Wherry Elementary School
Wherry Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has it all together. School improvement plan, professional development, teacher evaluation, school governance, curriculum, and student assessment are all focused on one goal at Wherry: improving the literacy skills of students. When every aspect of school life is mustered together to improve students' reading and writing, dramatic changes in student performance occur.
Wherry's story emphasizes that, when teachers are given shared responsibility to solve problems and have the support of a strong visionary leader, students will benefit. No single strategy emerges as the secret weapon at Wherry. It is the combination of solid strategies that contributes to the remarkable success at this school.
In the last few years (1994-1998) alone, students' literacy scores have increased from 38% to 56% and the composite score has increased from 33% to 57% on state assessments. Student writing scores have increased from 2.02 to 2.96 on the six-point state assessment scale. These increases are significant given the context of the school. Wherry has a diverse student population and is located on Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, NM. Two-thirds of the student population commutes to school from residences outside of the base. This presents a unique problem for many parents, who are not able to visit the school due to lack of transportation or the necessary documentation to be permitted access to the base.
The School Restructuring Council, established by state law in New Mexico schools, provided the first impetus for change. This leadership team of elected members meets frequently to focus on improving student performance through professional development. At Wherry, the need to improve students' literacy skills ranked as the first priority.
The staff selected the New Zealand Model for Balanced Literacy and Six-Trait Writing as the content of their professional development program. With four years of focus on reading and just one year's focus on writing, the school is beginning to see improvement in student performance. Teachers are involved in training, coaching, dialogue groups, and supervision through their evaluation system to support their learning and application of learning in the classroom. Teachers attend mini-sessions and study groups, and they receive individual consultation from a literacy consultant who supports Wherry's implementation of the New Zealand Model for Balanced Literacy.
Margaret Clark, Wherry's principal, says that the individual professional development plan gives teachers an opportunity to select areas they want to focus on. She says, "This is the action part. We ask each teacher: 'What will you do to focus on our school goal?'" These individual plans could last up to three years and are approved by the principal. In order to strengthen the faculty's learning skills, the principal requested that each teacher observe others engaged in literacy instruction twice during the school year. Clark covers teachers during their observations. In addition, the principal observes each teacher as he or she is learning to do something new. This approach encourages practice and the application of training that teachers receive. It also underscores the fact that changing the practice of teaching takes time.
Frequent student assessment helps teachers see visible signs of their students' progress. The assessment process at Wherry focuses on answering three questions:
This frequent assessment data not only helps teachers improve their daily instruction, but it also helps identify the areas on which teachers need further professional development. At the end of each year, teachers also write reflections about each student's strengths and needs. Teams of grade level teachers discuss these needs and use them to identify their needs for the following school year.
Other structures provide opportunities for teachers to engage in professional development and to create strong collaboration in the school. A group of teachers participates in the Rockefeller Learning Community project. They meet every other week with their colleagues to read and discuss research in the area of literacy. These teachers cover each other's classes so they have 90 minutes of time every other week for these dialogue sessions. The student support team, designed to provide early intervention for students, gives teachers a chance to meet with colleagues, to talk about a particular student's learning needs, and to receive suggestions from a cross-grade level support team.
Clark knows that giving teachers the skills to excel leads to positive results for the students. She says, "Often principals feel like they should be instructional leaders. They really don't have to be, if teachers have something to focus on. Teachers will take it and run. They can't get enough. The principal just has to orchestrate it happening."