The professional learning communities concept changed the way teachers and students in the Minot Public Schools went about learning.
Now Minot High School-Central Campus has been recognized as a National Model of a Professional Learning Community at Work by Solution Tree. The school is one of 200 in the United States and Canada to receive the honor, but the only school in North Dakota, said teachers Julia Koble and Chad Gifford.
Schools are recognized based on strict criteria, including demonstration of a commitment to Professional Learning Community concepts, implementation of these concepts for at least three years, and clear evidence of improved student learning over that period. Recognized model PLC schools are listed on the (AllThingsPLC.info) website. The site also includes tools for team collaboration, articles and research about PLCs, blog posts and other related resources.
Koble, a biology teacher, and Gifford, an English teacher, who wrote the application to win the award to Solution Tree, said a lot of things changed when the district first went to the PLC concept about four years ago.
Kids at the high school who are having difficulty with a particular class or had poor attendance are expected to get extra help during an intervention period at the end of the day.
"We used to have a good percentage (of students) who used to check out," said Koble, who said teachers tended to leave those kids alone as long as they were quiet and well-behaved. Now if a student isn't engaged and is struggling in class, they will be expected to review the concept with the teacher.
"We're going to engage you whether you like it or not," said Gifford.
Fewer students are failing classes since the school instituted the PLC program.
Teachers in each department have a common planning period twice a week where they have a chance to discuss teaching strategies and review what is working and what isn't helping kids to learn a certain concept.
Different departments also have identified key concepts that should be covered in every subject area. Identifying those targets was more difficult than it sounds, said Koble, since it involved so many different people with different ideas and experiences.
"It took days," said Koble.
Gifford said English teachers particularly could spend a lot of time arguing over the inclusion of a particular word. Koble said biology teachers don't worry quite so much over comma placement. The teachers have done this work because they see that it is best for the kids.
Teachers cover the concepts the department has identified as important throughout the year and test students on them. Teachers can then analyze test data to see what concepts the students have grasped and what they still need to work on. That information is helpful when teachers are working with students during the intervention period, said Koble.
Before, if a student with a D in a class came in for help, the teacher might have felt he had to review a great deal of material with the student. But the information from the student's test data can pinpoint what concept he is having trouble with.
"It may be such a simple misconception, it may not take long to fix it," said Koble.
Gifford said one conference he recently attended compared the approach to the difference between attacking a problem with a round of grenades and using a sniper to take out the problem with pinpoint accuracy.
"Now we're snipers," said Gifford.
There have been some challenges along the way in implementing the concept. Some people don't like change, said Koble, and the PLC concept was a big change. Meeting with other members of the department twice a week during the common prep period also takes away from a teacher's time to prepare for his own class, to do his own work. Teachers also compare notes to see whose students have done the best learning a particular concept. If one teacher's students do better than another's, feelings might get hurt, said Koble, but teachers concentrate on the kids rather than on themselves. Sometimes they can adapt a lesson plan or activity used by another teacher to help their own students learn the material better.
The collaboration does seem to work to improve student learning, said Koble and Gifford.
"It's part of that working smarter, not harder (concept)," said Gifford.
Math and English teachers at Central Campus will also begin collaborating during planning periods a couple of times a month with teachers at Magic City Campus next year, said Gifford. That will help improve collaboration with teachers at different grade levels as well as within the building.