Mandi Dunlap, Ed. S. •
Eastside Elementary • Greenbrier, Arkansas
PLC: The Chance of a Lifetime for Eastside Elementary
In August of 2017, Eastside Elementary in Greenbrier, Arkansas, was given what we would soon realize was the “chance of a lifetime.” Eastside is one of four elementary schools in the Greenbrier School District, housing grades preK–5 grade with about 440 students and almost 50 staff members. We have approximately 14 percent of our population receiving special education services and over 50 percent of families considered low-income.
I stepped on the scene of Eastside Elementary as a first year principal in July 2017. I wanted to meet each staff member individually and get to know them. One question that I asked all of them was, “In a perfect world, Eastside would be…” The staff gave me a variety of answers, but all of them revolved around the idea of greatness! At the time none of us knew it, but we would soon be given all the tools to make Eastside great for students!
President John F. Kennedy stated, “Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.” When we received the PLC Pilot Project from Arkansas Department of Education while kicking off the 2017 school year, none of us truly understood what we were signing up for, but we were excited to try something different to create success in the lives of our students.
This chance of a lifetime has changed Eastside in so many ways, one of those being the level of professional development that we have received. In the 2017–18 school year, we had 50 days of onsite coaching from Solution Tree, which proved to be a valuable asset to building the capacity of the staff. All of the changes that took place tie back to the four essential questions stated in DuFour’s work.
Question 1: What do we want students to learn and be able to do?
Staff began to realize the need for essential standards. While not a finished product, we have defined our literacy essential standards for kindergarten through fifth grade and our math essential standards in grades 3 through 5. Teachers began to really dig into the language of the standard to determine it’s true meaning, which made much clearer what students had to learn to be successful, not just on a standardized test, but in life (See Figure A).
Teachers received training on content specific topics in regards to literacy and math. Some of this training involved teachers observing a lesson taught by a Solution Tree associate. Following the lesson observation, we debriefed and took the lesson into another classroom to teach it. This began a journey of fostering confidence in the staff.
During the weekly team meeting time, grade levels work through the common formative assessment (CFA) process. Around November of last year, we discovered that our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teams were struggling, not because of their inadequacy, but because of the schedule. Third through fifth grade is divided into content teams, but they were meeting as a grade level to try to develop a CFA. Around December of that year, I developed a schedule that allowed the content teams of math, literacy, and science to meet as a team weekly instead of the grade level. Once this happened, we saw immediate shift in the focus of the work and the ability for teachers to have rich conversations about the progress of a standard through the three grade levels. This is something that we continued this year. We also have a flexible schedule built so that, when teams need to meet as a grade level to discuss students, they can. This creative scheduling has now spread to other schools as well to meet their needs from week to week, month to month.
At the beginning of the spring semester, the support staff wanted to be involved in writing a CFA for their content. The support staff consists of art, music, PE, counseling, enrichment, library, and keyboarding. Each of these staff members are all part of a grade level team as an interventionist and therefore have been a part of helping design CFAs for grade levels. The shift for this team was that they wanted a CFA of their own. This was so exciting! That first CFA focused on summarizing with kindergarten through fifth grade. Once this CFA was complete, students had written a summary in seven different classes. Some of these summaries focused on their artwork (see Figure B), how to be a good friend, and the history of the Olympics. This year, the support staff has committed to doing at least two CFAs, with the first underway on nonfiction text evidence. Students are researching Beethoven, learning about Bernoulli's principle, and analyzing their push up and curl up data from their PE class!
Question 2: How will we know that they have learned it?
Our onsite coach, Kim Bailey, helped develop our knowledge of building quality common formative assessments (CFAs) with the Plan, Do, Study, Act process. She assisted the staff in realizing how each learning target from an essential standard should be aligned to the assessment. She also helped staff understand that the CFA didn’t have to be a 20 question “test.” It could be 2 or 3 quality questions that would allow them to see if students understood the content.
This year, teachers have already realized the power in these assessments. Some teacher teams have admitted after reviewing a CFA from last year how they could make it better! The conversation amongst teachers this year is so clear about constructing a CFA to make certain students have learned.
Kindergarten is using Google Forms as a way to track their data on which sounds students know.
My assistant principal and myself have noticed several uses of the CFA while doing classroom walkthroughs.
Question 3 and 4: What will we do with those that have not learned it? What will we do with those that already know it?
Throughout our partnership with Solution Tree, the idea of “all of our kids” has surfaced on several occasions. In the beginning of the pilot, the staff struggled with this concept. Through the work of developing common formative assessments (CFAs), teachers began to share students. At onset, this was most successful in grades kindergarten and first grade. Following the CFA being given, teams would sit down with the data to analyze “kid by kid, skill by skill” which students needed some interventions and which ones would need enrichment. Teachers began to be very honest with one another determining who was best at teaching it the first time. The teacher that had the most success took the students that struggled the most for the interventions. This was a true strengths-based opportunity for our school.
Prior to the PLC Pilot project, we already had a designated 30-minute time period for building wide interventions called PROWL time. This worked very well, but for those students not receiving interventions, we wanted to add enrichment. Last year, we added in a kindergarten and first grade enrichment time during the intervention time.
We have 4th and 5th grade students to assist teachers in these enrichment groups. Some of the enrichment groups are robotics, searching for sight words in local newspapers, and having the peer tutors read a story to them. We also began a school newspaper written by students last year, which occurs during this enrichment time led by our school counselor. The students publish a school newspaper once a month. Although all these items were in place last year, we still had about 180 kids in need of enrichment during our 30-minute PROWL time. Our goal at the beginning of this year was that all students would be involved in some type of activity. This year we have added on literature circles for grades 2nd through 5th (See Figure C), utilizing the computer lab for students, and a STEAM group. It is so exciting to see all students engaged for 30 minutes daily. The staff has done an amazing job to make this a seamless process and provide engaging activities.
Along with all the changes revolving around the four PLC questions, I have also changed as a leader. One thing that this “chance of a lifetime” Solution Tree partnership helped me realize was the need for celebration. My staff and students were doing a great job on a daily basis. I was not recognizing that enough, but now a part of our culture includes having regular celebrations for both staff and students. EES now has student PRIDE winners who are awarded for demonstrating the characteristics of Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Dependable, and Engaged. Students also have a formal recognition for Student of the
Month, different content level awards, and the Principal and Assistant Principal award. We recognize teachers with two main awards coinciding with “The Greatest School” vision. We recognize a team each week that is really standing out in their collaboration, Big Top Team of the Week (Figure D). We also recognize a staff member, Ringleader of the Week.
Another learning moment happened for me last year was the shift from me as the principal creating all agendas to gradually moving the guiding coalition members to developing the agendas for their grade level teams. I realized having them construct their agenda outside of the meeting time without their colleagues was not beneficial, so this year it is a norm to allow 5 minutes at the end of each meeting to develop the agenda for the next week, which allowed for all team members to provide input about next steps. Also, every team member knows what they are responsible to bring to the next meeting.
My overall growth as a leader of a wonderful staff is realizing how I am not the only leader in the building. So many of my staff members are excellent leaders, and it’s my responsibility to continually foster that leadership to make the best of our chance in a lifetime opportunity!. I want the work of the PLC Pilot project to carry on at Eastside for years to come and this only happens with teacher leadership.
So have we seen success from the PLC Pilot project? The answer is yes, yes and yes! It wasn’t just a chance in a lifetime for the adults at Eastside, but most importantly, has been a chance in a lifetime for our students!
Kindergarten and first grade saw growth on the MAP assessment at the end of the year of about 20% for each grade, which had normally been around 5% in a year.
The building overall saw MAP reading growth of 55 points, where in years past we only saw 5 to 11 points overall (See Figure E). This number is derived from calculating the growth of each grade from fall to spring and then combining those growths together.
Last year, we had 88 students referred for RTI. At the end of the year, we were able to graduate out 24 of those students!
One teacher stated, “I began to think about how the PLC process has helped us so much! It has led us to become so much more collaborative with each other and we now have these in depth discussions about expectations and what we want our students to know and be able to do at the end of our units. We’ve come a long way from where we were at the beginning of last school year. When I reflect on my first semester of teaching in Greenbrier, I remember just teaching what I had to so that I was covering all the standards. Now, I feel like my teaching has a solid purpose and I know exactly what I want my students to learn.”
Brian Butler, a Solution Tree associate, taught us something about hard work. He said, “Teaching is hard work. You can either work hard in isolation or work hard in collaboration.” I am so proud of my staff and their hard work as true collaborators. I know with our continued work and dedication, we will live out our mission and make Eastside, the Greatest School, for our students!
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work (2nd edition). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.