Cherokee Central School officials address Professional Learning Communities program

by Jan 28, 2013COMMUNITY sgadugi0 comments

Professional Learning Communities at Cherokee Elementary School adopt new format


• Cherokee Elementary School organized Professional Learning Communities several years ago to help promote teacher collaboration and improve student learning.  At that time, grade level groups of teachers were required to have weekly planning sessions which included curriculum alignment, developing pacing guides and relevant assessments, and weekly lesson planning.  Thursday afternoons became our time to collaborate with our peers to focus on improving teaching and learning.
• At about the same, we also began working on vertical teams that had teachers from different grade levels working together to better define what students at each grade level in the elementary school would need to know to successfully complete their assigned grade level.

We are so pleased to announce that further refinement has taken place within our Professional Learning Communities and we’re now even more focused on the on-going process that will help our students reach greater academic growth.   Grade level teachers are still meeting once per week with a “teacher facilitator” who has received intensive training in leading a Professional Learning Community. Guiding questions from the DuFour group that provide focus for each group include:
1) What is it we expect them to learn?
2) How will we know when they’ve learned it?
3) How will we respond when they don’t learn?
4) How will we respond when they already know it?

As before, Cherokee Elementary School still has vertical teams which now follow the format of Professional Learning Communities.  Our vertical Professional Learning Communities meet once per month under the supervision of trained facilitators with a continued focused on grade level knowledge and skills students should master to successfully complete their assigned grade. This “vertical alignment” helps students, parents and teachers understand the requirements of a particular grade level.  It also meets a requirement of our system-wide accreditation mandates.



CMS defining what’s important through the use of PLCs



If someone were to step into my kitchen, and look at my refrigerator door, they would get an immediate glimpse at those things that are most important to me.  Arranged across the width and length of my refrigerator, one would see samples of my six year old son’s latest artistic masterpiece, a spelling test marked with, “Good Job!” and a 100, a picture of our son holding his baby brother on the day he was born, and several Sunday School creations with memory verses written on them.  All of these items are important to me because they show the great accomplishments in the lives of my children, or showcase those things that are dearest to my family.  These items represent the beliefs of our home and the moments we have celebrated as a family not just for a moment, but over time.

This year, Cherokee Middle School faculty and staff are engaging in the implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that work to identify those things that are most important to teaching and learning at our school.  The implementation of PLCs is not something that is done for a year or two, and then pushed aside to do something else.

Rather, as observed by Andy Hargraves, “Becoming a PLC [is a process that] creates an ethos that permeates a school.”

In other words, becoming a PLC is not something you do; it is something you are.

In preparation for our shift to becoming a PLC, Cherokee Middle School sent a team of faculty to receive training in the DuFour model of PLCs.  Selected faculty attended training this past December facilitated by WRESA (Western Regional Education Service Alliance) entitled “PLCs at Work.”  This training defined the purpose of PLCs as an organized plan for teachers to meet together in certain groups, departmentally for example, to collectively identify needs and goals that will directly benefit student learning.  These needs and goals are determined by using data to identify key areas.  Teachers discuss resources needed to meet the expected goals and clearly defined ways to know when the goal has been reached by the students.  PLCs at CMS have already been meeting bi-weekly, both in grade blocks and subject content, to hammer out goals for student achievement that they must help the students meet for the remainder of this year.

Subjects discussed could include ways to improve student attendance, techniques and materials for every teacher to use to improve reading /math scores, and creating a master list of units covered in each grade 6-12 so that students are not repeating material.  Ultimately, the goal of all the PLCs at CMS is to define and uphold those things that matter most to us in regards to student learning and achievement; that is to say, what items are we hanging on our “refrigerator door” at CMS that show all who enter or are a part those things that matter most.

There are three big ideas that summarize the purpose behind the PLCs at CMS; these big ideas are: focusing on student learning, establishing and maintaining a collaborative culture, and always being results oriented.   These “big ideas” focus on learning and communicate our commitment to helping all students learn at high levels.  The role of the school’s principal in PLCs is to continually assess the achievement of these big ideas through collecting artifacts that show a focus on student learning, identify the quality of the collaborative culture in the school as evidenced by meeting agendas, norms and SMART goals from each team, monitoring that time is given for them to meet, and finally, ensuring the presentation of student data is useful for teams and is being used as the guiding force in the PLC decision making process.

The faculty and staff at Cherokee Middle School has historically been an effectively collaborative team, so the shift to becoming a PLC has been relatively seamless thus far.  There is, however, an added excitement to the teamwork already in place.

After attending the “PLCs at Work” training, Judy Castorena, a teacher at CMS, expressed her enthusiasm not only for PLCs at CMS, but where this way of being can lead our school in the future.  “Having PLCs in our school is a great way of communicating with each other, not only within our school but across grades.  We are already seeing great results of what team work can do for our students.  This collaboration has established a focus for every educational stakeholder to provide a great academic atmosphere for all our students.”


CHS using PFCs to improve education experiences



“A professional learning community (PLC) is more than a group of individuals meeting together to read a common book or discuss a relevant issue. According to Huffman and Hipp (2003), PLCs are a way of working; “a school’s professional staff members who continuously seek to find answers through inquiry and act on their learning to improve student learning” (p. 4). Further, DuFour (2004) expressed concern that PLCs may lose their credibility as an important part of education reform unless educators think critically about the fundamental concepts, which make up the model.

As a tool for school reform, Huffman and Hipp (2003) asserted that a PLC is “the most powerful professional development and change strategy available” (p. 4). What educators are looking for today in school reform initiatives are those that result in not only improved teaching, but also in overall school improvement and student learning. Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) reviewed six separate research studies that scrutinized the relationship between teachers’ participation in professional learning communities and student achievement—all six studies revealed that student learning improved when teachers worked in PLCs.”

We, at Cherokee High School, understand that the purpose of our professional lives is to ensure that “All students learn at high levels.” We know that the decisions will be made based upon how they impact student learning, as opposed to what makes the adults in the school happy. Understanding this basic purpose has helped many of us find meaning again. Additionally, it has helped us understand that we can only control what we can control. It has placed a great deal more emphasis on making sure that we do control what we have power over and let go things that we do not. We do ask questions like, “How can we use our classroom instructional time more efficiently?”

Understanding that we have an obligation to ensure students’ learning has led to collective inquiry about how we can best do this. It has led to teachers interacting with each other regarding the important questions of what learning is essential, how it is assessed, and how we respond when it is not learned. This has led to some great conversations, some disagreements, some lengthy discussions and sometimes tears! However, as we have kept in mind the adage that changes can be slow, difficult, and almost always painful; we have learned that disagreements and tears are sometimes necessary for growth.

Cherokee High School is now using the professional learning community approach to improving educational experiences for our students. Listed below are some of the strategies used by our staff to ensure student success:

  • Monitoring student learning on a timely basis.
  • Creating systems of intervention to provide students with additional time and support for learning.
  • Building the capacity of teachers to work as members of high performing collaborative teams who focus the efforts of their team on improved learning for students.

There are Social Studies, English, Math, Science, Career and Technical Education, and Student Support teams. In addition, teachers are teamed across the curriculum. The guiding principle is a focus on student learning. The biggest training tool we have used is experience. We have not spent years learning how to be team leaders, facilitators, negotiators, etc. We operate by the baptism by fire method! Team leaders learn as they go. They make adjustments when necessary. They celebrate successes and attempt to solve problems.

Although this is at times interesting, there is no better way to develop the capacity of leaders than by having them lead. For the most part, teachers on the collaborative teams have taken ownership of their team’s work and have become stronger teachers and certainly heightened their understanding of the big picture.

We are still learning how to collaborate! The most important teams in the school are our PLC teams. These teams are composed of the team leaders from each discipline, as well as anyone else who wants to attend. These teams develop the timelines and products that are required for teachers. Team members provide each other support and assistance.