Jefferson County Schools Implements New Strategies to Improve Instructional Practices & Student Success
How do schools transition from failing — or simply getting by — to thriving? What does it take to get truly different results for students? With a mission of preparing more students to succeed in college and the real world, education leaders are beginning to face the tough realization that they must evaluate what they’ve done in the past and make some fundamental and intentional changes to get better results for students of all backgrounds.
Change is often difficult to accept, but if managed well, can lead to remarkable results. As a wise man once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Change management is common in businesses, and now more than ever, public schools are learning to embrace changes in practice and operations in order to make sure more students are prepared for college and careers. That’s exactly what’s happening in one school district in Alabama.
Jefferson County Schools Teachers and Leaders Embrace New Strategies
Jefferson County Schools, the second-largest school district in Alabama, is in the midst of comprehensive reform. District leaders are embracing the idea of full-scale change after operating for years without a formal strategic direction.
What does this full-scale change look like in action? Principals are implementing scheduling changes that help both teachers and students maximize their time. District-level leaders are adjusting their roles to provide more hands-on support for better teaching and learning practices. And schools are changing the classroom learning experience for students. All with the goal of increasing the number of students who graduate ready for college and a career.
Jefferson County Schools educates over 35,000 students and covers suburban, urban and semi-rural areas. Over recent years, the student population has become more racially and economically diverse. Craig Pouncey, the district’s superintendent, assumed his role in July 2014 and quickly realized that the school system needed to implement districtwide change to put more students on the path to college and rewarding careers.
Widespread change is always a tough pill to swallow.
Even though Pouncey and his administrative team knew that widespread change would be a tough pill to swallow, they agreed it was necessary if they wanted to see more students learning at higher levels.
This was Pouncey’s aim when the district began a partnership with Southern Regional Education Board to determine how to best implement this districtwide reform. With a 30-year history of helping schools transform themselves into places where every student learns at a high level, SREB had broadened its school improvement model, adding literacy and math teaching strategies, more time for teachers to plan together, and a renewed focus on project-based learning.
“School reform works best when leaders begin to look at the policies and systems at the district level,” said Gene Bottoms, SREB senior vice president. “In Jefferson County, you begin to see what change looks like at this scale.”
SREB consultants and Jefferson County Schools leaders worked side by side to examine the district’s policies, practices and systems to understand the district’s comprehensive needs. They identified several key outcomes: improve students’ critical thinking skills at an early age; adequately prepare students for transition periods, including middle grades to high school and high school to college; enroll more students in a college-ready core curriculum; provide a framework for schools to use time in an innovative way that allows teachers to plan together and students to get the extra help they need; and, introduce new kinds of career pathway courses that are intellectually demanding.
What new strategies are Jefferson County Schools implementing to meet these goals?
Previously: High school students completed core classes, including Math, English, Social Studies and Science, plus elective credits required for graduation.
Now: High schools are organized around career academies, launching pathways in relevant, interesting career areas. Schools use SREB’s Advanced Career curricula to offer academically challenging project-based such as health sciences and computer science. All high school students enter an academy as freshmen and take progressively more advanced courses throughout their high school career. Students can receive career certifications and complete internships, ultimately graduating high school ready to begin an entry-level career in their chosen area.
Previously: Students who were underprepared for college would often go on to take developmental courses in college, spending money on courses that don’t count toward college credits. The district didn’t offer a consistent course option to address college readiness gaps.
Now: Four high schools have implemented SREB’s Ready for College courses, which specifically address readiness gaps and help students develop learning skills they need to succeed in college.
Previously: Core teachers had limited time to collaborate and plan with their colleagues.
Now: Two schools have redesigned their schedules to give teachers 18 full days of quality planning and collaboration. Teachers learn from each other, look at data, practice instructional strategies and align lessons. While teachers are planning, students receive literacy and math support, career counseling and opportunities to apply what they’ve learned by shadowing at local businesses. Four additional schools will adopt schedule redesigns in the 2017-18 school year.
Previously: Teachers used teacher-centered classroom strategies to teach academic concepts.
Now: In professional development and coaching, led by SREB trainers, teachers learn transformative strategies that engage students in more challenging assignments. Lessons are student-centered, and students build reading, comprehension and analytical skills. In math training, teachers are equipped to engage students in a productive struggle that strengthens their reasoning skills and abilities to apply math in real-world problems.
SREB consultants involve principals and assistant principals in the training so they know what to look for when completing teacher observations.
“Schools won’t get results by tinkering around the edges of what they’ve always done,” said Bottoms. “The districtwide, large-scale change underway in Jefferson County could well be a model for other districts to learn from.”
What does success look like?
It may take a few years to measure the ultimate success of this work, but early signs show promising results.
- Teachers are reporting student academic growth at record paces.
- Students are earning higher ACT scores after taking college-readiness courses.
- Teachers are collaborating more to share best practices and strategies.
- Administrators are witnessing overall cultural shifts in their school buildings.
“When we can get it right at the district level, we give teachers the tools they need to do their jobs better,” said Bottoms, “and they in turn can equip students with the critical thinking skills they need to lead productive lives.”