By Kathryn Hunt

When the South Bend School District in Washington State gave the district’s 39 teachers $500 each to pursue individual professional development linked to their specific goals, Julie Haugan knew just what she wanted to do.  An English teacher, she enrolled in a university class for Advanced Placement qualification. “My non-AP students benefit as well,” says Haugan. “I try to teach up to that level in all my classes.” Other teachers pursue master’s degrees, attend conferences, or buy substitute time so they can work with each other or write new lesson plans.

Haugan wears a lot of hats, as does most of the teaching and administrative staff in South Bend, a small, rural, high-poverty district about four hours south of Seattle. South Bend just moved from a six- to a seven-period day to offer students more choice. “So many people here are doing a variety of jobs,” Haugan says. In addition to teaching another class, many of the teachers take on coaching and other extracurricular activities.  In addition to the AP class, Haugan teaches a 7th and 8th grade Title I literacy class and high school English and serves on several teacher-led teams.

Professional development and support for teachers are at the top of the list of strategies this district is pursuing to help its students become career- and college-ready. Three years ago, PD was focused on implementing the Common Core. Today, with existing funds and some new federal money, the district has expanded on those efforts by creating common planning time for teachers, implementing programs to help teachers improve students’ literacy skills, and introducing a mentoring program. Teachers are encouraged to work together toward common goals, such as success with a writing project that spans multiple grades. While the district faces significant challenges, the efforts are already translating into better teaching and learning, according to test scores and teachers alike.

“Teacher learning is crucial,” says South Bend Superintendent Jon Tienhaara. “And to be fair, you can’t assess teachers or expect them to improve without adequate teacher support.” Tienhaara is in the schools every day. “It helps when teachers believe they’re supported—right up the chain to my office. We’re not doing everything perfect here. It’s a work in progress. The key is we all have an idea that we’re in this together to make it better for the kids.”

 

Making It Work

Teachers and staff have had to be creative to make it work. Of the district’s 550 K-12 students,  about one-fifth  are bilingual, and the number of English language learners is increasing each year. This fall, 56 children were identified as homeless. As with many cash-strapped districts, the tax base is sparse at best. Substitutes are hard to come by. Principals often fill in so teachers have time for team lesson-planning and professional development. Parents—when they can find employment—work in oyster canneries, lumber mills, cafes and taverns, and in the burgeoning legal marijuana industry that has set up shop in town.

Several families, Tienhaara says, were just above the qualifying line for free or reduced lunches for their children. He knows one family that couldn’t afford lunches for all their kids, so they took turns eating a hot lunch. In 2015, the district applied for and received community-qualification for federal Community Eligibility Provision funds, good for four years. Now all students qualify for lunch, regardless of family income. Federal Title I and Title III monies also support the district’s emergent ELL efforts.

Setting Priorities

Given the growing ELL population and other challenges students face, the district made professional development in literacy a key priority. Guided Language Acquisition Design [GLAD], a districtwide program that promotes language acquisition and literacy at all grade levels, is one of South Bend’s key strategies. The majority of South Bend teachers have taken the GLAD training; its practices are applicable in any content area and in all grades.

Neomie Kuiken teaches 3rd grade students. She has participated in GLAD twice and says she benefitted from watching the trainers demonstrate practices with students in a classroom. “I could see that the kids picked it up quickly,” she says. “And they had great tools for ELL kids.” One is to put content into songs, chants and poetry and pairing the language with visuals.

“Creating and learning the songs and chants is fun and helps them remember key ideas,” says Kresta Byington, principal of South Bend’s elementary school.

South Bend teachers attended GLAD training in a nearby town the first year, which helped keep costs down. The second year, South Bend hosted the week-long training, and its summer school students, including Kuiken’s daughter, participated. “She came home talking about it,” she says. Follow-up among teachers who are using GLAD allows them to compare notes and tweak lessons. GLAD offers web resources, and trainers visit to observe teachers in their classrooms and call to check in and offer feedback.

Kuiken has implemented GLAD in her own classroom. “You do a lot of activities first with [students], then they do some of the same activities in groups, and then on their own, ” she says. “Each time the activities are the same, so they quickly know what to do—and feel smart. When students are working alone or in small groups, I can pull a small group over who is maybe still struggling and work with them.” Kuiken says she sees progress in her ELL and non-ELL students alike.

Alignment Across Grades

Teachers need the time to learn and to collaborate, no matter where they live and teach. South Bend’s elementary and junior-senior high schools give grade-level-and same-subject teachers the same period off for team planning and professional development at least two times a week. The district also received a state waiver to reduce instructional days by three so teachers could use that time for professional development and preparation.

“Vertical alignment through the grades is crucial” for student success, says Tienhaara. In addition to teaching, Julie Haugan mentors a first-year teacher as part of a formal mentoring program for novices instituted this year, and she works with teacher-led teams that are piloting curriculum and identifying the types of PD that will be most useful for meeting teachers’ goals.  As a mentor, Haugan meets with her mentee at least once a month and checks in informally on a regular basis. One day, for instance, Haugan heard about a student behavior problem and thought the teacher might need some advice. So, she says, “I did a lot of listening and provided emotional and practical support.”

In 2011 the junior and high school English department—Haugan was part of the team—started a writing project to improve students’ skills, teachers’ understanding of the Common Core and scoring accuracy, as well as 7th-12th grade instructional scope and sequence. Using a Core-aligned prompt (about whether local businesses should require high school students to have a “B” average to be hired), 7th grade students wrote full persuasive essays. Then teachers spent an entire day together scoring the essays. They emerged from the training, Haugan says, “very clear on the nuances of the rubrics,” able to score accurately and use an efficient scoring tool for providing students consistent feedback. Five years later, South Bend teachers continue to use the prompt and “maintain an expectation,” Haugan says, “for all students to produce high-quality writing across all classrooms.”

 

Student Gains

The first cohort of 7th grade students to write to the teacher-developed prompt is now in 11th grade. Last year, when these 29 students took the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessment, all but two passed on the first try, an indicator that South Bend’s efforts to align and improve instruction are paying off. Nine of the successful testers spoke Spanish or Chinese as a first language. Five are enrolled in Running Start, a Washington state program that allows them to earn credits tuition-free at a community college while they finish high school.

And there is more good news. This year’s seniors, who took Washington’s High School Proficiency Exam as 10th graders, scored 24 percent below the state average in their sophomore year. The next year, as 11th graders, they caught up and then some, performing 11 percent better than the state average on the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Haugan says the improvement may have occurred  partly because South Bend began aligning its practices with the Common Core standards immediately after the state adopted them, when these students were in 8th grade. This suggests that in spite of the more rigorous standards of the Common Core, South Bend’s practices are enabling students to make gradual and notable gains.

“If you compare to previous groups that came through, the impact is significant,” says Haugan. “That’s worth celebrating.”