Federal Opinion

Ellen Holmes: NEA’s Priority Schools Focus on Teacher Expertise, Parent and Community Involvement

By Anthony Cody — March 30, 2012 12 min read
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This week I have been looking at the issue of Turnarounds and the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants, drawing from a conference I attended sponsored by the Education Writers Association. One of the speakers there was a former teacher named Ellen Holmes, who now leads the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign. I asked her to explain more about their work in this area.

Anthony: What is the NEA’s Priority Schools project?

Ellen Holmes:
The Priority Schools Campaign is the NEA’s commitment to struggling schools. The Campaign was born at the 2009 NEA Representative Assembly, an annual democratic meeting of 10,000 members, who decided that supporting students in struggling schools was a priority for the nation’s largest teachers union. Priority Schools are any schools that received School Improvement Grants. All of them are Title 1 or Title 1 eligible - serving poor students - and most of them serve large numbers of minority and English language learners. Most of these schools had only a few short months -weeks in some cases- to apply for, plan and begin implementing sweeping school based reforms. Because of this challenge the Priority Schools Campaign has committed resources (people, technical assistance, grants, media and networking) to support these schools as they work to implement school reforms necessary for student success.

The campaign collaborates with teachers, administrators, parents, community members, and students to leverage local resources, experience and expertise in ways that can sustain meaningful improvements. NEA also uses its communications and advocacy networks to communicate the success stories often overlooked in America’s struggling schools. We find that even in the toughest of situations heroic efforts and innovation exist led by teachers who want their students to thrive and succeed.

Anthony: How are schools identified to participate?

Ellen Holmes:
From the nearly 1200 SIG funded schools nationwide, NEA worked with its state and local affiliates to identify sites that could benefit from a partnership with the Priority Schools Campaign. The Campaign looked for strong signs of collaboration between teachers and administrators. We wanted to work with schools where our members’ voices were a significant part of the plan and implementation. The Campaign also looked at the local and state union affiliate’s capacity to support teacher led school change. We wanted to support union work that focused on social justice and professional issues. We also looked for sites that wanted our support. Through this process - aware of the importance of not spreading resources too thin - we identified 39 sites across 17 states as intensive support sites.

In each of our intensive support sites we completed listening tours. We asked district and union leaders, members, parents and community partners a very simple set of questions about student success in each school site: What is working? What is not working? And how can the Priority Schools Campaign help? We asked them to consider four broad categories for each of these questions: Professional Development, Collaboration, Community Outreach and Parent Engagement. After listening to all groups, we worked with a broad-based stakeholder team to co-create a plan of support. Each plan is unique to each school site and focuses NEA resources into three areas: Building Capacity, Advocating for School Success and Increasing Community Engagement.

Through this listening and planning process we wanted teachers, leaders and parents to understand our work with them was not a top-down, pre-formulated program. Many SIG funded schools are familiar if not filled with reform programs and products designed by outside vendors and lead-partners who promise to come “fix” the school. The assumption is that adults in the building are either not working hard enough or that they don’t know how to teach. We did not want to be one more outside “expert voice” telling teachers how to fix themselves. Our assumption is that the true experts about school changes that lead to improved learning for students are the public school educators and leaders who work with struggling students every day.

Anthony: What is the relationship of this project to the Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants project?

Ellen Holmes:

As a cohort, most of the Priority Schools Campaign intensive support sites have adopted the USED reform model called Transformation. This allowed the staff to stay in place, but required the removal of the principal if they had been in place for more than two years. Each school in this model must develop an evaluation system that ties some portion of a teacher’s evaluation to student outcomes and provides incentives for a school’s growth towards student achievement goals. Two of our schools have used the Turnaround model, which means that at least 50% of the staff was moved to other school sites and staff from the district was allowed to apply to work at the SIG site. In each of these cases the union and members endorsed this approach believing that teachers should have a voice in the type of school environment they work best in. One of our sites is not SIG funded and that is the Math Science Leadership Academy in Denver, Colorado. This is an innovative, teacher-led, union supported school that illustrates how charters are a distraction from the issue of school reform. Public schools and public school employees can and will innovate if provided the authority and support.

An important note about the models that is greatly overlooked is that originally, there were only three models SIG applicants would have been able to consider. The Transformation model did not exist until NEA and AFT advocated for it. The original models proposed by USED were Turnaround (get rid of 50% of current staff and the principal), Restart (close the public school and reopen it as some sort of charter), and Closure (shut the school down and send students to another school). Teacher unions supported the Transformation model because we believe teachers are the experts about what it will take to improve a school - IF they are given the conditions to participate in the process. The evaluation requirement in the Transformation model - designed with educator input based on multiple measures including student growth - was part of the compromise in getting the model as an option for schools.

Anthony: What are the key strategies these schools are using?

Ellen Holmes:

Every one of the Priority School sites has increased the amount of professional development employees are engaged in and every site has ensured that students have extending learning opportunities. In the first year of the grant, most schools felt tremendous pressure to spend down their funds so an enormous amount of money was spent on school-wide professional development that targeted literacy and math instruction, the development of instructional frameworks, and behavior management. A number of our schools used SIG funds to invest heavily in technology (Iowa, Washington, Nevada). Most understand that the technology alone will not translate to improved student outcomes. The technology is seen as a strong tool to support effective teaching and encourage meaningful learning.

In year two we find that instead of relying on dramatic, flash-in-the-pan programs for school improvement, our teachers and their principals are looking to strong, sustainable structures for improvement. Most of our schools have built in some version of Professional Learning Communities. Most of the schools are including some version of Response to Intervention. All of our schools are learning how to use the sorts of student outcomes that matter most to teachers and their practice. They are learning how to reflect on their teaching decisions and the effectiveness of their practice by collaboratively analyzing curriculum based assessments. They are using what they learn about their practice from these short cycle student outcomes to immediately shift and target their instruction. They are also using this information to guide the type of meaningful, differentiated, job-embedded professional development that helps them shift practices to meet student needs. Priority Schools Campaign staff have helped a number of schools and districts design, implement, and improve these structures.

Anthony: What is the role of teacher expertise at these schools?

Ellen Holmes:

Educators and principals recognize that sustained school change is actually more difficult under tight, top-down mandates. Structures that allow for more distributed authority and decision making elevate the wealth of expertise and experience in schools so that changes can be made in a meaningful way closely matching the needs of students and families in these schools. Teachers in these schools are not afraid of significant change, what they are reluctant to implement and follow are mandated silver-bullet approaches that they have no voice in on the front end, but are held solely responsible for the outcomes on the backend. Teachers want to be leaders, but their pre-service preparation does not adequately prepare them for this role and quite frankly, many principals are not sure how to cultivate a culture that recognizes and grows teacher leadership. The Priority Schools Campaign provides support to sites and local affiliates in developing teacher leadership. (You can find resources related to this here.)

Anthony: What is the role of family and community engagement in this work?

Ellen Holmes:

A key part of the SIG application required schools to define how they would engage families and communities in their efforts. Most schools have struggled with this and it is a shift for teachers and principals to think about the difference between outreach and engagement. Most have experience with “math nights” or “science fairs” but this is always dependent on the parents and community coming to the schools. The Priority Schools campaign; believes that having parents and community partners in the school is important, but is also believes that having the school go out into the community is equally important. The Priority School Campaign has provided 10 Public Engagement Project grants to our sites. These grants support community conversations that bring together hundreds of community stakeholders to discuss a significant educational issue.

Some examples: What does school success look like for this community’s poor native students? Who in this community is responsible for the high dropout rate? The conversations begin with a community meal and a presentation of data about the problem. The attendees then move into small conversation and solution generating groups. The project grantees agree to create a planning collaborative that will work on implementing solutions generated by the groups.

Another significant resource the Priority Schools Campaign has provided sites is the NEA Family School Community Partnership training and resources. All 17 of our target states sent a team to three-day training about cultivating family, school, community partnerships. The training and materials begin by helping educators and principals challenge their beliefs about family engagement. We believe the most powerful tool in ensuring sustainable school reform is for families and the community to be actively engaged with teachers and support professionals around issues that matter for student success. (Read more about this work here.)

A partner that has had a significant impact in several of our schools is the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project. Core to this project is helping public school employees meet parents on their own turf. The belief is that as guests in another’s space you are more inclined to listen and learn. Schools who have adopted this project must first demonstrate at least an 80% consensus vote about doing this project. They learn the best practices for conducting home visits and what to do with the information that they collect. They learn how to engage families in the conversation and listen deeply to what families report. The most important question teachers learn to ask of families is, “What are your hopes and dreams for your child?” Teachers report that these visits have been fundamental in shaping how they think about their students and their families. This partner of the Priority Schools Campaign has worked with teachers and principals to provide the necessary professional development and provided stipends to the employees who do the visits.

Anthony: What has driven these educators to engage in this work?

Ellen Holmes:
Another reason for urgency in supporting SIG schools: social justice issues. NEA has a rich history in advocating for underrepresented students and their schools. All of our intensive support sites serve a large population of underrepresented students and families as defined by poverty, ELL, ethnicity or at-risk indicators. Through partnership with the Priority Schools Campaign, many of our schools have taken part in NEA’s English Language Learner Strategies training; NEA’s Culture Ability Resiliency and Effort (C.A.R.E.) training; Cultural Competency Training; and Teacher Leadership and Advocacy training. Teachers and principals in our schools have recognized the need to see their students and families in an asset mindset instead of a deficiency mindset. The trainings above and the ongoing support with our sites help with this significant shift.

Anthony: What have been the results thus far?

Ellen Holmes: While we recognize that the current reality for SIG funded schools is to focus on increasing test scores, a number of other indicators for success are also increasing. We are seeing that a number of our high schools have significantly increased the number of students graduating and receiving scholarships. We see a significant number of our middle and high schools who have increased the number of higher level courses AND have increased the number of students who are passing these courses at high levels. We see a significant number of our schools who are increasing grade level performance in literacy and math. We see significant numbers of our schools reporting large drops in behavior leading to expulsion. Many of our schools report a strong downturn in teacher and student attrition. Do all of our schools improve on all of these measures? No. But this only illustrates that every site is unique, serving unique students, and the strongest most sustainable school change model must be locally developed and informed. You can see descriptions of the work underway here, at Belmont High in Dayton, Ohio, and in the video below, of Roberts High in Salem, Oregon.

Readers: What do you think about the approach the NEA has taken to transforming high poverty schools?

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