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Talladega County's Transformational Journey (Part 1)

November 11, 2011 | Category: Success Stories | Tags: success stories, project-based learning, district-wide reform, engaged parents & communities
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By Cathy Gassenheimer
 

Talladega Learning: A Great Partnership!
 
There is more to Talladega than the speedway. Much more! Educators in Talladega County are hard at work retooling their schools so all of their students will be well-prepared for the future -- whether that future is second grade, high school, college, or career.
 
Developing teachers and future administrators is critically important to Talladega's success, as it is for all school systems. More than 10 years ago, a former superintendent, Peggy Connell, realized that Talladega County was not then a magnet for educators who lived outside district borders. She developed and led a “grow your own” program that provided intensive professional development for assistant principals. She also formed a partnership with Samford University to provide tailored advanced degrees for teacher leaders and administrators. And some Talladega schools joined our Powerful Conversations Network.
 
This emphasis on teacher and leader development has intensified over the years, and current superintendent Suzanne Lacey considers it one of her top priorities. While the Alabama Best Practices Center has worked with Talladega County for a long time, it was just in the past two years that our partnership became deeper and more intentional.
 
Last school year, we facilitated six sessions for principals and lead teachers focused on formative assessment, which research demonstrates is a high-yield teaching strategy. In fact, researchers have shown that the consistent use of formative assessment, which is also known as “checking for [student] understanding,” can lead to significant student achievement gains. Rick Stiggins, an expert on formative assessment, has demonstrated that the effect of formative assessment is four to five times greater than the effects of reducing class size. [Here's a great Stiggins article about assessing for learning.]
 
Because most of the research on formative assessment is barely 10 years old, many teachers are not familiar with it or its impact on teaching and learning. Our work in Talladega County validates Stiggins’ research. Principals and teachers report significant improvement in both teaching AND learning when formative assessment becomes an essential part of the teaching process.
 
Our partnership with Talladega County has been great for us -- we've been able to share "what works" strategies and we've learned so much about how research translates into action in the real world. Talladega is also involved in a major shift from traditional instruction to a project- and problem-based learning approach that engages students in challenging but exciting ways. I've written about this impressive work (which began at Winterboro School) in several previous blogs: here and here.
 
Talladega County's accomplishments were highlighted recently by the national Alliance for Excellent Education, which chose to recognize Winterboro as one of seven high-needs high schools in the United States that have dramatically improved academic performance while engaging in innovative learning practices. The Alliance noted that:
 
After just two years [of innovation], Winterboro has experienced a 64 percent decrease in dropouts, a 78 percent decrease in alternative school referrals, and a 34 percent decrease in disciplinary infractions. There has also been a 40 percent decrease in teacher absences. Simultaneously, math test scores have improved dramatically, from 79 percent to 88 percent for eleventh graders and from 69 percent to 78 percent for eighth graders. Winterboro has observed positive changes in deeper learning skills such as collaboration, communication, and higher-level thinking. The school is sharing its redesign plan and experiences, including the successful application of technology, with other districts and schools across the country.
 
The school's performance continued to risein Year 3, justifying its selectionby U.S. News in 2010 as among "America's Best High Schools."   
 
So you can get a birds-eye view of Talladega County Schools, I asked John Norton, ABPC's long-time editor and communications consultant to interview Suzanne Lacey about the system's latest adventures in learning. The first part of his interview with Dr. Lacey is featured this week.
 
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A Talk with Talladega County Superintendent Suzanne Lacey
 
by John Norton
 
Long, tall Talladega County remains largely rural, with most of its "urban" population residing in two small cities (Talladega and Sylacauga) which are served by separate school systems. The 17 schools in the county system, including seven high schools, are spread far and wide.
 
"From our most northern school to our most southern school it's a 65 mile drive," says Dr. Suzanne Lacey, who joined the public school system right out of Auburn in 1984 and became superintendent in mid-2008. The county district's student enrollment hovers slightly under 8000. "We have small schools everywhere."
 
Unemployment is high in Talladega County, and the number of students who qualify for subsidized lunch averages about 70 percent. Winterboro High is among the most remote schools, with 360 students in grades 5-12 and 85 percent eligible for the federal lunch program.
 
"There's good support for local schools throughout our county, and in some very small communities, the school is really the centerpiece of community life," Lacey says. "Winterboro is an example. There are no businesses, no restaurants, — the school is the heart of the community and on Friday night, most of the people who live there will come to the football game."
 
Lacey grew up in neighboring Shelby County, on the outskirts of Birmingham, and says she took a teaching job in Talladega in 1984 "fully intending to stay just one year."
 
"I was an August graduate and did not have a job," she remembers. "My aunt was working in the Talladega system and suggested I apply. And I said 'Well, where is it?' My aunt laughed and said, 'You know, you go through there on your way from Auburn to Birmingham.'"
 
Lacey applied and got the job. After teaching 5th grade for some years, she became assistant principal and then principal at Childersburg Middle School. Eventually she moved to the district office and served in several key roles, including elementary coordinator and deputy superintendent, before succeeding Dr. Cindy Elsberry as superintendent in the summer of 2008.
 
"For me it just couldn't have worked out any better," she says, "because I've had wonderful opportunities to work at every level of the system and to cultivate great relationships and have excellent training and mentors that have really molded my career."
 
John Norton: You and your leadership team have moved forward with some bold changes in the way Talladega County schools approach teaching and learning. And you've done this in challenging times, both economically and in terms of No Child Left Behind. How have you managed to do it?
 
Suzanne Lacey: I can't say enough about our school board and their commitment to do great things for students. In our state there are many challenges -- like there are in all states -- with funding and all of the perils that we've had to deal with the last three years.
 
But our school board has been truly committed to keeping on and making sure our schools prepare our kids for whatever lies ahead. They really support our work, and they want us to do more than the norm for our students. I'm really appreciative of that. I know that's not the case everywhere. They are also trusting -- they know we have the best interest of the students at heart and we're professionals who are dedicated to their success.
 
Norton: How did your shift to new ways of teaching and learning begin?
 
Lacey: The work to make principled changes in our instruction to prepare our students for the 21st century was just beginning as the superintendency was changing in 2008. The spring before she left, Dr. Cindy Elsberry (who led our district for six years) took a big group to California to visit New Tech High School. We had done a lot of preparation and study prior to that trip, considering a new model for delivering instruction. We were planning to build a new high school in Winterboro and we wanted to design the high school to support student learning in the most effective ways possible.
 
We knew that we needed to visit a school that we could learn from — because the idea of building a school from the ground up with student learning as the top priority was a new idea in the state of Alabama. We really couldn't find a school that was being built or recently built with project based learning, technology integration, and all the other factors we wanted to focus on, in mind.
 
With the faltering economy and budget tightening, we weren't able to follow through with our school building plans. But even though we were all extremely disappointed, my feeling at that time was that we had invested too much time and done too much homework, thinking about new ways of delivering instruction, not to move forward with what we wanted to begin at Winterboro.
 
So we began our charge to reconstruct Winterboro from the perspective that we would make the changes in instruction and do all we could to make changes in our building to support the new approach to student learning.
 
Norton: You mention your "charge." What instigated it?
 
Lacey: I think the charge came from the fact that we were losing way too many students, not only at Winterboro but across Talladega County. Our high school graduation rate was not what we wanted it to be. Our high schools were functioning much like they did 25 years ago. Our business community really influenced us — they were telling us what students needed to learn and be able to do to be successful when they got out in the workforce.
 
We were all just gasping for air, because we knew as a school system we were not doing a very good job of preparing our students for life after high school. Too many were dropping out because they could see very little relevance or purpose in their high school experiences. They were leaving, finding whatever jobs they could, or simply quitting and going home. They were rejecting what we had to offer at that time in our high schools. It was a terrible scenario.
 
There wasn't very much collaboration at the school level, and there wasn't very much at the central office level either. Teachers taught from the courses of study; central office people talked with school principals about curriculum and instruction. But there was really very little involvement in a deep way with what was going on with learning in schools.
 
Norton: So as you moved into your new role, you pushed forward with the agenda begun when Dr. Elsberry was superintendent and you were deputy superintendent.
 
Lacey: Yes. Not long after I became superintendent, I took a group to Indiana to look at several New Tech high schools there. I needed to see it first hand. When we returned from that trip, it was pretty evident that we still could not afford to work with the NT Foundation to create this model. It was just too expensive.
 
But a very wise veteran educator who went with us that day said: "We can do this. We can create our own." It seemed like an overwhelming prospect at first. I wasn't so sure. But we took the leap of faith. We just jumped out there and began to work to create it on our own, because we knew this kind of education is what our students desperately need today.
 
And that's exactly what has resulted at Winterboro. We took what we learned on our visits and in our research, and modeled many of the things we're doing now after what we had seen. But I think we've been able to put our own unique stamp on it and utilize all the best teaching practices we've identified. The collaboration among our teachers and leaders has been key.
 
Norton: Tell us something about how it rolled out.
 
Lacey: We started at Winterboro because that was the next school on the list to have a replacement building with all the technology. We began to have conversations and make plans as to how we could not only redesign the delivery of instruction but reconfigure the building. That was a huge investment, to take a building that was 75 years old and bring it up to 21st century standards. But we have a very talented maintenance staff!
 
Norton: So you decided to put a 21st century school inside your old building.
 
Lacey: Yes. And that really made a lot of the members of the community happy, because there's a huge tradition here. Folks who went to school there have a lot of attachment to the building. The front of the building is made out of rock and there are people in the community who will tell you how they or their relatives hauled the rocks from the surrounding hills and were involved in the construction of the school in 1937.
 
Norton: You moved Winterboro's principal, Vicky Osment, into a district leadership role and moved Lincoln High principal, Craig Bates, to Winterboro.
 
Lacey: (laughs) Yes. I said to Craig, "Oh by the way, we're starting this new adventure at Winterboro and I think you're the right person to lead it." He had no clue, but he said OK! He is a learner, he does his homework, and he has a real passion for excellence. So with those factors in mind, I knew he would lead this effort well.
 
Norton: It must have been a challenging task. In essence you were asking teachers to shift from traditional teaching methods to something quite different: inquiry learning that puts a lot more responsibility on the student.
 
Lacey: Yes, and in 2009, we actually reconfigured the staff at Winterboro High. Many of the (new) teachers we put there had not been through a traditional program in teacher education — they had degrees in English, degrees in math, but no teacher certification. We had, with a few exceptions, a completely new staff. And a new dynamic.
 
The challenge to change the school's instructional approach seemed overwhelming at times, but I think this particular step actually made the transition more do-able because these new teachers had not learned old ways of doing things. They were fresh, they were technologically competent, they were eager, they were ready for this type of student-centered, technology infused instruction. Because of their youthfulness, they were acclimated to using technology daily.
 
Norton: Tell us something about how you prepared Winterboro teachers for this new approach.
 
Lacey: There was intense professional development with the staff in the summer months before the 2009-10 school year. And that professional learning was ongoing during the course of the year. Craig Bates and Winterboro's assistant principal Abbie Freeman are both exceptional instructional leaders. And one of the things that has been instrumental in this working well is the fact that not only do they lead but they learn alongside the staff.
 
This approach to instruction was new and different for everyone. There have been lots of trials and errors, and a lot of things during the first years that may not have worked that well in the beginning. But Craig and Abbie and the faculty have been open-minded and adaptable, always willing to tweak things or move on beyond something that just isn't working as well as we thought it would.
 
Remember: even though the new Winterboro teaching staff was youthful and not trained in the old ways, their own models for teaching during high school and college were for the most part also very traditional. They'd seen very little of this kind of teaching in their own school experiences. Given no other direction, most of us "teach like we were taught." If we had not done a lot of PBL oriented professional development and training, they probably would have become good traditional teachers.
 
Now we've given them the knowledge and skills to do so much more -- to make learning really relevant, rigorous and engaging for our students. And a lot of that came about thanks to our partnership with the Buck Institute, which is totally focused on project based learning for the 21st century.
 
In Part Two of our interview, Suzanne Lacey describes the new instructional model in more detail, gives examples, and talks about the district's efforts to spread inquiry and project based learning across the system and how Talladega County's partnership with ABPC has advanced the work. 
 
 
 
 
 
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