Improving Outcomes: Align, Empower, Persist.

Improving Outcomes: Align, Empower, Persist.
Posted on 04/13/2021
This is the image for the news article titled Improving Outcomes: Align, Empower, Persist.Over the past five years, our District has laid the foundational building blocks that support improving student outcomes with consistent leadership, aligned action, and systemic persistence. 

“Our District moved from three failing schools and one high performing school to no failing schools and eight high performing schools. We’ve increased student opportunities for transcripted credits and Youth Apprenticeships,” explains Director of Leadership and Learning, Deidre Roemer.  “In addition, our ACT results are the highest they’ve been in five years and our data demonstrates that there is an increase in the number of learners who report having a trusted adult at school.” 

Start with a Plan
“When the District began its partnership with Studer Education, there was a real need to develop a plan that would help guide decision-making and focus the work of continuous school improvement,” said Board of Education President, Stepahnie Emons. “The purpose for strategic planning was to define success for five years and plan how to get there.  We needed a roadmap that would be concise, clear and doable.”

The broad collaborative process led by Studer Education helped underscore the District’s commitment to developing and maintaining an organization built on trust and shared vision.  In the end, a Strategic Plan with organization-wide, long-term goals and a small set of overarching strategies for continuous improvement was published. It consisted of four building blocks for strategic improvement with identified annual success measures and strategies. “Our goal was to have the steps and support needed to help shift the learner experience,” adds Emons.

“Over time, we’ve updated our Mission, Vision and core values and integrated our plan with Equity Non-Negotiables,” said Roemer. “As a leadership team, we have been working on Deeper Learning as the pathway to equity for the last three years.  We developed our Equity Non Negotiables, which are the foundational beliefs that frame our work for all learners and our greater community.” 

According to Roemer, shifting the learner experience involved as focus on inspiration, self-direction, persistence, and accountability.
“Every child comes to school with unique abilities and talents -- we are all rich in heritage and loved experience.  Our focus on equity is about providing a learning environment that promotes all learners developing a plan for personal success with the skills needed to achieve any goal.  It means making sure every child gets the opportunity to share their passions, set goals, and get the support they need to succeed.  We work to respond to the unique challenges and barriers some learners face.  We see learners as people with assets and aspirations and it is our job to help them realize their goals and dreams.  It’s making sure all students are well-prepared for a world defined by new technologies, economic shifts, and profound social challenges.”

Leadership Development
After the strategic plan was in place, the District worked with their Studer Education Coach to ensure all school and district leaders understood the plan and actions steps in the continuous improvement cycle to measure success.  “We needed leaders to know how to narrow their focus on a few key strategies that would contribute to our overall goals and could be measured in short cycles.  We worked to find specific, targeted checkpoints that we knew would provide the right level of support for all staff while shifting the learner experience.  This included an alignment between the building blocks of the plan.  “We needed technology, facilities, business, human resources, communications, and our college and career readiness teams to work together closely at the ‘intersections’ of our Strategic Plan,” said Roemer.  “We even made a very intentional shift in our language from ‘the district’ to ‘our district’.  It created a sense of belonging to a common goal that we were accomplishing together.” 

Deeper Learning
To support a shift in the learner experience, the District also focused on embedding Deeper Learning competencies into every classroom, at every grade level.  “We are working to prepare our learners to live life on their own terms after graduation,” said Superintendent, Dr. Marty Lexmond. “Deeper Learning embeds the skills needed for life success; content mastery, communication, problem-solving, collaboration, self-direction, and most importantly, academic mindset.  We’ve worked hard on relationship building too.  We want our students to have such a strong sense of belonging that they want to push themselves to try new things and work hard to achieve their goals.”  

“We even used a Leadership Team meeting to model a deeper learning experience.  Leaders were put into teams and sent out across the city to do empathy interviews and report out what was learned,” adds Roemer. “We’ve also taken teams to observe other schools and we’ve brought in national speakers with specific insight to Deeper Learning and Equity.”  

Once leaders understood the work at a high level, they were able to personalize it to the needs of their specific schools and school communities.  “They spend a lot of time doing empathy interviews with learners, staff, families and community members to ask questions about what we are doing well and what is possible for their school in the future,” said Roemer.  “They use that information to develop a school improvement plan that aligns to our strategic plan, but also is personalized to the needs of that school.  The plans include checkpoints for measuring success towards annual goals and a staff professional development plan that gets updates regularly.  The professional development opportunities at each school site are tailored to assist our staff in understanding the Deeper Learning work and how to create equitable opportunities for all learners.  Our teachers and other support staff at each school need to develop their skills with the right balance of high expectations and the right support to achieve our common goals.”

Studer Education has helped the District conduct formal surveys each spring and fall.  In addition, other opportunities for feedback have been implemented.  “Our leader and teacher meetings now often begin with a short panel discussion centered on a topic.  We’ve had a team of Special Education teachers talk about their experiences.  We’ve had a group of African-American students provide us with insight into their experience,” explains Roener.  “We ask participants to share things that are going well as well as things we should work on as an organization.  It’s about making sure all voices are heard.”

Project-Based Learning
Many teachers have been trained in a learner-driven, evidence-informed practice that includes Project-Based Learning as one way to embed the competencies in every classroom. Now, learners and teachers  co-design projects that embed high levels of academic content with authentic learning experiences.  “Our learners have built hydroponics labs, bicycle shops, community closets and performance spaces.  We also have a program that supports student entrepreneurs with student-led businesses involving coffee carts, podcasts, t-shirt companies, healthy snacks and more,” said Roemer.  “We hold Student Showcases too.  They give our learners an opportunity to apply their communication and collaboration skills to present what they know to multiple audiences.”  

To support a shift in the learner experience, the District works hard to eliminate barriers.  Each school has a licensed mental health therapist that sees learners through their insurance.  This helped increase access to mental health supports and normalized it as accessible during the school day.  

Rather than pulling students out for intervention, the District also shifted to a push-in model that brings the experts in technology, reading, math, inclusion, gifted and talented, and student services into classrooms to co-teach. This helps teachers grow their expertise while learners receive additional resources in the classroom.  Restorative Practices trainers have also been placed in schools. They work to create strong learning communities within each classroom and help provide teachers with the right tools to use in challenging moments. “All of these supports have helped push our learning communities to be more equitable and inclusive,” said Roemer.

“We continue to evaluate what we are doing well and celebrate each bright spot while looking for ways to tweak our practice or add a layer of support to our system.  The constant cycle of reflection with a focus on recognizing our strengths first has helped us all to take small steps each day to achieve our common goals,” adds Lexmond.  “It’s not about what’s wrong.  It’s about what’s possible.”

“In partnership with Studer Education, we’ve taken purposeful steps to reach our goals,” said Emons. “It’s about adding a layer of support instead of starting something new.  We haven’t completely changed our practice, we’ve shifted it slightly to ensure we are providing our learners with the education they deserve.  We know our experiences can be applied to other systems for improved results.  Leadership, deeper learning through equity and support -- our data shows the plan is working.”