By Dana Delgado
As Liberty Hill Intermediate School (LHIS) teachers assembled this week in the cafeteria for a group photo in recognition of their recent honor, the photo shoot took on a completely different vibe.
Instead of gathering as a traditional faculty, the group drew together as a professional learning community — a clear distinction the members proudly cherish. For LHIS, this celebration, which has been years in the making, is a defining moment.
After a circuitous journey of redesigning and replacing a rather antiquated idea fundamental to education for decades, LHIS was recognized Nov. 30 as a “Model Professional Learning Community (PLC) at Work.” LHIS joins 17 schools around the state and 123 nationally that hold the distinction.
The announcement that LHIS had met the criteria of model Professional Learning Community status was made by Solution Tree, a global educational company providing comprehensive professional development. According to the educational company, the three big ideas of a PLC call upon educators to: focus on learning, build a collaborative culture, and create a results orientation.
Schools are recognized based on strict criteria, including demonstration of a commitment to PLC concepts, implementation of these concepts for at least three years, and clear evidence of improved student learning over that period. Solution Tree contends that collective inquiry leads to the development of new skills and experiences and results in fundamental shifts in attitudes and beliefs that can transform the culture of a school.
“We’re so excited!” said LHIS Principal Josh Curtis. “It hasn’t really sunk in for me but it’s like winning the Super Bowl and the World Series in the same year. PLC puts learning above everything else.”
“The recognition is awesome,” said Cheryl Simmons, a fifth grade science teacher in her second year with the Liberty Hill Independent School District. “I was in another district that had PLC but this at the Intermediate School is the cutting edge of what it can be.”
The recognition enabled the school to apply for the Dufour Award, which recognizes the top school PLC model. Three national semifinalists are expected to be named Jan. 3, 2018. The finalist, to be announced Feb. 20, will receive a trophy along with a $25,000 award.
The PLC journey at LHIS began in 2007 when then Principal Kathy Major, with the backing of district officials, sought to revamp the outdated and highly restrictive model of communications among the faculty and administration where teachers generally worked in relative isolation.
“She (Mrs. Major) was drawn to and moved by the idea of collaborative teams and how that could impact student learning,” said Curtis who served as the Assistant Principal when Major was the principal.
The idea, according to teachers who were part of the original campus team who helped launched the initiative with Major, was to completely restructure the dynamics of internal communications among the professional staff with a focus on teacher collaboration on a scheduled basis. The idea was to have teacher teams participate in collective inquiry into both best practices in teaching and in learning.
“Mrs. Major was very determined,” said Darla Maple, a science teacher who was part of the original pilot team 10 years ago. “And Mr. Curtis, he has continued it.”
Rachel Dawson, also a PLC pioneer and science teacher, believes the whole process exceeded her expectations.
“It’s better than we could have imagined,” she said. “This is definitely the right thing. I love working with the team. We share the excitement and the professional investment.”
The process and change, however, came with anxiety and frustration since traditional practices were well entrenched.
“The process was slow to take off because teachers were skeptical about the idea or if they met there were not educational talks taking place,” Curtis explained. “The process started to turn as more and more teachers went to trainings and brought information back to the campus.”
“It pushed me out of my comfort zone,” said Kathrine Townes, a social studies teacher with 20 years teaching experience. “The whole evolution from being isolated opened opportunities to student learning. It’s now easy for me to collaborate and incorporate ideas. It’s also validated what I’m doing.”
The decade-long effort has resulted in the school developing a specific plan for execution of its professional learning community model. Common planning times for each grade level subject area have been built into the master schedule where each department can meet three times a week for 50 minutes at a time to plan and collaborate.
“We start every meeting off with the reading of the team’s norms, and then go to celebrations, followed by curriculum,” Curtis said. “The teachers plan backwards for all of their formal and short-term assessments and we have shifted our focus from all students will pass the standardized test, to all students will learn and grow and reach a progress monitor of a two on the state test, which means that they have exceeded expected growth and are on pace to be back on grade level.”
Curtis said PLC is all about team.
“When you have teamwork, the teacher builds professional relationships and knows they are part of the planning, which makes them accountable,” he said. “The teachers have embraced being on a collaborative team as a sacred process that will not be compromised by any other meetings.”
Curtis added that a team rotating approach has also drawn very favorable reviews from teachers and students.
“When I saw the students excited about this new approach, a light bulb went off. It’s all about team!” he said.
By becoming more collaborative by design and in practice, teachers join professionals in other fields like doctors, attorneys, and engineers, who have long shared knowledge as the best way to achieve targeted goals.
Giving teachers the freedom and opportunity to make collaborative decisions has not affected the leadership style of the first-year principal at the Intermediate School.
“I’ve always said that I won’t micro-manage,” Curtis said. “I have to grow and give ideas.”
With the success the Intermediate School has had with PLC, Curtis said the school district is looking to extend the model to all campuses and adapt it to the extent necessary for implementation.