What critical elements make a difference? We all know that being an educator today has its share of challenges and responsibilities: ensuring all students achieve at high levels, acquiring the skills and expertise to support 21st century learning, making sure that cows don't collide with departing school buses...Well, most educators don't have to address this last responsibility, unless you're in Prosser, WA - a small town located about 50 miles from Yakima. What’s impressive in this small community is not just how educators handle the cow/bus conundrum, but more importantly how they’ve accomplished what few districts have been able to do.
The scores speak for themselves. About 70% of the district’s seventh graders in 2007 met or exceeded standard on the WASL reading scores, up from about 50% in 2006. That would be impressive enough, but what’s really extraordinary is that Prosser has been consistently closing the gap in achievement between Latino and white students in specific content areas. For example, each year since 2004 the achievement gap in the area of reading has been shrinking between these two groups of 7th graders. In 2004, 28.4% of Latinos met or exceeded standard, compared to 60.2% of whites— a difference of 31.8. By 2007, that gap had shrunk by half. Now 62% percent of 7th grade Latino students are meeting or exceeding standard as compared to 77.8% of whites. The same scenario is true for 10th grade WASL writing scores. The gap has decreased from 25.9 in 2004 to 14.9 in 2007, with 67.6% of Latinos in the district meeting or exceeding expectations, and 82.5% of whites. As school districts across the nation are looking for ways to decrease the achievement gap that exists in their individual districts, you could ask, so, how did they do it? Considering the dedicated focus of the district for the past seven years, the results aren’t surprising at all.
When talking with Dr. Ray Tolcacher, Prosser’s superintendent, it becomes clear that the improvement in achievement is the result of “a focus on what we want to accomplish—powerful instruction for all students.” Prosser School District’s partnership with the Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) started seven years ago. A partnership with CEL entails comprehensive system-wide professional development in which all members of a school district become knowledgeable about and implement “best” classroom instructional practices. Prosser has been systematically embracing and implementing elements of CEL’s theory of action—namely, that central office staff and principals need to have content and instructional expertise in order to guide and support teachers in providing powerful learning opportunities for all students. This transformative professional development provides rich experiences for teachers to work with content and instructional coaches. Teachers have the opportunity to learn and practice side-by-side with coaches who model “best” classroom practices.
As staff within his district expand their knowledge and build upon the elements of their practice, Tolcacher recognizes the importance of sharing his own learning through his role as superintendent. He regularly sends district-wide emails and memos to staff as he increases his instructional leadership skills. “He started planting the seed. He started sending emails saying, ‘this is what I’m learning about (the components of powerful instruction)’,” says Shellie Hatch, Principal of Keene Riverview Elementary. Tolcacher also belongs to CEL’s Superintendent Network, a consortium of superintendents in the Yakima Valley who meet on a monthly basis with Dr. Steve Fink, CEL’s Executive Director, to observe classroom instruction and deepen their understanding of the elements of teaching and learning. “The focus and direction of this group has helped me become far more knowledgeable about instruction,” Tolcacher says.
In addition to the support from his colleagues in the Superintendent Network, Tolcacher relies heavily on his administrative team to help lead the district focus. Mary Snitily, Prosser’s Director of Curriculum, State and Federal Projects, supports schools by aligning resources and professional development. A former principal, Snitily understands well the challenges and rewards of systemic reform. “Change is constant. It’s important to help people reflect and assimilate in a short period of time.” Snitily helps provide time for principals to focus on instruction and share their learning with peers. “We began to work more as an instructional leadership team. We began to get into one another’s buildings and build time to do the work, have the conversations,” shares Sally Juzeler, principal at Whitstran Elementary. “Mary is a gift in getting us (principals) to use our time well—making it happen. Separating the management from the staff development (during district meetings) was huge. We use protocols and (define our) purpose—what good instruction is and how we go about doing that in our building.”
Prosser is a great example of a district that aligns resources, policies, and practices with a goal of improving all students’ learning. Tolcacher intentionally created support mechanisms for schools to take on elements of this work. There is an early release Wednesday to support professional development, and academic coaches work with teachers in each of Prosser’s schools. Schools began aligning their vision of how to best support quality teaching and student learning by arranging school schedules and budgets differently. For example, money was allocated to pay for substitute teachers to cover classrooms while teachers observed one another teach with the facilitation of a CEL coach.
Coaching has been a critical element of support. Pauline Shenyer, a literacy coach at Keen Riverview Elementary, was the first academic coach in the district. She began working with teachers who were interested in learning about balanced literacy strategies and practices. “But pretty soon people saw that (student) scores started to improve so (other) teachers wanted to know, ‘what are they doing?’” Shenyer also notes the importance of recognizing teacher growth. “We’re continually trying to balance how much we’re doing and where we need to go. We always have something to work on as well as (something) to celebrate from where we’ve come.” And they’ve come far. “What’s really neat is that we have to change it (our instruction at second grade) because kids are coming in higher (from first grade). The kids can already do the work,” shares principal Hatch, who works seamlessly with Shenyer to support staff.
At Housel Middle School, Connie Hachtel and Wendy Rodriguez, the math and literacy coaches, respectively, share how the culture of their school supports teachers’ growth and learning. This “culture” refers to a shift in teaching practice—moving from what is typically a private venture to one that is shared publicly. The staff at Housel “try on” new teaching strategies connected to the professional development offered by Hachtel and Rodriguez and then share their learning either through on-line or in person conversations. “Discourse is a focus around good teaching practice and how it can be applied in classrooms,” Hachtel shares. “We have a public conversation about how it (the lesson) went.” Deanna Flores, Housel’s principal, works in collaboration with Hachtel and Rodriguez to guide and support teachers as they refine their instructional practices—an approach involving distributed leadership. “We’re focusing on assessment. Knowing and understanding that assessment drives instruction,” Flores says. “It’s important that the whole staff sees the role they play in making kids successful.”
In fact, the focus on students and their learning is evident throughout the district. “It’s all about the kids,” Hatch reinforces. “We need to do what’s best for them—engaging them in authentic work.” And that “work” comes as a result of strong instructional skills. To reinforce this emphasis, at the beginning of the year staff received district notebooks with the statement: “Powerful instruction is the key to academic achievement for all students.” The relentless effort to create empowering learning opportunities for all students in the district continues. “There has to be urgency in this work. We’ve got to think of that one kid…” says Tolcacher.
There’s no doubt that systemic change, for any organization, is hard work with its share of challenges. But the most satisfying part, and the reason that educators embrace missions such as Prosser’s every day, is the change in students’ capabilities. As Shenyer says, “You give them something to read and by golly, they read! They don’t have the ‘I can’t, I can’t’ anymore.”