School & District Management Opinion

Galveston Middle School Principals Put the Cycle of Continuous Improvement to Work

By Learning Forward, Debra Owens, Cathy Vanness, Jean Fullen, Annette Dailey & Keri Launius — June 22, 2017 4 min read
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Debra Owens
Cathy VanNess
Jean Fullen
Annette Dailey
Keri Launius

Galveston ISD serves 7,000 students on Galveston Island in Texas. The district’s student performance achievement, especially in middle school, has not been acceptable to us, and we set it as a primary goal.

Working together, the middle school principals created and implemented our district middle school Common Instructional Framework. Using the framework, we discovered that teachers need and desire time to plan and learn with their colleagues.

This led to the creation of Middle School Unit Planning teaching teams. The teams’ purpose was to provide collaborative time for teachers to analyze data and plan for upcoming units each six weeks. We also realized that we, as middle school principals, needed to learn from each other to strengthen our instructional leadership skills.

After three years of working with our teams, we joined Galveston County Learning Leaders in fall 2016. This is a collaborative group of administrators in Galveston County that includes Clear Creek ISD, Friendswood ISD, Galveston ISD, and Santa Fe ISD. The group’s primary goal is to learn from each other and work with Learning Forward consultants to enhance our own learning to build the capacity of all leaders.

We learned about the cycle of continuous improvement during our first Galveston County Learning Leaders meeting. According to Hirsh, Psencik, and Brown (2014), the cycle of continuous improvement, when driven by data and focused on student learning, is central to professional learning: As educators learn, student outcomes increase. We quickly realized this was the missing piece of our Middle School Unit Planning design.

We developed the following problem of practice: Campus leaders will develop a shared understanding and systems to support adult learning, a positive culture, and trust. Our next steps were the most challenging -- configuring and processing the true meaning of the learning agenda and the learning designs, and how that applies to our problem of practice. This would drive the work of middle schools in our district.

Galveston’s middle school principals began to look at our problem of practice through the use of data, school needs, and district systems. We used a process called KASAB to clarify and develop shared understanding of the knowledge, attitudes, skills, aspirations, and behaviors that principals and teaching teams needed to achieve our goal. Through following the learning cycles, revising and editing, we know that continuous growth is not easy, but is necessary to keep up with the ever-changing learning of our students, staff, and ourselves.

A clearly articulated vision allows district leaders to recognize the complexities of the changes they want others to make and the importance of staying the course for several years to ensure that the district vision is integrated into the culture of all our middle schools. Galveston’s middle school principals and administrators are now sharing the cycle of continuous improvement with our elementary principals. We have organized a summer agenda to meet weekly to continue our practice of learning through collaboration, improve our practices of professional learning, and create innovative solutions to learning barriers.

We are creating a professional learning community for the 2017-18 school year not only for teachers, but also for principals and administrators. We will focus on unit planning based on data, sharing lessons, instructional rounds, and common instructional framework.

The greatest motivation for principals and teachers is for leaders to embrace and implement an authentic learning system. Through continuous learning as professionals, we can dramatically increase the learning of all staff and students. Going through the process of continuous improvement, we will replicate this body of work to better support our teachers’ learning, which will in turn support student learning. Becoming a learning system means giving every adult working in the district the opportunity to be a part of a mission-driven community that establishes a norm of learning for all.


Hirsh, S., Psencik, K., & Brown, F. (2014). Becoming a learning system. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

Debra Owens (debraowens@gisd.org) is principal of Scott Collegiate Academy. Cathy VanNess (cathyvanness@gisd.org) is principal of Austin Middle School. Jean Fullen (jeanfullen@gisd.org) is principal of AIM College and Career Preparatory. Annette Dailey (annettedailey@gisd.org) is principal of Crenshaw Middle School. Keri Launius (kerilaunius@gisd.org) is executive director for professional learning and staff development at Galveston ISD.

Galveston County Learning Leaders is a three-year initiative funded by a grant from Houston Endowment to Learning Forward. The goal of the project is to improve professional learning and leadership across the county by supporting Galveston County superintendents, their leadership teams, and selected principals in a community of practice and professional learning seminars.

The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.