PLC provides TLC for Russellville schools

The Cole County R-1 School District, based at Russellville, attributes its recent improvement to Professional Learning Communities.

The Cole County R-1 School District, based at Russellville, attributes its recent improvement to Professional Learning Communities. Photo by Michelle Brooks.

RUSSELLVILLE, Mo. — Nearly a miracle by education standards, the Russellville school district moved from the bottom 100 of 523 schools to the top 50 in four short years.

It was no accident the Cole County R-1 Schools landed at No. 40 on the Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP) 5 Annual Performance Report, educators say.

For some school districts, the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) model is implemented as a monthly staff meeting or as something only a partial group follows.

“We believe this (PLC) has been the major contributor for the tremendous success of our school,” said Superintendent Jerry Hobbs.

A fundamental of the PLC concept is backing up ideas with data. The recent results confirmed the successes classroom teachers already were celebrating.

The effectiveness of the PLC at Russellville further was endorsed when three of the four applications sent by school teams were accepted for presentation at the January statewide conference.

The second fundamental required more buy-in, more commitment and a wholesale shift in how each employee from cook to superintendent approached the idea of education.

The focus moved from information delivery to student learning.

“Personally, I had to change my focus from teaching to learning,” said teacher David Volkart. “It really doesn’t matter how the teacher presents the information. The focus is whether the students have learned the information.”

This concept was more difficult at the high school building, where subject-specific teachers were not used to collaborating across the hallway.

Like many teachers who have been involved in public education long enough to know fads come and go, David Volkart said his initial reaction to the PLC concept was “this too shall pass.”

But the administration was committed. And the emphasis was pervasive.

Teachers and staff met weekly without fail. They studied homework and summer readings together. They became a team.

Once that trust and familiarity was established, the conduit was in place to make comprehensive changes in the school culture.

“This process has helped to narrow the focus and really prioritize what school is about,” Volkart said.

At the core of it all was the school’s motto: “Expecting Excellence.”

In its fourth school year, it has become an unspoken part of everyday life inside the Russellville Schools.

Much of the culture change at the high school has centered around empowering individual students.

The faculty and administration have emphasized “it’s okay to win and be proud, to break the ‘norm’ of ‘this is how I was raised,’”said Heath Waters, high school principal.

Many students have benefited from the regular reinforcement of the idea “you’re in control of what you become.”

That message is sent through new events such as Homecoming Olympics, where classes compete throughout the homecoming week, and Celebration of Success, a school-wide assembly where teachers recognize classroom work at the end of each quarter.

The newly-painted walls have become places of recognition. And in the gymnasium, the names of students scoring exceptionally on the ACT test are displayed along with the athletic accomplishments.

“Even our custodians and cooks are involved,” Waters said.

Four years ago, the most frequent offenses were insubordination and disrespect. This year, they have been tardies and cell phone use.

“It’s been a total transformation in the building,” Waters said.

And, in the spring of 2013 for the first time in many years, no recommendations for termination or resignation were made to the board, Hobbs said.

“We all bought into it, and we’ve excelled,” Hobbs said. “The kids know it; the expectation is everywhere. We’ve now surpassed the original goals of where we wanted to be.”

As future state and federal mandates come, such as the Common Core, Cole County R-1 will navigate its implementation through the PLC.

“We’ll incorporate them; but our focus will still be on the kids, to help them be successful,” Hobbs said.

Waters explained it this way: “It’s not a diet; it’s a change of lifestyle.”

As issues are addressed the primary questions are “What’s best for students?” and “What does the data say?”

“What we’ve done is not magical,” Hobbs said.

Waters agreed the PLC concept can work in other schools.

“But it was not easy,” he said. “It took a lot of work, dedication, participation and expectation.”

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