by LAURA HAYES
During a recent Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) committee meeting, district teachers said they did not believe that some of the teacher teams designed to examine student achievement were working. The teacher teams, called Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), meet approximately once a week to discuss student data and work together to find ways to increase student performance.
At the elementary level, some of the PLCs meet by grade levels while others are grouped by school grade levels. On Monday, the district’s Staff Development Advisory Committee (SDAC) met and one of the concerns raised by teachers was the effectiveness of PLCs. “We feel that a lot of these things that should be happening [in PLCs] are not,” said Jefferson third grade teacher Toni McDevitt.
PLCs were first implemented at Title 1 elementary schools as part of the No Child Left Behind federal mandate, and later used district-wide. Former WAPS Curriculum Director Jenny Bushman told the School Board in 2012 that it would take time for the PLC groups to take action on improving curriculum and instruction. She said it could take PLCs as long as six years to get “comfortable” working together. Bushman explained that, in order for PLCs to work, a culture change among staff — shifting from simple conversation between colleagues to a discussion that “continually comes back to student learning” — needed to occur.
The district’s SDAC is divided into five subcommittees, each focusing on one of WAPS’ five professional goals of diversity and equity, technology, mentoring new teachers, PLCs, and staff’s depth and growth in their content knowledge and skills. Each of the goals are then further broken down into what it would look like when the goal was accomplished and what specifically they will focus on that school year.
For example, PLCs had nine focus areas including ensuring that all PLC facilitators have received training and have been given the proper resources; expectations for PLCs will be clearly defined; meeting-to-meeting expectations will be defined; training will be given on how to interpret and analyze data; after being trained, teachers will discuss the highs and lows of each unit of study during PLCs; examine assessment and grading practices; multi-tiered systems of support activities as determined by the district or schools; continue with PLC facilitator stipends; and weekly PLC meetings in addition to meetings on early-release days.
PLC subcommittee member Toni McDevitt said that while one or two of the focuses are happening, others are not. “Which ones did you think were happening?” W-K and Rollingstone Principal Dawn Lueck asked. For example, some people were trained in interpreting internal assessments, W-K third grade teacher and subcommittee member Emily Cassellius said.
Goodview third grade teacher and subcommittee member Britta Browne said that McDevitt and Cassellius felt that the PLCs were working well at their schools. “If we have to continue to be combined with Rollingstone and Madison, I would like to discontinue PLCs altogether because I don’t feel like it’s beneficial to any of us, truly,” Browne said of shared PLC groups between schools. She said that she would rather spend the time working with her fellow teacher at Goodview.
Interim Superintendent Kelly Halvorsen pointed out that when PLCs were first created, Goodview was single-section site. Lueck said that Rollingstone teachers said that they missed meeting with teachers as a whole to have “vertical” conversations about preparing students to transition to the next grade, adding that it would be beneficial for grade-level teachers to meet sometimes to talk about data.
“I have a question. To what degree are our teachers trained to interpret data?” School Board member and SDAC member Jeanne Nelson asked.
“Not enough, and even administrators,” Halvorsen responded.
Nelson asked if there would be one person who could interpret the student data in every building. Not in every building, Halvorsen replied. “I can’t say that to be a true statement. Beside the principals, but we don’t have a principal in every building,” Halvorsen said.
In addition to state mandated student assessments, WAPS students also take internal assessments — FASTBridge in the elementary schools and Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) at the upper levels — two to three times a year to chart a students' progress throughout the school year. McDevitt said that she wasn’t confident to give the FASTBridge data to parents at conferences because she didn’t know how to interpret it. Lueck said that it’s harder to interpret the FASTBridge data in the upper elementary grades. “You’re not sure what they’re growing in,” she explained.
Browne asked if the district would consider adopting NWEA MAP — which Lueck said is easier to interpret — for the elementary grades. Halvorsen said that it was more expensive than FASTBridge. “We’re looking into it,” she said.