Program creating learning communities in all district schools
Coaching in De Soto USD 232 is no longer restricted to athletics.
The district is trying a new program this year to help teachers become better teachers.
Supervised by new learning coaches installed at each building, teachers meet once a week to plan better strategies to help students. Bret Church, director of learning services for De Soto schools, said the program was formulated last year by rearranging the budget.
"We reorganized current dollars in our district last year to fund the program, so we didn't use any new or additional money to fund the program," he said.
The program will allow teachers to develop "professional learning communities" with other teachers at their school and throughout the entire district. Church said the program would help teachers meet the high demands of the No Child Left Behind Act by providing better support. The program provides learning coaches at each building to act as mentors for new teachers, coordinate professional development, research curriculum and facilitate the professional learning communities.
"Professional learning communities support teachers in being able to focus on what's
more important -- on learning," Church said. "We believe the program will ensure higher levels of learning and promote greater satisfaction for teachers."
The program builds on team teaching, or co-teaching already used at the district. Team teaching helps make more teachers available to help with regular classroom teaching.
Professional learning communities were first formulated in Illinois and South Carolina. The Blue Valley schools implemented the program officially in 2004, although individual schools have used professional learning communities for about five years.
Walter Carter, director of professional development for Blue Valley, said officials have high hopes for the program.
"Although it's preliminary, we did see improvements last spring across Kansas assessments in the highest levels," Carter said. "They indicate students are learning at very high levels."
Church said a few districts in Kansas may have professional learning communities, but none he knew have decided to have a learning coach for each building.
At De Soto, the learning coach is changing the position of some assistant principals. Tim Smith, who still serves as assistant principal at Starside Elementary School, also serves as the school's learning coach. At the elementary level, teachers meet once a week within their grade levels. Extracurricular teachers of music, arts and physical education meet quarterly with similar teachers in the district.
Smith said the program would especially help students who need to master additional skills or students who are advanced.
"It's not up to one teacher if a student needs additional learning," he said. "The process helps the school decide if a student needs special education or if this is a child in the gifted range. If the child needs additional skills, is it really a learning disability or is it a lack of opportunity?"
Smith said the program would keep teachers from feeling isolated and encourage them to turn to others for support.
"I compare it to Atlas holding up the globe by himself," he said. "If everybody holds the globe, it's heavy, but not as heavy."
Mike Murphy, learning coach at De Soto High School, said the program would also raise standards for teachers.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword right now because we have so many reforms," he said. "It certainly helps teachers understand expectations. They're going to know exactly what's expected by us."
At the secondary level, teachers meet once a week with others in their curriculum. Murphy said each school in the De Soto district has learning coaches that specialize in a particular field so math teachers can have an experienced math teacher give input about curriculum and teaching methods.
Kelly Webb, learning coach at Lexington Trails Middle School, specializes in communication and foreign languages. She said although she misses classroom interaction with students, she visits classes and does lunch and breakfast duty to keep in touch with the students.
"It's almost like a power team," Webb said of the learning communities. "You're independent, but you learn to rely more on the data."
Church said the district chose each learning coach because of special qualifications.
"All of them were identified as teacher leaders," he said. "All of our learning coaches were hired from within the district. They were all very committed and we felt they would have the respect and passion to lead this program."
The coaches have begun the year meeting with professional learning communities and are formulating a plan of action to improve teaching.
"I think it will improve their job satisfaction," Webb said. "One of the goals is to do away with isolation and focus on collaboration."