In a professional learning community, the focus is not simply on whether we have organized our schools into high-performing teams, but rather what the teams DO. So what should be their focus? Teams need to focus on the major questions and issues that have the biggest impact on student learning:
In short, collaborative teams of teachers are the heart and soul of a school that functions as a professional learning community.
The professional learning community concept is not a program or initiative, but a way of thinking about consolidating best practices into a rational approach to education. While this may sound simple, connecting a way of thinking to the real day-to-day world of what goes on in schools and classrooms can be challenging. It takes a strategic approach to bridge the gap between theory and application and PLC building starts with the following key principles:
It is exciting, important, and complex work to make things better for our students. As we approach various issues and topics throughout the school year, it will be helpful if we keep in mind that the quality of what we do will be determined, to a great extent, by how we think and how we act. Thank you to all Fremont Unified staff who strive every day to make getting a great education a reality for all of our students.
To set the stage, an administrator assigned to each site showed the following Instructional Services video about the district’s long-term commitment to PLC’s: http://www.fremont.k12.ca.us/Page/29311
Professional development associates from Solution Tree—the leading organization behind PLCs—collaborated on the day’s agenda to create a meaningful baseline of understanding across the entire district. Though the facilitators put their own spin on their presentations, everyone walked away with a fundamental knowledge of the three key ideas of PLCs…
1) What do students need to be able to know and do? (guaranteed & viable curriculum)
2) How will we know when they have learned it? (assessment)
3) What will we do when some have not learned it? (intervention)
4) What will we do when some already know it? (enrichment)
In Participants’ Own Words:
“I'm so grateful that we had this opportunity to have a consistent message as a district with such a positive outlook and really emphasize the focus of doing what is in the best interest of students.”
Superintendent, author, and Solution Tree associate Janel Keating traveled to Fremont from Washington State on Aug. 11, 2015 to work with principals and the FUSD Instructional Services leadership team on building professional learning communities in our district. She has led this charge in her own district near Seattle for over a decade and shared her wisdom, mishaps, and insights to launching successful PLCs. Janel provided us with practical advice and support for framing professional learning communities for ourselves and others.
Here are a few sound-bites worthy of repeating from her presentation:
This statement underlies a unique mindset for developing professional learning teams at our schools. PLCs are not an extra meeting, curriculum add-on, or program or product to adopt; they are a way of engaging in collaborative conversations and a framework for examining what we do on a daily basis to improve student outcomes.
We’ve all echoed the phrase (and seen it in nearly every school mission statement ever written) that we believe ALL students can learn. While this belief certainly rings true for us as educators, it is taking actionable steps that really counts. It can seem overwhelming to get to “all”, so Janel’s words truly resonated with us. What we can absolutely accomplish is more and more students learning and achieving standards until we get to all. It’s about progress, not perfection.
You can do it.
I won’t give up on you.”
A professional learning community, or PLC, is a team of educators that meets regularly, shares expertise, examines student work, and collaborates to improve instruction and the performance of all students. As Dr. Kim Wallace visited each of the 42 Fremont Unified schools during her first year as the Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, she saw PLCs organically taking root and recognized that we were ready to take the movement district-wide in 2015-16.
Establishing professional learning communities at every school takes support, training, and capacity building. Kim Kelly, the district’s Principal on Special Assignment, will focus on the preparation and coaching of principals as they guide their staffs through the PLC process. A key concept of PLCs is seeing ourselves as continual learners and recognizing that everyone in FUSD can benefit and grow from self-reflection, collaboration with colleagues, and sharing resources. PLCs seek to continually answer these four essential questions:
●What do we expect our students to learn?
●How will we know when each student has learned it?
●How will we respond when some students do not learn it?
Leading the Curriculum & Instruction department through adopting new curricular materials, defining essential standards, and modeling effective instructional practices will help school sites see the power and possibilities in their PLC team meetings. Director Linda Anderson knows that her department’s role in successfully launching PLCs in the district is critical. Our expert content-area program managers and instructional coaches are the most valuable resource we can offer to schools to plan and problem-solve with teachers—and help all of us stretch our thinking to bring our professional learning to the next level.
Fostering professional learning communities in our district will have a dramatic impact on students with special needs. Karen Russell, Director of Special Education, has seen the incredible educational benefits that take place when children with disabilities learn side by side with their typically developing peers. This philosophy of inclusion is firmly embedded in the PLC culture—one in which all students are valued for what they bring to the table and inspired to push beyond where they thought they could go.
Students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe, supported, and secure in their school environment. Having been a former junior and senior high school principal in Fremont and currently the Director of Student Support Services, Greg Bailey has experienced the positive early effects of PLCs on our schools already. Students and parents notice us going the extra mile to really understand their needs—whether they are social, academic, behavioral, or emotional. As we continue to strengthen our PLCs in the district, we will only increase those important feelings of connectedness that allow each student to reach their potential.
Healthy PLCs also rely heavily on using data to inform our practice. As the Director of Assessment & Accountability, Julie Forbes is responsible for supplying meaningful and digestible data for administrators and teachers. Gathering data and explaining how to interpret it to inform instruction is a cornerstone of professional learning community conversations. In this changing landscape of new standards, new state measures, and evolving local assessments, it is also essential to keep parents, community, and staff accurately informed so we can all help our students reach mastery and beyond.
Students who need extra support can only gain from Fremont Unified weaving professional learning communities into the fabric of our district. Our English Learners, economically disadvantaged students, and others who may struggle academically, linguistically, or socially at school, will benefit tremendously from staffs engaging in PLC work at their sites. The Director of Federal and State Programs, Dr. Christie Rocha has witnessed firsthand how PLCs transform schools and directly impact student achievement. By analyzing data, effectively allocating resources, and providing direct support, we will see all of Fremont’s students flourish.
Our elementary schools in Fremont are already nurturing and engaging places for our youngest students to learn. As our enrollment increases, we need to continue to make sure that every child is well cared for. Creating a community of learners with a growth mindset is an intentional process. When the adults are willing to try new ideas, ask for student feedback, and refine our practice on a daily basis, we model collaboration, social skills, and learning from our mistakes. Having been the Director of Elementary Education for several years in Fremont, Debbie Amundson firmly believes that when teachers work together, sharing their knowledge and expertise, all students win.
Preparing students for college and career opportunities is a key focus for our junior high and high schools. Professional learning communities at the secondary level encourages teachers to develop common assignments and assessments that will help all students attain 21st century workplace readiness. James Maxwell’s goal as Director of Secondary Education is to provide tools and resources for schools as they begin their PLC journey. In doing so, we will continue to see our already highly-skilled educators innovating, energizing, and challenging students in their learning—and opening the doors to limitless possibilities for life after graduation.
As educators, it is our collective responsibility to help all students succeed. Since Dr. Jim Morris first became the Superintendent six years ago, he has been in awe of the dedication, compassion and caring demonstrated by the teachers, administrators, and support staff of this district. Our professional learning community effort is designed to support and expand on a key element for student success which is creating professional environments where educators are respected and supported in sharing best practices, learning together, and growing continuously as educators.