Connecting with the Classroom
Pictured here, Iowa Department of Education’s Mary Beth Schroeder Fracek and Des Moines Monroe Elementary School’s instructional coach, Kelly Ruden, discuss student data during a collaboration among teachers. Ruden keeps everyone on task and ensures they are meeting goals.
Like teachers and students, dozens of Iowa Department of Education employees are about to bid the school year farewell. They have been in schools and classrooms each month since the beginning of the school year as a way of staying in touch with day-to-day operations.
And department employees will walk away with great ideas.
“It is so energizing to be out around the students – that is why we do this work,” said Byron Darnall, chief of the department’s Educator Quality bureau. “Sometimes we get caught up with day-to-day adult problems, but being with these students changes perspective.”
Darnall, a former high school English teacher and principal, partnered with Webster City High School for the school year.
“It was great for me to join them for their daily routines,” he said. “It enabled me to give them perspective on what we’re doing statewide. It also gave me a perspective of the challenges out there so that we can be mindful of those concerns when it comes to creating policies here at the department.”
Darnall was particularly interested in Webster City’s professional learning communities, better known as PLCs. PLCs consist of a group of people who use data to determine effective courses of action for instruction.
“The old way of doing things in education was ‘we know collaboration is important, but you will need to do it on your own time,’” he said.
But collaboration is the key.
“When we make big decisions, we talk to family and friends,” Darnall said. “We do it collaboratively – it is intuitive. In education, complex issues require multiple points of view. Our schools and districts are placing a value on the impact of collaboration.”
High schools, in particular, tend to get segmented, making collaboration particularly critical. Webster City recognized this and scheduled time during the day for PLCs.
“What they are doing is opening up the lines of communication to bring everyone together in order to provide quality instruction and feedback so they grow as professionals and know what to do in their classrooms,” Darnall said. “They talk about student learning, they talk about next steps to meet the needs of each and every student. It’s targeting the child’s best interests. They are collating the best approach from the various points of view of the teachers.”
Eric Heitz also focused on PLCs during his monthly visits with the Montezuma schools. Heitz, a school improvement consultant for the department, said the PLCs bring 21st century collaboration to the forefront.
“When I taught, you were really an island,” said Heitz, a former middle and high school social studies teacher. “If we would get together as a group, we didn’t have the structure with PLCs – often they ended up being a gripe session, unlike the data today which helps you focus on what you need to discuss.”
Like Webster City, Montezuma also has carved out time during the school day for PLCs. The work in Montezuma impressed Heitz.
“I was seeing great things going on – using data and scores, and how the scores were increasing,” he said. “They are adjusting what they are teaching in the classroom based on students’ needs. They also are examining the Iowa Core. They want to make sure the students receive instruction in all of it.”
Another benefit from Montezuma’s PLCs was the ability to handle new students quickly.
“There was a new student who arrived on Thursday, and by the following Tuesday when I was visiting, they had completed diagnostics on the child-implemented strategies,” Heitz said. “It is sort of like an emergency room triage in finding out what the student needed even before the paperwork got there. Sometimes schools get accused of not responding rapidly, but this was clearly a great example of how they can respond quickly.”
Without data and collaboration, there could be no rapid response, said Mary Beth Schroeder Fracek, an administrative consultant in the Educator Quality bureau. Schroeder Fracek has been working with educators at Des Moines’ Monroe Elementary School, a diverse urban school.
“What they are doing at Monroe is working in groups to examine data for which they make decisions,” she said. “That is the epitome of collaborative inquiry.”
Schroeder Fracek, a former art teacher, said Monroe is a high-poverty school achieving growth by paying attention to data and ascertaining how to make improvements from it.
“It’s not only how they use data to make changes, but every single teacher is engaged in this work,” she said. “Everyone contributes, everyone is accountable. It is a real collaboration – one of the best I have ever seen.”
Monroe stands out, Schroeder Fracek said, because of its leadership under Principal Cindy Wissler, who is passionate about the collaboration.
For Wissler, it wasn’t her first encounter with department staff. But for others on Wissler’s team, they felt a bit skeptical about having a state employee in their midst.
“When I told my staff that Mary Beth would be here once a month, everybody thought that sanctions were coming,” Wissler said. “‘Why are they here?’ As the year went on and Mary Beth came in every Tuesday – and even worked in the lunchroom with me – relationships began to develop. Toward the end of the year, no one was uptight about it.”
Wissler said the experience was give-and-take, in which both sides walked away learning something. It also helped her team see that the department is working in same direction as the schools.
“It’s been a very positive experience, and shows us that you folks are not living in an ivory tower dispensing information,” she said. “It proved that we all have to work together as a team if we are going to move forward as an entire state.”
Schroeder Fracek was equally impressed with the elementary school team.
“They post their progress, and have it up in front of them,” Schroeder Fracek said. “They can see the data, they see the plans.”
After visiting their schools throughout the state, department employees come back to Des Moines to share the exemplary work being done in the schools.
“We bring it back here and apply it to the big-picture work and put it out there for everyone to benefit from,” Schroeder Fracek said. “That is one of our roles – to make sure we can showcase the good work out there and make sure others learn from it.”