaranteed and viable curriculum for Tier 1 instruction by having vertical content teams identify essential standards for each core subject. To ensure continuity from grade to grade, we included teachers from our feeder schools’ 5th grade and teachers from the 9th grade school. These changes laid the groundwork for us to begin the work of PLC in earnest.
When the 2018-2019 school year began, we revised our vision and mission statements to reflect the three big ideas of PLC, and administration and collaborative teams formed collective commitments based on the “tight” elements in a PLC (see SMS PLC Handbook in resources). Collaborative teams began meeting weekly, using common formative assessments to identify students in need of intervention and extension for essential standards at the Tier 1 level. The priority for this year was to learn and initiate the teaching-assessing cycle and to foster the belief in and commitment to high levels of learning for every single student. By this point, teachers now understood the “why,” but also needed to believe that it could be done. By the end of the year, teams had developed a common understanding of the teaching-assessing cycle, were analyzing data, and then using those results to inform Tier 1 instruction, interventions, and extensions. Our highest performing teams were beginning to produce results that fueled our momentum for change.
After introduction to the PLC process and a full year of job-embedded professional development, our collaborative teams began working more independently. When we began, teams were highly facilitated by administrators and our instructional coach. We knew our next step was for teams to develop ownership of the process, so administration gradually took on a more observational role, pushing in when support was needed, guiding teams with reflective questions and feedback, and monitoring team products. Teachers continued to learn from traditional professional development, job-embedded coaching, and site visits. Teachers began to learn from each other as we shared successes and ideas within their collaborative teams and administration elevated the work of teams throughout the school.
During that school year, we were honored to be included in our district’s first cohort to go through Solution Tree RTI Academy. As a result of our learning, our elective teachers formed a collaborative team dedicated to social emotional learning and explored how we might use the four critical questions to address social and academic behaviors. We also refined our understanding of how and when to intervene for essential targets, and we implemented a flexible tutorial period for Tier 2 intervention.
By the end of the year, highly-functioning teams began to emerge, and these teams produced exceptional results across all subgroups. What we noticed among all teams is that there was an undercurrent happening for students who were typically underperforming. As we began to intervene on essential standards by student, by standard, and by target, we were narrowing the gap between our average and the district average in many grade levels and subgroups. In some cases, most notably among special education students, our average scores were surpassing district averages. We also noted a marked improvement in discipline, with significantly reduced office referrals and suspensions (see “Facts About Our Data” in the resources section). These results further reinforced the belief that all students can learn at high levels.
For the 2019-2020 school year, we began to examine the level of rigor we were requiring of our students. We focused much less on the process itself and more on using the teaching-assessing cycle to ensure that every student achieves mastery at the level of rigor required by the standards. During this stage of our PLC journey, teams demonstrated true interdependence, and teachers were learning from each other like never before. Our interim data revealed that overall proficiency in reading and math were increasing at every grade level, and our discipline data continued to improve. Across subgroups, significantly fewer students indicated a need for intensive intervention in reading and math. Due to COVID-19, we did not conduct state testing, but we had been looking forward to the results because we were confident they would confirm the growth we were seeing in our students.
Our work is far from complete, but we have developed a culture that is grounded in the big ideas of PLC and committed to continuous improvement. Over the last three years, we have experienced teacher turnover in key positions, new administration, and a global pandemic. In spite of these changes, the PLC process has provided a constant focus for who we want to be and how we will achieve our vision. Collaborative teams have embraced the cyclical nature of the work as a process for instructional improvement and increased student learning. As we journey toward the next crucial steps of continued growth, we lean on the guiding coalition to build on our shared understanding of the process, monitor schoolwide data, and affect positive change in our school and with our students.
As we conclude our fourth year of the PLC process, we look forward to continuing on the path to success. Our next steps will include a tighter alignment between standards, targets, assessments, and interventions on both sides of the pyramid. Through investigating equity and culturally responsive teaching along with improving assessment quality and a focus on academic vocabulary, we recognize that whole child development is a significant factor in improving student achievement in our school. Additionally, we will continue to build capacity for teachers to lead the work through continued professional development, continuous learning, and interdependence. It is our ultimate goal to leave no gap in ensuring all students at Sparkman Middle School learn at high levels, and we believe the PLC process is our pathway to success.
1. Monitoring student learning on a timely basis.
The work of our collaborative teams is driven by the teaching-assessing cycle and the four critical questions of a PLC. The foundation for this work is the guaranteed and viable curriculum. Because we know there is not enough time in a school year to teach every standard to mastery, collaborative teams have identified essential standards for each course we offer. For each essential standard, teams identify examples of rigor, pacing, summative assessment, and possible extensions. Teachers commit to teach, assess, and intervene on these standards until every student has demonstrated mastery. To accomplish this in a timely manner, teams meet during the school day on a weekly basis.
Collaborative teams create unit plans for each essential standard, which breaks the standard into student-friendly targets categorized by DOK level and outlines a plan for assessment. Teams create common formative assessments, which are administered a minimum of once every four weeks, to determine if students are on track to master essential standards. CFA data is analyzed by teacher and by class, but it is also broken down by student, by standard, and by target. Teams use a “Here’s What, So What, Now What” protocol (provided in resources section) to observe patterns in data, generate hypotheses, and create action plans, which include possible revisions to assessment items, improvements to core instruction, specific reteaching strategies for students who did not demonstrate mastery, and extensions for students who did. At the end of each unit, team-created common unit assessments are used to determine which students have mastered essential standards and which students require additional time and support.
STAR Reading and Math tests, nationally normed computer adaptive tests for reading and math, are administered in fall, winter, and spring to track student progress in comparison to national norms. This data is also used as a universal screener for RTI, and teacher teams use it to gauge whether they are on target with essential standards and the level of rigor in their instruction. State standardized test data is also used to screen students for RTI and to evaluate the quality of our programs by comparing our scores to other schools in the state and by identifying trends over time.
At the end of the year, teams use interim and summative data to review and revise essential standards charts using the “Keep, Drop, Create” protocol. Our essential standards charts, unit plans, and assessments are living documents, and we continually use new information and experience to improve our work. (examples in resources)
2. Creating systems of intervention to provide students with additional time and support for learning.
Departmental collaborative teams take the lead on Tier 1 and Tier 2 intervention for grade level essential standards, using CFA data for two primary purposes: 1 - to identify students for intervention and extension by student, by standard, and by target, and 2 - to determine the most effective strategies for instruction. Following CFAs, teachers incorporate “flex days,” where no new instruction is planned, to provide interventions and extensions as needed at the Tier 1 level. Teachers are encouraged to share students for intervention, matching teachers’ strengths with student needs. Special education collaborative teachers and interventionists are involved in the process and help to provide interventions for grade level essential standards.
Because we know some students will need additional time and support at the end of the unit, our schedule includes a 30-minute tutorial period each day. Twice a week, we use this time to offer a flexible Academic Opportunity (AO) session modelled after the tutorial schedule at Pioneer Middle School in Tustin, CA. This tutorial allows teachers to provide additional time and alternate strategies to students who did not demonstrate mastery on unit assessments without depriving them of instructional time in the regular classroom. Students in need of Tier 2 intervention are assigned to closed tutorial sessions where they receive instruction from the most qualified faculty. Students who have demonstrated mastery are free to choose from a variety of open tutorial sessions. (see schedule and flow chart in resources)
STAR Tests and state summative assessments are used to identify students who require Tier 3 intervention for foundational skills in reading, writing, and math. We have two academic interventionists, both among the strongest teachers on our faculty, who provide intensive program-based intervention for reading and math on a daily basis. English language learners receive support from an ELL specialist who also provides resources for classroom teachers of English language learners.
Academic and social behavior is vital to the success of our students, and because we believe it is crucial to teach the behaviors we expect, we also provide tiered systems of intervention for behavior. Our social emotional learning team has developed essential standards for social and academic behavior. These behaviors are taught using a common language in every classroom and during weekly morning meetings.
Each interdisciplinary team functions as a problem solving team for the students they share, coordinating with interventionists, counselors, and administration to ensure that every student receives needed interventions for behavior, home and health, and foundational skills. Grades and discipline data are used to identify students in need of Tier 3 support for social or academic behaviors. These students are assigned to a behavior interventionist, who works with teacher teams to develop a plan for intensive intervention.
Our current systems of intervention represent a significant shift in thinking that occurred as we delved into RTI@Work with Solution Tree. We no longer categorize students as “Tier 1,” “Tier 2,” or “Tier 3.” Rather, we recognize that individual students may need intervention at all three levels in order to be successful. For instance, a student who receives Tier 3 intervention for foundational skills will continue to receive Tier 1 and Tier 2 support for grade level essential standards. Likewise, a student with an IEP may continue to require support at Tiers 1, 2, and 3 as well. The level of support a student needs is determined by team-generated data and universal screeners. The process is fluid and flexible so every student receives exactly what he or she needs in a timely manner. (see Student Support Matrix in resources section)
3. Building teacher capacity to work as members of high performing collaborative teams that focus efforts on improved learning for all students.
A healthy collaborative culture is vital to our mission, so we prioritize the maintenance of positive culture and productivity of teams. Teams have established team norms, which are revisited and revised periodically. Meetings are structured, with a common agenda template and clearly defined expectations for team products (see sample agenda in PLC Handbook). Our instructional coach and administrators support the work of teacher teams by regularly attending team meetings and reviewing team products. Teams reflect on their own growth using the PLC@Work Continuum provided in Learning by Doing.
When we first began our journey as a PLC, administrators and instructional coach were heavily involved in coaching teacher teams through the teaching-assessing cycle. We provided small bits of professional development at each meeting followed by work sessions, where teams relied heavily on feedback and support from administrators and our instructional coach. As our teams became more confident with the process, the role of administrators and coach gradually shifted from facilitator to observer. Teachers now set their own agendas and facilitate team meetings, while administrators and instructional coach observe, offering support as needed and taking advantage of opportunities to push teams’ thinking with reflective questions.
Our instructional coach collaborates with teachers and teams through coaching cycles based on the specific needs of teachers or teams. Administrators monitor team products and artifacts, and the guiding coalition analyzes the results of teacher surveys to reflect on the current reality of our collaborative culture and to generate and implement ideas for improvement. We are also intentional about celebrating team successes on a regular basis. From shout-outs in school wide communications to weeklong “PLC Right” celebrations highlighting team successes, the hard work of our collaborative teams is recognized.
Our guiding coalition includes faculty and staff who work together to lead the change process as we continue our PLC journey. The team consists of the traditional leadership team along with key staff members and teacher representatives from every interdisciplinary team, grade level, and department. We call on this team to analyze school wide data to assess our current reality and to problem solve and make decisions. Data meetings are scheduled in fall, winter, and spring when new schoolwide assessment data is available. In addition to this, we meet throughout the year as we have new information, challenges, or ideas to discuss.
Achievement Data Files
Highly Effective Schools Accreditation 2020
2 Time National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence
Sci Learn Fast Forword National Demonstration Site