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Tailored Support Helps Struggling Schools Turn Around

Posted on 07.21.2017

photo of teacher


  • WestEd school transformation experts have collaborated to help improve several struggling schools in Buffalo.
  • Because every site is unique, WestEd’s school improvement work is tailored to the needs of each individual school.
  • Building internal capacity and fostering collaboration and trust are critical for effective school improvement efforts.

Consider the traditional, time-honored way that teachers ask students to demonstrate knowledge of the differences between plant and animal cells: “Typically, you ask students to label illustrations of the cell structures,” says Mark Collins, a teacher and teacher facilitator at PS 198 International Preparatory School in Buffalo, New York. “But while that may help students learn to identify the structural differences, all too often they still can’t make informed observations about the significance of those differences.”

Now, consider how Collins and other PS 198 teachers worked together during a common planning time session to tweak that standard lesson to help a colleague whose students were struggling to understand what the differences mean: “Together, we identified various ways to push the students to interact more substantively with the content,” explains Collins. “That included asking students to not only label the illustrations but to also create Venn diagrams to organize the information they’ve learned.”

Danielle Cugalj, an assistant principal at the school, calls that kind of fruitful interaction an “aha moment” — something she sees more and more as “our teachers come to realize how much they can learn from each other when they are given the time and structure to work together in meaningful ways.” Over the last couple of years, WestEd school transformation experts have collaborated with educators at PS 198 to redefine how they use their common planning time. Now, the school’s teachers regularly engage in organized, productive collaboration on everything from observing and analyzing instruction to refining lesson plans, such as the teachers in the example above.

PS 198 is home to over 800 students in grades 5–12, including 39 percent who are English language learners and 19 percent who qualify for special education. Virtually all of the school’s students are eligible for free lunch. Helping teachers learn to use common planning time to improve their instruction is just one of the ways WestEd school transformation experts are collaborating with PS 198 — and several other schools in Buffalo — to help boost student achievement and move off a list of Buffalo schools in danger of being placed in state receivership.

Providing customized support

WestEd began providing turnaround support to schools in Buffalo in 2014. According to district officials, that was two years after nearly half of its 55 schools were identified by the state of New York as “Priority Schools” due to their failure to demonstrate student progress in English language arts and/or mathematics, or because of persistently low graduation rates. Aware of the critical implications for ensuring the future success of Buffalo’s students, district officials “made a systemwide commitment to improving outcomes and creating better opportunities for their students,” says Terry Hofer, WestEd’s director of New York school and district services, who has been leading WestEd’s school improvement work in Buffalo.

“Our teachers [have] come to realize how much they can learn from each other when given the time and structure to work together in meaningful ways.”

Rather than working with the district as a whole, notes Hofer, WestEd has been contracted by schools in Buffalo on a case-by-case basis. As word spread about the impact of WestEd’s services, he says, more schools in the district reached out. To date, WestEd school transformation experts have worked with 10 Buffalo schools. Although there are still Buffalo schools engaged in the transformation process, several of the schools that used their school improvement funds to collaborate with WestEd are now considered in “Good Standing.”  

Hofer notes that certain overarching principles guide WestEd’s approach to school and district improvement. Those principles include using evidence and data to inform decisions, fostering collaboration and a culture of trust, and building internal capacity to carry out and sustain the work. He adds that customization is critical to developing and implementing an effective improvement plan. Because every site has a unique context and culture, WestEd’s work is tailored to the needs of each individual school — needs that are identified by surveying and building relationships with administrators and teachers, and surfacing the root causes of a school’s struggles. WestEd then draws on its content expertise to design a unique path to school quality.

“In many of the schools where we work, for example, teachers are craving strategies to reach their English learner students” says Hofer. “At PS 3, we paired a WestEd coach with one of the school’s instructional coaches to help teachers learn to embed dual-language strategies across the curriculum.” Meanwhile, at PS 97, the focus is on boosting family engagement through a WestEd initiative that bring parents into the school at strategic times throughout the year to get detailed information about their children’s academic progress and learn how to improve their learning at home. And at other schools, WestEd has dispatched teams of as many as six experts to train teachers on specific ways to analyze student classwork and achievement data designed to improve instruction and learning.

Using structured collaboration to improve instruction

Some of the most promising outcomes that have emerged from WestEd’s turnaround work in Buffalo are the result of helping teachers learn to regularly engage in structured collaborative conversations. According to WestEd’s Kevin Perks, a director of school and district services who is also providing school turnaround services in Buffalo, professional collaboration is key to building and sustaining a school’s capacity to improve instruction and, in turn, student achievement.

School schedules are often designed to give teachers some opportunities to work together, such as team meetings, common planning time, or grade-level meetings, says Perks. “However, we’ve found that in such settings teachers can end up spending their time together talking about student issues, addressing disciplinary crises, and dealing with logistical matters, rather than collaborating on how to improve and enhance their own instructional practices.”

Perks says that one of WestEd’s goals in such situations is to identify and train teacher leaders to function as facilitators and coaches charged with ensuring that their colleagues use collaborative time as strategically and effectively as possible. For example, teachers might be guided through the process of using a set of learning standards to design a lesson plan, and then arrange for one of their group members to teach the lesson while the others observe. Afterward, the group meets to debrief — sharing their observations, analyzing the quality of both the instructional practices and the student work produced during the lesson, and fine-tuning the lesson plan based on what was learned.

At each step in the process, consultants such as Perks meet with teacher teams — like those at PS 198 — using specific protocols designed to guide and sustain their work. “For example, we have protocols that make sure that those observing a lesson know exactly what to look for,” he says. “That means that when WestEd leaves, there are people at the school to continue that observation and feedback process, and to engage their peers in deep conversations about good instruction.”

Perks emphasizes that teachers need the chance to give and get honest, constructive, guided feedback on all phases of their practice, from lesson design to instruction to analysis of student work. “In fact,” says Perks, “feedback is essential for improving instruction. Too often teachers are isolated from each other in their daily classroom practice. We need to shine a light on what they’re doing.”

One teacher asked to evaluate the common-planning-time sessions with WestEd cited “rich conversations that allow us to analyze what we are teaching and share ideas on how to teach it” and a “great [opportunity] to discuss things that I really struggle with.” Wrote another, “The co-planning has given me useful insights into what my colleagues are doing and has helped me collect ideas to use in my own instruction.”

Forging relationships and trust reaps rewards

Slowly but surely, PS 198 is working its way toward becoming a Buffalo school in Good Standing. It met 2015–16 performance targets set by the state in areas such as academic proficiency; attendance, graduation, and suspension rates; and school safety. Cugalj is proud that the graduation rate has increased from 33 percent in 2012–13 to 66 percent in 2015–16, and that Regents Exam test scores are trending up. She is quick to credit the dedicated efforts of her school community and the school’s partnership with WestEd for helping bring about the improvements. “Our teachers are very receptive to Kevin,” she says. “He’s built a real collaborative spirit here, mostly by establishing relationships based on trust.”

That outcome is intended, Perks notes, explaining that WestEd staff focus on fostering trusting relationships. He adds that feedback is only effective “when given and received in a collaborative environment free of fear.”

Says Hofer, “One of the key lessons we’ve learned is that to carry out the hard work necessary to turn around a struggling school, one must first support a culture of trust that promotes strong, positive relationships.”