The power of coaching in Fort Wayne, IN

By Kay Psencik, Ramona Coleman and Valerie Mitrani
Categories: Change management, Coaching, Continuous improvement, Research
December 2019
Vol. 40, No. 6
Effective coaches make time for their own learning. As they systematically engage in professional learning, they develop and deepen their knowledge in areas including the Standards for Professional Learning (Learning Forward, 2011), adult learning principles, and research-based instructional practices. This ongoing learning process doesn’t happen automatically. It takes intentional design and support at the district and school levels. When district leaders keep a vigilant, strong focus on the content and quality of professional learning, coaches develop common vocabulary and skills, which supports equity for all students (Hirsh, Psencik, & Brown, 2018). Coaches who are well-supported tend to be more engaged in their own learning community than those who aren’t. Unfortunately, many coaches don’t have access to this kind of support or meaningful professional learning. For

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Kay Psencik, Valerie Mitrani, and Ramona Coleman

Kay Psencik ( and Valerie Mitrani ( are senior consultants at Learning Forward. Ramona Coleman ( is director of professional learning at Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana and a Learning Forward Academy coach.

How Fort Wayne built a learning system

Beginning in 2001, Fort Wayne Community Schools participated in a Wallace Foundation grant to prepare and support school leaders. Through this work, district leaders saw the vital role of leadership development in transforming their schools.

Recognizing the need for continued development, superintendent Wendy Robinson established a partnership with Learning Forward in 2014 to rethink professional learning and redefine how her district leadership team would become the model of learning that she wanted to see throughout the district.

The district established a learning community of district cabinet leaders, made up of chief officers and directors from all aspects of the organization: finance, human capital management, social and emotional health, special education, and academic services.

Robinson stressed to them and everyone in the district the importance of professional learning because, as she said, they could not lead what they did not understand. Robinson considered it critical to engage central office leaders, including instructional and noninstructional staff, from the onset so that leaders had knowledge of and capacity for a continuous improvement approach in schools and departments. And she was clear that the approach was not intended to be top-down but instead a way to build leadership capacity at all levels to sustain learning throughout the organization.

The cabinet’s first focus was to explore effective strategies for implementing the Standards for Professional Learning (Learning Forward, 2011). This meant making a shift from one-time professional development to ongoing, embedded, community-based professional learning. The cabinet team established definitions of leadership and professional learning to guide the work of implementing the standards.

While the district focused on professional learning as the approach to achieving its goals, Robinson realized that the district wasn’t supporting instructional coaches enough to ensure their success in all schools. She challenged her cabinet leadership team to explore the most powerful ways to engage instructional coaches in ongoing professional learning and create a coaching framework and a professional learning plan to support them.

Learning Forward senior consultants and the district leadership team created a broad system for learning throughout the district that included principals, coaches, and teachers. The district’s model is featured in the book Becoming a Learning System (Hirsh, Psencik, & Brown, 2018). Today, learning communities flourish throughout the district, from school professional learning communities of principals to the finance and human resources departments.


Hirsh, S. & Crow, T. (2017). Becoming a learning team: A guide to a teacher-led cycle of continuous improvement. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

Hirsh, S., Psencik, K., & Brown, F. (2018). Becoming a learning system. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

Learning Forward. (2011). Standards for Professional Learning. Oxford, OH: Author.
Psencik, K. (2011). The coach’s craft: Powerful practices to support school leaders. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

RTI International. (2018, June). FWCS analysis of impact of professional learning. Berkeley, CA: Author.

Valdez, M. & Broin, A. (2015). Untapped: Transforming teacher leadership to help students succeed. New York, NY: New Leaders.

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Categories: Change management, Coaching, Continuous improvement, Research

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