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Better Together: Professional Development by and for Schools

November 14, 2013

Schools, teachers, and leaders are smarter by working together. Though this approach is not the norm in most districts, there is much that schools can learn in coming together to share best practices and creatively pool resources.

Five years ago, I joined forces with a group of educators to establish the DC Collaborative for Change (DC3), with a belief that we are smarter together and all students, regardless of economic circumstances, zip code, or home language, deserve access to rigorous, responsive, and joyful learning experiences every day.  As a result of our collaboration, this concept has grown from a big idea to a way of being in our schools. As a founding principal of DC3, I have seen the results from this innovative model, in which traditional public schools cluster to share best practices, resources, and capacity across schools, provides more students with access to amazing educational opportunities. While our schools are committed to common pedagogical approaches and philosophies, each school retains its own culture, climate, and personality. 

We were inspired by the Turnaround Challenge and sought school leaders within our district who wanted to do things differently.  This initiative is grounded in the understanding that systems can change the conditions in which schools operate by creating autonomous turnaround zones. These zones increase the capacity of schools by forging external partnerships with experts and clustering schools together for increased capacity and scale.

We did just this. Though our schools have varied achievement levels and demographics, we operate with a degree of autonomy within our district; our schools have strategic partnerships, and most importantly, we cluster together for support and shared capacity.

Cornerstones of this model include differentiation, collaboration, and teacher choice. There are a variety of structures, practices, and rituals we engage to connect across schools. These include professional development, curriculum development, and increased opportunities for our students.

This model ends isolation for teachers who before may have been alone; multiple shared professional development days for all teachers and support staff bring us together across schools.  These workshops are teacher led, giving grade level teams from different schools an opportunity to share expertise while developing their professional skills, and range in focus from curriculum development and best practice sharing to content area knowledge. 

This collaborative model provides unique development and community opportunities for leadership.  Our instructional coaches come together monthly to increase their capacity on the art of coaching, content, and problem solving.  These meetings occur real-time in the classroom, to practice on-the-job development. Our principals engage in biweekly meetings, planning and problem solving together, turning the previously isolated experience of a school principal into a leadership community. 

Through sharing professional development and collaborating, we improve skills, capacity, and leadership within and across our schools while improving job satisfaction.

Our school climate data supports this; we have seen increased retention of our highest achieving teachers and principals, higher engagement in professional development and improved practices in our schools.  In a recent survey, 90% of DC3 teachers and staff agreed or strongly agreed with the statements “I am a stronger teacher/professional because I am a member of DC3” and “being part of the DC3 contributes to my job satisfaction.”

The beauty of this model is the variety and volume of offerings we can provide for our school communities.  Rather than limiting options to one school’s budget or the expertise available within one building, we can look to the capacity and resources of all nine schools, pooling resources to provide professional development that we could not access as individual schools.

This model can be adopted across districts; it provides schools and communities a low cost, meaningful way to build momentum, share best practices, develop and retain high-quality staff.  

Through collaboration, sharing across our network, and examining student and staff work from our schools, we raise the bar for each of our children, while increasing access to high quality learning opportunities for all.

Together we can realize benefits for our faculty, leadership, and most importantly, our students.

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