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Local Business

Schools turn to Professional Learning Communities to improve student performance

Ferson Creek first-grade teachers Jen Emanuele (from left), Catherine Zarate, Kris Criss and Jaime Foss meet before classes to work on lesson plans and discussing ideas to better meet the needs of students.
Ferson Creek first-grade teachers Jen Emanuele (from left), Catherine Zarate, Kris Criss and Jaime Foss meet before classes to work on lesson plans and discussing ideas to better meet the needs of students.

Ferson Creek first-grade teacher Jaime Foss knows she doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to teaching.

Which is why, Foss said, it’s important that she and her fellow first-grade teachers at the St. Charles elementary school meet before their students arrive to talk about a variety of topics, such as how to help those students who might be struggling in reading or math.

“We collaborate so well,” Foss said. “We respect each other’s opinions. You have to focus on the kids.”

Since September 2007, teachers in schools throughout the St. Charles School District have been meeting in teams of Professional Learning Communities to collaborate with each other. Ferson Creek teachers, for example, meet 40 minutes on the second, third and fourth Tuesdays of every month.

The idea has caught the attention of other Kane County school districts.

Batavia High School will set up Professional Learning Communities starting this fall, and Kaneland School District has been using them since August 2008.

What are Professional Learning Communities?

“Professional Learning Communities give teachers time to look at goals for student achievement,” said Lisa Hichens, who has been named the new principal of Batavia High School.

Batavia High School teachers will meet in Professional Learning Communities starting in the fall.

As they collaborate together in groups, teachers will strive to address three main questions, Hichens said.

“They will look at what we want our students to know, how do we know when they’ve learned it and what do we do for the kids who haven’t reached that goal,” Hichens said.

Although Batavia High School students score well on state tests compared to other districts, Hichens said the district doesn’t want to rest on its laurels.

“We want to keep improving that,” she said.

Ferson Creek Principal Christopher Adkins said Professional Learning Communities allow the school to address individual student needs.

“It enables us to reach every single child,” Adkins said.

Adkins said Professional Learning Communities help bring teachers out of their classrooms.

“No longer is it my kids in the classroom,” Adkins said. “Now it is our kids.”

Time for student improvement – pro and con

While time is allotted in St. Charles School District’s faculty meetings for Professional Learning Communities, the collaboration doesn’t stop there.

“It’s more than just a process,” Adkins said. “It’s a philosophy. People do it every chance they have. They have a 40-minute lunch every day, and spend 30 minutes of it doing it.”

The Professional Learning Communities do not cut into the amount of instruction time students St. Charles students receive, but it’s up to each school district to decide how to implement Professional Learning Communities.

At Batavia High School, the plan this fall is to reduce classroom instruction time to 75 minutes a class, down from 90 minutes, to allow for Professional Learning Communities.

Currently, students attend classes at the high school from 7:35 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. In the fall, students would start their day at 8:25 a.m. every Thursday to allow teachers to meet in Professional Learning Communities from 7:15 a.m. to 8:15 a.m.

Batavia school district officials said they looked at using after school time, institute days and other existing professional development times for Professional Learning Communities.

But they said none of the options met the need for timeliness and consistency that are critical to the success of Professional Learning Communities.

“We wouldn’t look at less than a weekly commitment,” school Superintendent Jack Barshinger said.

Hichens said the loss of time is not significant.

“Teachers can still get quite a bit done in 75 minutes,” the new principal said.

Students would not have to be at the school when teachers are meeting from 7:15 to 8:15 a.m., but buses would continue to arrive at the high school between 7:10 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. as they do now.

Those students at the school at that time would be expected to participate in an activity, such as working in computer labs or receiving academic assistance in the tutoring center.

Kaneland and Geneva

Kaneland School District made a point of not cutting into instruction time when it implemented Professional Learning Communities last August.

“The thought behind Professional Learning Communities is so we can meet the needs of the students,” said Sarah Mumm, the district’s curriculum director. “It would be almost contradictory if we are taking minutes away from them.”

Geneva School District doesn’t have Professional Learning Communities.

“We are not looking at it in the near future,” said Patty O’Neil, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “But we are always open to find ways to best meet the needs of students and teachers.”

The district does have professional collaboration opportunities.

“But they don’t happen on a weekly basis,” O’Neil said.

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