John Wiedrick As told to Valerie von Frank
Learning communities are important because when you work collaboratively with colleagues, you can make larger academic gains with kids.
Five or six years ago, when I was a teacher, a busload of school staff went to a workshop where we were introduced to the concept. I was excited that this idea was not just kindergarten teachers responsible for kindergarten kids, 7th-grade teachers responsible for 7th graders. We're all in this together. If we all understand the needs of our students, if we all sit down and use our professional knowledge to the best of our abilities, and we talk and research then implement and come back and discuss, then we really move learning forward.
At first, the junior high teachers met voluntarily after school and over lunch. We left our meeting open to the entire staff. We didn't want to be seen as a secret clique inside the school. All of a sudden, a 4th-grade teacher showed up, then other teachers began to participate.
Three years ago was a tipping point. We had about 80% buy-in for the idea of learning communities. When I took over as principal, I said if we're doing this, we're all going to do it together. It's important to do as a team.
To become a whole-school learning community, we followed a step-by-step process. We solidified our mission and vision to be clear what we wanted and our nonnegotiables, what we call "the hills we're going to die on." For example, we will teach all kids to read at grade level. Then we put interventions in place and monitor and tweak them when necessary.
We meet as an entire staff after school every second week and give people extra preparation time during the workday as compensation. We set clear objectives and have clear meeting norms, such as starting and ending on time. We had one or two resisters at first, but it boiled down to having a conversation about how this strategy would be effective for students in their classroom. When that point is clear, teachers don't say no.
We also have a weekly learning support team meeting to look at specific students' struggles. We have support from the central office. All of our daylong professional development days (we have six) focus on our literacy concept. Everything we do is tied to that one idea.
We give students a common reading assessment that remains the focus for the year and set goals based on data for the individual proficiency of each student. We give interim assessments, and, at our next meeting, look at the results, discuss strategies for intervention, then come back in two weeks and discuss the results.
Our 1st-grade kids are making massive gains -- 10 to 12 months of reading growth in six months, especially among the students who were struggling. We make sure that as a school we celebrate and recognize these individual successes in the classroom. We send the message that individual successes tie to success for everyone. John Wiedrick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is principal of St. Stephen's Catholic School in Valleyview, Alberta, Canada.