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Texas District Moving From Good to Great



Marian Kisch, a freelance writer out of Chevy Chase, MD, who writes a monthly column for the HOPE Foundation shares a guest blog today. She tells us about a success story that has used HOPE to help change the schools' culture and tailor school leadership development opportunities to reach the ultimate goal of increasing collaboration and student achievement.

T-shirts and banners emblazoned with the motto: Together...Connected for the Kids showcase the kind of change La Grange Independent School District in Texas has undergone over the past two years as it progresses from "good" to "great."

The district's administrative team was determined to find a way to strengthen teacher capacity and leadership, as well as improving communication and maintaining consistency and alignment throughout the district. In 2009 they attended a HOPE Foundation Institute in Austin, Texas, and subsequently asked the district to bring in HOPE's Courageous Leadership Academy (CLA) as a springboard to make the rural district of 1,855 students more cohesive and successful.

During the first year, all teachers and administrators read Failure Is Not an Option, by Alan Blankstein, HOPE's president. Book study groups discussed the ideas and applied many of its principles to their classrooms.

The high school leadership team reported that their staff "got all fired up." They broke the book down by chapters, created an after-school homework club for ninth graders (it has since been revamped) and created a shared data file for all ninth grade teachers. The data is used to identify strengths and weaknesses in individual students so appropriate intervention techniques can be instituted.

The district developed a common mission, values, vision and goals. "We're aimed in the same direction now," Melanie Castellow, curriculum director says. "Building and sustaining teacher leadership is a key development piece. Teachers better understand that they can help move the system and become even better leaders."

Taking ownership and figuring out creative ways to improve conditions is illustrated by the third grade team. After analyzing data and identifying a problem with the transition from third- to fourth grade -- in another building -- the teachers decided to change the schedule using a "triad." This fall, instead of smaller blocks of time devoted to learning individual subjects, the third grade will use three 90-minute-block time frames to study math, reading, and a combination of writing, social studies and science. This will allow for more concentrated time with these subjects, hopefully leading to better learning and increased scores on state and local tests. Ultimately, it should help students adjust and transition to the departmentalized schedule in the intermediate school.

The majority of the La Grange staff has signed on to professional learning communities, a hallmark of HOPE's program, as well as using data more effectively. And more teachers are joining the effort every day, according to Castellow. "They see the enthusiasm and success of their fellow teachers. Who wouldn't want to be a part of it?"

Another HOPE technique embraced by the district is learning walks. Three to four teachers visit other classrooms to note positive teaching and learning, as well as making suggestions for improvements. This voluntary effort uses HOPE forms to denote student engagement and effectiveness in areas such as guided reading. All elementary school teachers took part this year in what they call their "PROWLS" (Pride, Responsibility, Ownership, Willingness, Leadership). The intermediate school uses the acronym PAWS for Learning (Pride, Attitude, Willingness, Safety for Success). And the middle school has joined teachers, students and parents in their SPOTS program (Show respect, Positive attitude, Ownership, Teamwork and Safety).

"Learning walks have led to de-privatization of the classroom," Castellow says. "They are helping to bring good teaching to the front. We are sharing and learning from and with each other. The conversation has started. People are saying, 'I never thought about doing it that way.' This is not finger pointing. Rather, we are analyzing what to do to make teaching better."

In the second year of CLA, the district focused on engaging parents and the community. A work in progress, the intermediate school was wildly successful in bringing in parents during a recent open house. The PAWS for Parents team put together a scavenger hunt in which students led their parents all over the campus to answer questions such as "What is the name of Mrs. Sloan's pet pig" or "Which president is quoted as saying 'Whatever you are--be a good one.'"? Everyone was having so much fun that they stayed more than an hour after the designated closing time and had to be encouraged to go home. "These teachers were courageous to try something different," Castellow says. The hunt will return next year.

Borrowing an idea from the intermediate school staff, the middle school involved parents in its quest to improve student behavior. This Texas Title I designated campus encourages positive behavior and rewards students who are on time, have no school office referrals and generally behave well. Every six weeks the school invites parents of these students to a picnic lunch. Better behavior has been the result: Referrals plummeted from 949 in 2009 to 524 in 2011. This school has been improving its academic success as well.

La Grange plans to continue its outreach to parents and the community to get them more involved in the schools. The high school is usually the place where parental involvement often falls off, but a recent parent night for the soccer team was a huge success, even when rain forced the program indoors. Parents ran home to get food so everyone could still have a good time.

According to Castellow, work still needs to be done in certain areas, but feels confident that HOPE has given the district a good foundation "HOPE helped us to have better conversations, to discover what a learning community is and to grow as professionals. We know where we want to go and what we are supposed to do to get there. We have a better understanding of what it means to be collaborative. We're excited about the possibilities and are ready to move from good to great."

In November, the elementary and intermediate schools will make a presentation at the HOPE Foundation Institute in Mansfield, Texas. The journey continues.

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