Thursday, June 26, 2014

Strengthening Instruction to Improve Student Achievement

Hudson Schools is honored to be one of the thirty-nine districts across Iowa selected to implement a Teacher Leadership and Compensation system in the 2014-2015 school year. The lessons learned from our implementation will serve as valuable information as other schools bring systems online in the next several years.

We are in the process right now of identifying teacher leaders, training those leaders, and ensuring that our professional development plan for the year is well thought out and clearly articulates our vision for the district. Last year we implemented a professional development plan that featured a weekly two hour early dismissal that provided teachers with time to work in PLC groups during the first hour, followed by professional learning facilitated in each building the second hour. The feedback from our principals and teachers was that this was very valuable time well spent, and we will continue with that model for the 2014-2015 school year. However, with the roll out of the teacher leadership system, we will be able to strengthen the PLC process and provide even richer professional development opportunities for our teachers!

The anchor role in our teacher leadership system is instructional coaches. In our district, we have identified three areas where the instructional coach as teacher leader will enable us to strengthen instruction for all of our practitioners and result in increases in student achievement. It is important to note that the teacher leadership roles described in our plan are designed to be 'teacher centered' roles, rather than student centered. That means that our teacher leaders (instructional coaches) will not be working with students per se, but rather [will be working] with teachers in an effort to strengthen their practice. In our schools, instructional coaches have been identified in the areas of math, reading, and technology. While these coaches are designed to serve the needs of the entire school district, they will have primary responsibilities with certain grade levels within individual buildings.

During the 2013-2014 school year, the district adopted a new math curriculum titled 'Envision Math'. Our initial data collection on the success of this implementation is promising! Yet we also understand that it takes continual professional development, analysis of data, development of common formative assessments, and the diligence of instructional leadership (like that of the coach) to ensure that a curriculum is implemented with fidelity across the district. This promise means all of our students are exposed to a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Ensuring those tasks becomes a primary responsibility of that instructional coach.

The school year that is set to begin this fall will see us once again implementing a new English/Language Arts curriculum. Because of this, along with the renewed statewide attention to early reading literacy made the case for a reading instructional coach. Along with facilitating the implementation of our new ELA curriculum, this coach will work in tandem with our practitioners to ensure reading proficiency for all learners by the time they complete the third grade.

Understanding the impact that technology has in schools and the fact that we implemented our Connected Learning Initiative this past January in grades 9-12 made the decision to include a technology coach an easy one. This year will begin the expansion of technology in our schools as we provide our elementary classrooms with bundled sets of IPADs that are designed to provide robust and interactive instruction for our learners!

Instructional coaches will also work with a group of model teachers (our next category of teacher leaders) to develop, research, and test promising new research based instructional strategies. Model Teachers are full time practitioners assigned a classroom of students as they have been in years past. The primary difference is that they have an willingness to open their classroom to try new and innovated theories of practice. While working with the coach, those strategies and techniques that hold the most promise will be taken to scale district wide with the assistance of the Model Teacher.

We take this approach because of the understanding that for professional development to have the maximum impact it must be embedded into practice. Our weekly professional development during the early dismissal is valuable, but what really makes the difference is taking that strategy into the classroom immediately following the presentation. Then that strategy can be implemented, Model Teachers and Coaches can work with the faculty to provide feedback and tips on how to improve upon their practice of the new strategy. A recognition that job embedded professional development is a key to strengthening instruction was a key factor in the development of our vision for our own teacher leadership system.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

While the Children are Away

For the most part the halls are silent. The majority of our students are enjoying summer vacation. This may include visits to the pool, vacations to far distance lands, and maybe even a trip to get ice cream some hot afternoon! But while our classrooms aren't bustling with the sounds of teachers delivering a lesson on phonics, the district is still open for business and work is underway at a furious pace.

Many of you have probably driven by the school and are aware of the parking lot project that we are working on north of the middle school. Like the high school parking lot, this was a project that was a long time coming! The old lot was rapidly deteriorating and had numerous broken sections of asphalt. Never mind the point that the original construction didn't have any type of sub-base underneath and the asphalt was directly applied over black dirt in many cases. This lot is being completely rebuild with a sturdy sub-base and concrete. When finished, it will be quite a bit larger than the old lot and able to easily accommodate faculty parking during the school day and our activities in the evening. This lot will be a huge improvement to our facilities (and eliminate the need to park in the grass)!

Meanwhile on the inside we are working on a couple of projects that will be significant improvements to the student experience! In the high school, the gym is being renovated. This work includes the replacement of all the lights with florescent light fixtures. Not only does this improvement help brighten up the space, but will prove to be a great energy saver that will have a positive impact on our electric bills! A painting crew is currently in the gym putting a fresh coat of paint with an updated scheme that will be very impressive when you see it. After that is finished we plan on installing new side baskets, which was a much needed improvement. When we took the old ones off the wall it became apparent that this was something that just simply needed to be done. Once that is finished a floor company will come in and sand down the floor, replace boards that are old and worn out, then finish and repaint. The final touch will come just prior to the school  year starting when we install bleachers. I am very excited to see what the finished product will look like! This space will prove to be very useful as we begin to offer more and more athletic events where multiple gyms need to be utilized. Look for the high school gym to be a great venue for many junior varsity and middle school games--not to mention the utility that it will hold for high school assemblies!

Back across the street we are renovating the old computer lab. Does it sound to you like we have renovated a computer lab every year? Well, we have. This year we are finishing work in the old lab in the elementary (which is in the library) and is adjacent to a much newer lab right next door. The old furniture that featured tables surrounding the perimeter has been removed and we are in the process of wiring the lab and putting updated furniture in that space to make it more student and teacher friendly. Once this is complete, we will have three fully functioning computer labs in the elementary with over 90 desktop computers! This will make it easy to accommodate an entire grade level at one time with plenty of spare machines left over! That doesn't consider the classroom sets of computers that are already in place for the students, and the Board recently approved the purchase of 125 IPAD tablet devices for our elementary to help with the delivery and implementation of the new math and ELA curriculum. That move, by the way will put 6 machines in every general education classroom space and 3 in each special education room.

Also in the elementary this summer we have moved many of our elementary classroom spaces to ensure that all of our grade levels are together. This will facilitate greater collaboration among our faculty and provide greater flexibility in the sharing of students. Office spaces are being created for the instructional coaches in what used to be the old book room and Title one classroom. Locating these offices in central hub of the elementary will give them greater access to the classrooms and teachers they will be serving. Everything has been tied together nicely with a fresh coat of paint upstairs and in the back hallway that connects the library with the art and music room. A big thank you needs to be extended to the PTO for working on this project!

So while the children are away we are taking this opportunity to complete several much needed updates around the district. On top of this, our custodial staff is busily cleaning rooms and putting a shine on everything to have it ready for the beginning of the school year.

I hope you are all enjoying your summer!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Key Accomplishments You May Not Know About

The halls have been quiet for a couple of weeks and now that the dust is beginning to settle, we can take a look back on some of  the significant accomplishments we have made to move the district forward this school year. The other day the Board of Directors met for an annual work session. Much of this meeting time is spent reflecting on the year, and we begin to do some future planning and goal setting. While the building administrators were giving their reports a few items really stood out for me as major accomplishments.

First has to be the launch of the Connected Learning Initiative in the high school. Heralded as the biggest change in educational practice for this generation of students, it lived up to those expectations--and teachers did too! When we began this journey our expectation was that teachers would utilize the devices for at least one of their classes. The expectation would be that in the 2014-2015 school year, all courses would begin to utilize the devices. We found that teachers were able and willing to implement the devices across the curriculum. As Mr. Dieken put it, "Teachers are using devices as tools for learning rather than word processors and encyclopedias." Further, students have been very respectful of the devices and the breakdowns we experienced were few and far between. Next year holds great promise as we take the initiative to the next level and truly begin to flip the classrooms and prepare our students for the 21st Century!

Those of you that have youngsters in elementary school know that we implemented a new math curriculum in the 2013-2014 school year titled 'Envision Math'. This was a very exciting time for the elementary since it was the first curriculum adoption in over a decade for our district! We learned a lot with this implementation! While the first year of implementing any new curriculum often comes with frustration and gaps, our initial data collection is quite promising! Last year, 80% of third grades met targeted growth on the MAP; as fourth graders 92% of those youngsters met targeted growth! In third, fourth, and fifth grade 100% of students showed growth whereas 94% of sixth graders grew. Of course we don't want to make any major decisions based on the results of one test given on one specific day, but initial results are certainly promising!

Another thing that we are quite proud of is our record when it comes to the overall academic progress of our students. Back in 2001, the Board adopted the 2.0 rule, which required a corrective action plan for any student who had a cumulative grade point average below 2.0. It further required the district to intervene when students had failing grades in their coursework. Many of you are aware that this resulted in the development of the After School Program and the Homework Policy. We are very proud to report that for the first time since the 2.0 rule was implemented, not one student has a GPA below 2.0, and we recorded no failing grades this year! This is due largely to the hard work and dedication not only of Mr. Lipinski, Mr. Dieken, and Mr. Schlatter, but to the entire teaching staff!

Administrators also highlighted the success of the professional learning program that was implemented during the 2013-2014 school year. When we made the decision to move to a weekly early dismissal, it was imperative that we clearly articulate what it was we were going to do with this time and make sure it was well spent. A comprehensive professional development plan was developed that gave us a road map for the entire year. This professional development plan was instrumental in the successful launch of the initiatives mentioned above and has further laid the groundwork for future initiatives that are coming for the 2014-2015 school year. 

So the question now becomes, what's next? Well we have certainly laid the groundwork and if you have driven by the school lately you know that a lot of change is happening. Stay tuned, we will cover some of that in the weeks that follow!