Lakeview School District teachers meet in groups weekly during the school year to review student progress and evaluate themselves and each other.
The conversations are candid and challenging, but teachers and administrators at this Battle Creek, Michigan school district say they walk away with a better understanding of what needs to be done to close student achievement gaps and improve student academic performance for the district’s 4,000 students at four elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.
“The biggest part of this is the collaboration piece and the idea that it’s not okay to go to your room and work by yourself,” said Jim Owen, Lakeview director of Curriculum and Instruction.
For the past three years, Lakeview teachers and administrators have held these meetings, known as Professional Learning Communities (PLC), with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Elementary school (kindergarten through 4th grade) teachers meet in grade-level teams to collaborate and align their work at their respective schools for 90 minutes each week. They also hold larger, districtwide monthly meetings.
Secondary school (5th through 12th grade) teachers meet in grade-level teams for 90 minutes each week, but they also meet monthly by department, like math or English.
“When we get together, we get energy from each other, we learn from each other,” said Owen. “It’s powerful.”
Instructional leaders at each school also attend PLC trainings locally and nationally to implement throughout the district, to increase teachers’ overall capacity.
Owen said disparities in student achievement exist among the district’s middle- and high school students of color, low-income students and special education students, who lag behind their peers in reading and math. Among the district’s elementary schools, the achievement gap is wider for its special education students and students learning English as a second language.
Owen said PLCs have contributed to closing achievement gaps in the district, especially at the four elementary schools. Riverside Elementary School Principal Denise Myers agrees.
Once the PLCs were implemented at Riverside, where 47 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, Myers said the number of kindergarten students held back dropped from 10 in the 2013-14 school year to three the following year.
"The wonderful thing about the PLC process is that it works for all students whether the students are performing below grade level, at grade level or above grade level,” she said.
The learning communities helped Riverside staff discover the need to look closer at how instruction is provided across the grade levels and examine the alignment of the curriculum and student learning gaps. Teachers learned that student mathematics performance, specifically multiplication, increased once teachers at all grade levels identified the skills students were not reaching fluency.
“They needed those foundational skills, so once we identified the areas for focus, the kids just grew amazingly,” Myers said.
To expand the effort, Lakeview is partnering with Battle Creek Public Schools this summer to provide online PLC training for administrators and teachers in the districts. In the fall, Lakeview administrators will participate in a Michigan Department of Education MI Excel pilot program called the Turnaround Blueprint to improve leadership and instruction to accelerate student achievement over a two-year period.
“It’s like the PLC process on steroids,” Owen said.
The district also will continue with its racial equity training for teachers, administrators and high school students with consultant Pace 4 Change, which works to help eliminate barriers to student achievement.
“It gives us a better understanding of who we are, the kids and families we work with and what are the things we do that get in the way of that,” Owen said.
Myers said the district is making great strides in improving the learning environment for students, adding Lakeview’s future looks promising.
“I think this next year is going to be a very, very exciting time in our district,” she said.