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Innovative method aimed at creating "learning community"

Friday, November 6, 2009

Monett High School at night.
Within the education profession, school districts have sought to improve through a variety of methods, and one of the most successful approaches has been through professional learning communities.

The Monett R-1 Board of Education heard more about the process from a presentation made by Assistant Superintendent Julie Germann and Principals Susie Gasser, Annette Cozort and Peg Bryan during their October meeting.

The idea for professional learning communities developed out of a Chicago area school district looking for better ways to identify the needs of at-risk students. According to Germann, the effort expanded into looking at how a school operates, how to do what is best for students regardless of the impact on the teaching method in use and how educators can hold each other accountable.

More than 80 percent of schools nationwide have developed professional learning communities, Germann said. Programs like "High Schools That Work" used at Monett High School developed out of the approach. Monett's schools for sixth grade and under had not formalized the process until this year.

Each building created a leadership team, Germann said. Those involved began training monthly in Springfield and continue to train.

"Instead of looking harder for a canned package that gives results, teachers are shown ways to use what they have to work smarter, not harder," Germann said. "It's like when you have a 10-year-old car, there's one thing after another to do. In this process, we looked at our weak areas, used our laser pointer to look at one particular thing, such as teaching students how to put their thoughts in the written format. We met our goal. What is the next piece of the puzzle we need to focus on?"

To get past the laser approach of focusing on only one area at a time, the professional learning community is developing teams to look at several different areas.

"They recommend working on three to five areas during the school year," Germann said. "We encourage three or four at the most. Most buildings are looking at student achievement in two or three areas plus professional development for teachers or implementing character education or maintaining a higher rate of faculty retention. They don't all have to be academic, but we are most accountable for academics."

The shift away from using a program to fix problems came to the forefront on the elementary level. The Reading First program, for example, was very demanding.

"Now we realize that even though we did it as we were told and bought into the program, the results just didn't occur as we had hoped," Germann said. "We have no data to support why we should continue to cling to the program in its original form. It has good components in it that we will continue to use."

There are growing pains in this move, Germann said. Teachers and administrators who bought into Reading First were convinced they were doing things the way they were supposed to be done. When test scores did not refelct the teachers' hard work, the educators had their belief systems challenged.

"Test scores don't lie," Germann said. "We've got to be willing to accept what the data tells us. We've got to look at it differently. How to do that is different from person to person. Developing a culture of collaboration is different from campus to campus. It's hard at the beginning, but pretty amazing to be involved."

Superintendent Dr. John Jungmann had gone through training in this process while serving as middle school principal. Germann had worked in the process while serving at the Willard School District for 13 years. The two agreed that with good training available, the opportunity to develop a professional learning community had good potential.

With the principals getting on board, teachers started getting training over the summer. Middle School Principal Dr. Jonathan Apostol took a different version of the training. Germann said he has helped reawaken the process on his campus as well.

"Now Dr. Jungmann and I can say we are truly a professional learning community district, not just isolated pockets here and there," Germann said.

"Dr. Jungmann and I have talked a lot about how it's not fair to teachers to not provide them with the best tools and training to become better teachers and to provide kids with the tools to become the best students," Germann cautioned. "Providing this process is not a one-day workshop, but a year-long process in how to have an attitude and instructional shift."

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