Two hundred teachers from diverse schools inspire and learn from one another to increase student engagement and achievement.
The rhythmic sound of poetry could be heard coming from the second-grade classroom at Ross Elementary School in Washington, D.C., one recent afternoon, though the students already had left for the day. Inside, teachers from several schools in the city were trying to find a poem that would captivate second graders, teach them about figurative language, and serve as the basis for a writing assignment.
The teachers are part of the DC Common Core Collaborative, which has about 200 participants from 22 District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools in the city. They get together regularly to discuss how to align their instruction with new college- and career-ready standards, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which were voluntarily adopted by the District of Columbia and 45 States to prepare students for college and careers. The teachers work in small teams of about six educators, all of whom teach the same grade, but at different schools in the city.
Kelly Worland Piantedosi teaches at Ross Elementary School and serves as the coach for the group of second-grade teachers that met in her classroom that afternoon. She said the teachers get inspired by hearing about strategies other educators use. “The exchange of ideas is great—nine times out of 10 you hear, ‘Oh we hadn’t thought about that yet,’” she said. “I know for myself, collaboration makes me a better teacher.”
Unique District-Charter Partnership
Now in its third year, the Collaborative is managed by E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. Haynes and the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy were both awarded Professional Learning Communities for Effectiveness sub-grants by D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), funded by the State’s Race to the Top grant. One of the purposes of Race to the Top was to ensure that teachers and principals were receiving the support, coaching, and professional learning opportunities they needed to help their students succeed.
While all States that received Race to the Top grants are working to achieve that goal in various ways, the District of Columbia program stands out because it helped forge connections among teachers in charter and district schools. Julie Green, the chief marketing and development officer for E.L. Haynes called the Race to the Top grant “really profound for the city,” in that it brought together the traditional and charter sectors in common purpose. “It was tremendous to move toward a unified vision for the kids in the city,” Green said.
The idea for the Collaborative developed when teachers at E.L. Haynes, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through grade 10, started to shift to the CCSS a few years ago. They were eager to share what was working for them and gain insight into the experiences of other teachers, Green said.
The experience level of the participants in the Collaborative varies. Some are at high-performing schools, while others come from schools that are lower performing. The teachers meet a few times a month for sessions that tend to last about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. They discuss what they are teaching and how it relates to the standards, produce lessons to try out in their classrooms, and set goals for what they want to accomplish with those lessons. The teachers report back to the group at a subsequent meeting on how well the lessons worked.
The educators were encouraged to videotape their lessons and communicate the results. A web portal also allows teachers in the Collaborative to share their work.
New Funding will Sustain Program
According to Eric Westendorf, who was principal and chief academic officer at E. L. Haynes from 2007 to 2011, the professional development teachers get through the Collaborative is substantive and of immediate benefit. “There’s a deep exploration of the Common Core [State] Standards in the context of something you’re actually going to use with students,” he said.
The Marriott Foundation has agreed to keep the Collaborative going after the Race to the Top grant expires. “That’s really exciting that federal money can leverage money [from the Foundation] that backs things that are really working,” Westendorf said.
The Collaborative is definitely working from the perspective of Raquel Maya, one of several Powell Elementary School teachers in the program and part of the team that met at Ross Elementary School. Maya said the group, and her coach Kelly Worland Piantedosi, gave her useful strategies for helping students access nonfiction. Maya said even teachers who aren’t participating in the Collaborative are benefiting from it.
“Once you have an idea from someone in the Collaborative, naturally you go back to your school and share your ideas,” Maya said. “For sure, it’s impacted teaching broadly at our school.”
• Bring teachers together for professional development who teach the same subjects and grades, but in different schools. These teachers will have different perspectives and experiences to share, but all of them can apply what they learn in the coaching session back in their classrooms.
• Strengthen instruction by bringing together the charter and traditional district sectors around areas of common ground or skills that teachers in both school settings need to acquire. In this case, that was the CCSS. Since teachers in both public charter and traditional district schools had to make the shift to the CCSS, they could work together toward that goal by sharing best practices across all schools.
• Grow over time. During the past two and a half years the program has doubled in size and added English language arts to mathematics lessons it offered originally. As the Collaborative expanded, it made adjustments based on experience.
Washington DC’s Professional Learning Communities for Effectiveness (PLaCEs) program fosters collaboration and the sharing of best practices by providing “an incentive for public schools to establish a consortium with the goal to improve student achievement. The consortium should be designed so that it can more effectively achieve its objectives collectively rather than as individual public schools.”
Video about the DC Common Core Collaborative: