Alton Elementary School,
The practice: Professional development should be continuous and on-going, involving follow-up and support for further learning, including support from sources external to the school that can provide necessary resources and new perspectives.
This is a story about a "low-performing" Title I school in Memphis, Tennessee, that used an external assistance organization as a catalyst for successful comprehensive reform.
Alton Elementary is a K-4 school located in a working-class neighborhood not far from Beale Street, home of the "blues." Approximately 90% of parents are high school graduates but only 15% have college degrees. Most work in the local service industries, such as Federal Express.
Parent support at the school is strong. Many have historical ties, having attended the school themselves in the 1970s. (In fact, it is not uncommon for children to be brought to school by grandparents who attended Alton in the 1950s and 1960s.) Many parents serve on the site-based decision-making council and regularly attend parent nights and other events.
Many faculty members are relatively young and inexperienced. In 1994-1995, approximately 72% of the teachers were at the lowest rung on the career ladder. More than 25% had taught for three years or fewer. Only 24% held a master's degree.
In 1995, when offered the opportunity by their district to select a "comprehensive school reform" model, 90% of staff voted to work with Co-nect Schools, a national reform network with an emphasis on project-based learning and use of technology to enrich learning and professional development for teachers.
From traditional, self-contained classrooms, teachers organized themselves into seven cross-grade clusters. Cluster teachers developed a schedule giving them approximately two hours per week of common planning time which they used to organize interdisciplinary projects and examine student work.
As part of the support provided by Co-nect, all teachers at Alton participated in professional development workshops focusing on project-based learning, performance assessment and technology integration - visiting and re-visiting these topics over a three year time period. The principal, Virginia McNeil guided teachers through the process by focusing all faculty meetings on instructional activities. The school's "design" team meetings began to address issues such as sharing of resources and ways to increase community engagement.
Planning backwards from state and district standards, cluster teachers began to develop interdisciplinary projects on topics such as energy, rainforests, and chemical change. The idea was that these projects would provide the means for students to master skills while at the same time beginning to develop deeper levels of understanding through "real world" applications. Online resources designed by Co-nect assisted teachers in developing their projects and gave access to web-based resources to help in the classroom.
Other changes, such as test scores, began to take place, as well. Whereas, in 1994-95 only 6% of Alton's students received a score of "proficient" on the state's writing test, by 1998, 45% were classified as proficient, surpassing the district average by 5 percentage points. The school now has one of the highest parent approval ratings in the district, with a long waiting list for admission.
McNeil attributes her school's success to the faculty's commitment to the notion that all students should be held to the same high standards, and that teamwork gets results. "When I visit cluster meetings, I see they're focused on how to improve teaching, and how to improve the quality of student work. By working in teams, people are seriously studying how to improve results." By distributing the expertise among team members and across the school, the staff has built in the elements necessary to sustain the progress they've made and to continue to improve student work in the years to come.