Collaboration Leads to Student Success in Central Valley Schools
When Diana Chapman was thrust into a leadership role among her peers at North Pines Middle School three years ago, the mild-mannered veteran teacher wasn’t sure what to do. She had become a grade-level facilitator, assigned to guide her fellow eighth grade teachers through a grant-funded process to improve student performance and learning.
“At the time, each teacher was in our own room and our own world. We didn’t talk to each other about student learning and didn’t share lessons with each other,” Chapman explained, describing the teaching environment three years ago, a typical environment in many schools today. “Although at first we weren’t sure what to do, the grant guided us and we eventually revamped our entire eighth grade curriculum during our daily collaboration time. We also received training on how to better teach reading skills in every subject area.”
Today, North Pines teachers at every grade level know exactly what their peers are teaching in their classrooms. They plan their lessons to compliment each other, giving students a consistency from class to class which has resulted in improved student performance and engagement. They also discuss struggling students and work together to help bring these students along.
“I’ve seen a definite growth in the reading level of these kids,” smiled Chapman, explaining that she no longer has students entering her eighth grade science class reading at a third or fourth grade level. “Students are much more engaged and are showing a real willingness to read.”
Three Years Ago at North Pines Middle School
Student test scores at North Pines Middle School three years ago were dismal. Parent involvement was low and many students were failing at least one class. Instead of blaming student performance on the students, the school’s staff decided to improve their own teaching skills and strategies. The school received a three-year state Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) grant and began the hard work necessary to shift their school’s culture from classroom-centered to student-centered. The results are impressive – reading, writing and math scores have shown strong improvement, the number of students on honor roll is up 30 percent and the number of failing grades is down 56 percent. Parent participation in student conferences is up to 96 percent and parent attendance at the school’s Celebration of Learning nights is at an all-time high.
“Collaboration lets teachers plan together. The projects are often better than I would have created on my own because we are all willing to listen to each other and discuss the pros and cons of the project, what is being expected from students and how to best implement the project,” said SaraLu Moore, an eighth grade math and social studies teacher. “Students benefit because they see the same work done across the school. This allows them to talk across classes and better see the benefit of what they are doing to enhance their learning.”
Although the benefit of working together in teams has long been recognized in the business world, educators are now discovering the power collaboration can have on student achievement. The challenge for educators, however, is carving out time in a highly-structured school day for groups of teachers to meet regularly together. One or two teachers may be able to squeeze out some time together, but structured collaboration time requires a major shift in school schedules.
High Schools Create Collaboration Time
In the fall of 2004, Central Valley High School and University High School implemented a one hour late arrival schedule, two days per week. Called “student access time,” students are encouraged to come to school as usual to receive individualized help from specific teachers on a given day. On the alternate day, these teachers, all from the same department, set aside the time for collaboration.
“We use our collaboration time to analyze student work to improve student achievement,” said Susan Peterson, a 10th and 11th grade English teacher at University High School. “This regular, uninterrupted time allows us as a department to focus on the issues at hand. We are improving our strategies and making sure what we are teaching is consistent across classrooms and grade levels.”
At Central Valley High School, teachers collaborating in the science department have examined student test scores and discussed as a team what to do when students don’t learn. They gain knowledge from each other’s particular strengths to become a more effective teaching staff. And, they share ideas for activities and labs that really engage students
“We took our students through a practice science WASL and had them grade their own tests using the scoring rubric,” explained Lori Buratto, a Central Valley High School science teacher. “This really helped students understand the test and helped our teachers make sure are all using the same specific terminology.”
“Teachers really want to be better teachers,” Buratto continued. “There is a synergy we get when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The value of that one hour per week will be returned exponentially with focused attention on individual students.”
Collaborative teams work interdependently to achieve common goals. They create the momentum to fuel continuous improvement. When students don’t learn, intervention by teachers in schools with collaboration is timely, systematic and required
Parents as Partners in Student Success
Along with the collective goal of improving student learning through collaboration, North Pines Middle School recognized the importance of family support in the learning process. The school created “Celebration of Learning Nights,” events held several times during the school year to bring in families and engage them in student learning. A theme is selected and all North Pines students participate.
“At one event, students dressed up to portray different characters, for example, George Washington,” explained North Pines parent Karla Sherry. “The students walked around the school and talked to the visiting adults about their character. It was great to see parents standing there, learning from students.”
“Celebration of Learning Nights” include student demonstrations and displays around the school as well as teachers on hand to visit with parents. Many displays are interactive, making the event fun for all family members.
North Pines Middle School has also implemented the highly successful “Zeros Aren’t Permitted” or “ZAP” program, with strong parent support. Students who do not complete their homework are “Zapped” to stay after school to complete the work, instead of receiving a zero on the assignment. Zapped students receive extra help from the classroom teachers who staff the ZAP room after school. Although most students are zapped by their teachers, some are zapped by parents or even themselves.
An active parent volunteer in the school for nearly six years, Sherry has seen a dramatic shift in the culture and parent involvement at North Pines. Her son, Chris, is now a sophomore at University High School and her daughter, Katie, is now a North Pines eighth grader.
“Before, it seemed like teachers were isolated in their own space. Now, I hear a lot of sharing among teachers,” Sherry noted. “The teachers have created a curriculum lab full of lessons. As they use the lessons, they write notes about what worked, didn’t work and extra ideas for other teachers. I heard a substitute teacher say how helpful it was to have the plans so she knew she had a good track on what students are supposed to be learning.”
Sherry has also noticed a difference in the way teachers are assigning homework.
“When my son attended North Pines, the homework was piled on,” she explained, noting that the ZAP program would have really helped her son. “Now for my daughter, it seems like the homework has evened out as the teachers work together and know what each other is doing.”
The three-year grant that funded the dramatic improvements in student learning and parent involvement at North Pines Middle School ends this year, but the benefits will continue to be felt by students, parents and teachers.
Eighth grade math and science teacher Dorinda Belcher, who is in her second year of teaching, has benefited tremendously from the collaborative environment. Not only does she receive the support of veteran teachers, but has embraced the chance to weave and tie her lessons into the subjects she knows her fellow teachers are teaching. And, she enjoys sharing successes of the best lessons, labs and activities.
“Students are always at the center of collaboration,” Belcher summarized. “Collaboration helps me to be a more effective, focused teacher. We work smarter together instead of working harder as individuals.”