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Provide Ongoing Professional Development
K-8 magnet school educators face particular challenges related to teaching highly diverse student populations and needing to master a specialized curriculum. Other pedagogic challenges include effective execution of cooperative learning, differentiated instruction, and age-appropriate units on rigorous subject matter. Doing so successfully demands a high level of expertise and, in many cases, ongoing professional development. At all of the featured schools, leaders see professional development as a necessary investment for developing a versatile staff steeped in relevant theme-based knowledge and in a wide range of instructional strategies. The continuing efforts to refine curriculum, align it with district standards, raise achievement, and narrow achievement gaps calls for regular opportunities to share and learn among colleagues. As one Combs staff member explains, "Transformation doesn't begin with a program, it begins with a change of habit." And changing habits, according to these school leaders, requires consistent support and opportunities for growth.
In all of the profiled schools, professional development for teachers is seen as critical to improved student learning. One common strand of professional learning across these schools is their frequent practice of analyzing student data—test scores, student work, classroom observations—as a key means for continually monitoring strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in classroom instruction. The ongoing data analysis goes beyond reporting end-of-the-year test scores. Another common professional development focus is learning and adapting teaching strategies for diverse student populations with the aim of producing more equitable student outcomes. In using research-based best practices that lead to above-average student performance, these magnet schools have much in common with other high-achieving schools.16
A third area of professional development concerns curriculum planning, deepening content knowledge related to the school's theme, and designing effective units that are integral to it. At FAIR, faculty members grapple together with both philosophical and practical questions (e.g., What does interdisciplinary really mean? What is appropriate arts-integration for each grade level?) as they seek to maintain a unified approach to their interdisciplinary, arts-based instruction. In these successful magnet schools, their leaders say that every teacher is expected to be a curriculum developer who has some level of expertise in the theme; consequently, signing on as a teacher reflects an inherent commitment to spending additional hours for unit planning and ongoing training, whether it happens during after-school meetings, Saturday workshops, or summer institutes. Combs teachers, for example, learn how to incorporate business and leadership effectiveness concepts and principles of management and quality performance into age-appropriate classroom material. Staff devote extra hours to training in these areas, training that is intended to provide crucial support for implementing the school's unique leadership model.
Echoing a widespread refrain heard at all the profiled sites, one Raymond teacher emphasizes that she and her colleagues are always "really talking about lessons and students." This level of focus does not occur accidentally. School leaders play an important role in prioritizing time for professional development and meaningful discussion. Principals in these successful magnet schools are extremely protective of teachers' time, reserving it for those activities each principal considers to be most relevant to instruction and student learning.
When Jimmie Chapman came on board as Hoggard's second principal, he used the school accreditation process—a task that requires teachers to collaborate across the curriculum and across grade levels—as an authentic way to unify staff under a common set of goals and establish a culture of teamwork. He created a new master schedule that gave teams opportunities to meet during the school day, a practice that continues at Hoggard today.
At the featured schools, collaborative work during the standard school day is frequently supplemented with work during summer sessions, winter retreats, early release days, or even full-day planning workshops, with school staff establishing norms and traditions for when they will engage in whole-school professional development. Although they are unable to pay staff for the additional time commitment related to professional learning, the principals at these schools clearly recognize the value of professional growth. To a one, they speak of the importance of securing adequate funding to execute an effective professional development plan, one that involves more than just a couple of stand-alone workshops as may be the case in more standard professional growth programs. In these schools, too, professional development plans tend to incorporate a mix of strategies for supporting staff learning, among them, the practices of individualized coaching, co-teaching, observing model lessons, visiting other classrooms, using protocols to reflect on student work, and participating on curriculum committees. Magnet coordinators, lead teachers, and instructional coaches can support professional growth for staff, helping to ensure that the staff learning process itself is differentiated and that new staff knowledge and skills are applied at the classroom level. Magnet coordinators, like Belinda Duncan at Hoggard or Joyce Tatum at Normal Park, often step in to provide a model lesson for a targeted content standard or to help a grade-level team develop a curriculum, lending key resources or expertise. Such efforts—and staff positions—can be invaluable in implementing a strong professional development program that supports both new and veteran staff.
According to site leaders, the profiled schools tend to rely on in-house expertise or district-funded opportunities for the bulk of professional development activities. But they do sometimes supplement them with investments in expert consultants if school leaders see the need. At Normal Park, for example, the staff chose to hire a consultant to help them implement guided reading (i.e., teacher-led, small-group instruction of targeted reading strategies) training at every grade level, and the principal also provided funds to fill classroom libraries with appropriately leveled books to execute the practice. A reading consultant is a relatively expensive approach, but one that, in this case, complemented the school's commitment to differentiated learning and resulted in improved reading scores, as well as crossovers into differentiated instruction for spelling and math.
In Minnesota, West Metro Education Program, the district consortium that operates FAIR, provides Cultural Collaborative courses focused on equity and closing the achievement gap. FAIR staff supplement these with "diversity" training from an education consultant and cognition strategies from the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education. The portfolio of professional development opportunities provided by each profiled school recognizes staff needs and prioritizes how practices can be most effectively implemented to support student learning.