The Alabama Best Practices Center has been working with the Tarrant City Schools in an intense partnership over the past two years. Every Tarrant school participates in our Powerful Conversations Network, and a team of instructional leaders is active in the Key Leaders Network. In addition, the ABPC staff and consultants provide customized professional learning to district, school and teacher leaders six times per year.
One of the greatest partnership benefits, Tarrant Superintendent Shelly Mize says, "is that we are all (central office, building administrators, and teachers) working as a cohesive unit with the same goal in mind, improving teaching and learning through best practice. The system-wide focus on Formative Assessment and Formative Feedback has not only assisted teachers in improving their craft, but also helped us implement EDUCATEAlabama."
In a series of three posts, I want to share some of the story of our partnership -- not to brag about ABPC's consulting prowess but to offer a case study that I believe demonstrates the value of close, consistent, collaborative thinking and planning among a vertical district leadership team.
============= Part 1
Sandwiched between interstates, industrial plants (think smokestacks) and a 2.3-mile Birmingham International runway sits the small urban community of Tarrant, Alabama. Tarrant City serves about 1300 students in four schools: elementary (K-3), intermediate (4-6), middle (7-9) and high (10-12). The middle and high school share a beautiful new building away from Tarrant’s city center, sited on a hill, which I believe symbolizes the bright future that Tarrant's dedicated educators are working to create for their diverse student population.
When traveling to city center and the elementary school, however, one is reminded of a stark reality. Many of Tarrant’s children grow up in poverty, live in substandard Section 8 housing, and breathe air tainted by industrial pollution.
"We probably have the highest eligibility rate for free/reduced lunch in the Birmingham metro area," says federal programs coordinator Beth McDavid, who has spent most of her 40-year education career in the Tarrant system.
The landlocked city has an aging population with little space to develop new middle-class homes. Over the past decade and a half, Tarrant has experienced a dramatic demographic shift as traditional blue-collar and industrial employment began to disappear and young adults moved away in search of better housing and jobs.
"Fifteen years ago, our student population was probably 20 percent minority – today it's about 80 percent," McDavid says.
The teachers and administrators in Tarrant City Schools aren’t making any excuses. This is their reality. “Our students are wonderful. They work hard every day and we are excited by the progress they are making,” says Superintendent Shelly Mize, who until recently was an outstanding principal leader at Tarrant Elementary.
Mize, McDavid and other Tarrant school administrators deserve a great deal of credit for leading their schools to higher and higher levels of instructional quality in response to the demographic changes in their city's neighborhoods. Tarrant was an early participant in the Alabama Reading First Initiative (ARFI) which McDavid credits with transforming literacy instruction in the early grades and laying the foundation for professional learning communities that are highly collaborative and sharply focused on student achievement. Later, Tarrant was also an early participant in ARI PAL, which targeted literacy instruction in the middle grades.
In a recent interview, Beth McDavid recounted some of this history of change:
We went through some very intensive professional development that really helped our teachers learn to teach a reading program with fidelity. This was in the very beginning stage of people becoming convinced that a consistent and focused approach to reading instruction, based on research, could make a big difference in how well children learned to read.
A lot of teachers didn't like the tight structure and they left, thinking they could close their classroom door and do what they wanted to somewhere else. So as we began interviewing for replacement teachers, we simply said: "We have this reading grant. If you come here, this is what will happen. We'll have side-by-side coaching and you'll learn to teach our reading program with fidelity, and the expectation is that you'll teach this way every day.
And so we built a group of people who came in with that expectation, and they began to see that the instruction was the same in every classroom. And as the kids began to make progress, the teachers felt success with what they were doing. They became convinced of the value of working together with the same strategies and goals in mind. And out of that grew a strong community of teachers.
During the ARFI years and after, Tarrant invested in training many of their teachers to be literacy coaches, establishing a strong base of support for the younger and more inexperienced teachers who've since joined the system eager to help urban students be successful in school. The first "ARFI kids" are now beginning to graduate. Thanks to their enhanced literacy skills and the efforts of a highly effective graduation coach, says McDavid, the class of 2010 had an impressive 94% graduation rate. "Six years ago, it was roughly 65 percent," she recalls.
Our ABPC-Tarrant Partnership
We’re really beginning to see the impact of the partnership between the Alabama Best Practices Center and Tarrant City Schools. The positive results are a direct result of the commitment by district and school leaders to act on what they are learning.
"Our work with Cathy and Jackie (Walsh) is very important, because it's the best PD you can get," Beth McDavid told our long-time writer and ABPC consultant John Norton. "What we are doing is we are really working on the same focus that you find in PCN [the Powerful Conversations Network] and Key Leaders, but with this extra time and help from ABPC, we are able to take it further. We've really built a good partnership with them."
I like this comment from Beth about one of our consulting roles: They're our professional literature readers. They keep up with it all and do sort of the Reader's Digest version for us. They can bring us so much of the current literature and research on effective practices and help facilitate experiences that allow us to work with this knowledge as a team and think deeply about how it applies in our particular situations.
Of course it's the "thinking deeply" that leads to transformative practice. I'll share more about that in my next post when I tell you some of what happened in mid-June when Jackie and I spent two wonderful days in a powerful retreat experience with Tarrant administrators and teacher leaders.