Approach to teaching students changed in four years

RUSSELLVILLE, Mo. — It took a school-wide commitment four years ago to implement the Professional Learning Communities model at every level.

A year ahead of schedule, they have exceeded their original goals.

But as their motto says, “Expecting Excellence” continues.

“We never want to be in a place of complacency,” said Elementary Principal Karen Ponder. “We are still fine tuning and will keep pushing.”

Five years ago, Cole County R-1 as a school district had the lowest possible rating on its school improvement plan. Students had low test scores overall and the only support programs in place were the special education classes, which did not work with classroom teachers, recalled Superintendent Jerry Hobbs.

“I was frustrated,” Hobbs said. “I heard so much, ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’”

The collective group wasn’t looking at how to improve; they weren’t asking questions or looking for alternatives when something wasn’t working, he said.

The first step was contacting the Regional Professional Development Center (RPDC) on the University of Missouri campus. For the next three years, administrators were committed to the training and to trying some new things in their buildings.

“They were at a point where the staff was frustrated, and the leadership was changing,” Ponder said.

The elementary school started with its math curriculum and then moved on to communication arts. High test scores were one of many successful results within just the first year.

They implemented the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s model for Response To Intervention, which analyzes why a student may not be learning. And grade level teachers have common planning times where they meet weekly to discuss student needs and issues.

“Right now, we’re doing all the pieces,” Ponder said. “The model is different for every building and staff.”

“We stole a lot of things from the middle school,” said high school principal Heath Waters.

The data in particular pointed to math, where students were doing well at the middle school level but then they weren’t keeping up in high school, he said.

That led the high school math department to convert to the same curriculum used at the middle school.

“We’re looking for our math scores to jump this year,” Waters said.

Other programs which work with the pre-teen ages weren’t as successful at the upper level.

Last year, they extended the middle school’s “Zeroes Aren’t Permitted” program.

When they saw it wasn’t a good fit, the PLC format allowed for open communication and strategy.

This year, the high school made a drastic change to its grading structure and has added Homework Help sessions during the school day where students can meet one-on-one with teachers outside of class.

Each week, the PLC teams are talking about specific issues and individual student needs, as well as academics.

Even if it’s just seeing an A student drop to B’s, teachers are paying attention and then they discuss it in their PLCs.

“It’s fun to watch,” Waters said. “It’s their work and sharing ideas.”

Through the PLC process, the educators have tried new ideas and found it’s OK when they don’t work, too.

In the high school, they rearranged teacher locations to make more sense and better used some of their resources, like the home economics room, Waters said.

For academic recovery, they knew they didn’t want a separate school setting. So they created an alternative classroom, where they later added the GradPoint program for further assistance.

Then, they added summer school.

And they added exploratory classes to the schedule to offer more elective choices — life skills, modern fiction, body conditioning, forensics, sports medicine, multimedia and ceramics.

“This was all because our staff was able to do their homework and show we had a need,” Waters said. “It was a taste of using data for decision-making.”

Creating the team concept through the PLC process allows for smaller peer groups to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses to work better together.

The team members share the same goals and implement school-wide changes more consistently.

“We’re proud of the staff and where we are right now,” Waters said. “It’s been such a change.

“So many things have happened in such a short amount of time.”

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