By Matthew Tungate
Abbie Combs loves eastern Kentucky. She retired from the Perry County school district after 33 years in positions ranging from 4th-grade teacher to assistant superintendent. Now she serves as field representative for teaching and leadership for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), which serves school districts in the eastern part of the state.
So she knew she had to take action when she heard there were concerns about how KVEC schools could locate necessary resources and use Program Reviews to improve rural schools. She and Carole Mullins, Kentucky Department of Education English/language arts regional content specialist, surveyed schools and districts to determine what kind of support KVEC should offer.
“What you hear about eastern Kentucky folk is true,” she said. “Our people like to share their resources and talents. If one of us has something we all have it. Maybe our regional approach is born of necessity. Yes, we are limited in some resources, but certainly not in quality of teachers or educator resourcefulness.”
In early February, Combs and Mullins developed a program and materials for a program that brought together 14 KVEC districts for a Program Review regional collaborative. The districts broke into groups around each of the three Program Reviews to see how they could pool their resources and ideas on how to make them work.
The Kentucky Department of Education is required by law to implement a new assessment and accountability model for public schools by 2011-12, and Program Reviews are part of that model. Rather than testing students with paper and pencil to see what they have learned in writing, arts and humanities, and practical living/career studies, schools gather evidence about how they integrated the subjects across their curricula and whether they provide students with opportunities to learn, among other things.
The details are not final on how Program Reviews will work and how they will fit into state accountability. However, draft versions of the Program Review rubrics are available for districts. Kentucky Department of Education staff have been providing training on Program Reviews as well.
Combs said teachers and district staff had a lot of incomplete, distorted and incorrect perceptions about Program Reviews leading up to the February meeting.
Melissa Henson, a middle school language arts teacher at Jackson City School (Jackson Independent) who also serves as the district’s writing curriculum specialist, said she had examined the Program Review documents.
“But we were not sure as a school how we were going to approach the review process and were interested in what others were doing. We had been informed, yet still had a lot of questions that were left unanswered,” Henson said. “The meeting allowed us to get answers for some of our questions and to share and listen with others who are facing the same challenges.”
Organizers found districts needed information
Originally Combs and Mullins wanted one to three teachers per district to attend the training, but she found there was a much greater need.
“To our amazement districts wanted to send teams of 10-12 members. We felt a need to capitalize on that momentum. We secured a large facility for training and changed our agenda to devote a half day to training and a half day to group work,” Combs said. “We opened the registration to as many participants as districts could economically manage, and no one was turned away.”
Combs said her goal was to provide basic Program Review information so that all participants would “have the correct end in mind” and to design a mechanism to help schools be prepared.
They designed the goals as “I can” statements, such as “I can explain the common language of the Program Review document,” I can visualize and describe what a fully functioning program for my area would look like in my school.”
Those “I can” statements helped Jocelyn White, who is in her third year teaching at Hazard High School (Hazard Independent), where she teaches 10th- and 11th-grade English.
Being a young teacher without much knowledge of Program Reviews, White felt a lot of pressure having to report to the English professional learning community what she had learned.
“Thankfully, after leaving the meeting I was very relieved,” she said. “The KVEC leaders gave the group learning targets at the beginning of the training and one of them happened to be ‘I can lead other teachers in my building through the important components of the Program Review process.’ This gave me tons of confidence for the day, and in the end, I left feeling like I could help the other teachers in my building. I felt a lot better when I left the meeting because I realized that we are already doing much of what is in the new Writing Program Review, we just don’t have it on paper.”
During the meeting, educators divided into four groups: one for each Program Review area and one for supervisors and administrators.
“Participant groups met, elected team leaders and engaged in activities that had been developed to help them visualize the Program Review process and to encourage brainstorming of proactive approaches that schools, districts and regions could take to make the process work for us,” Combs said.
Participants walked away feeling more informed and ready to tackle Program Reviews in their own schools, Combs said.
“Our teachers realized that this process was very doable and could actually be a growth model for their programs,” she said. “They also realized that some barriers (limited budget, lack of resources and lack of certified teachers in some areas) can be overcome by collaborating to leverage our resources.”
However, the end of the meeting was not the end of the collaboration, Combs said.
“This cannot be a short-term venture. Our purpose is the ongoing improvement of teaching and learning in our region,” she said. “That never ends. It is a spiral that is ever evolving upward as we grow and learn from each other.”
She said the purpose of the regional Program Reviews collaborative going forward is to:
- work as collaborative teams to develop tools and leverage resources and to provide professional development at a district or regional level at the end of the process
- develop teachers’ understanding and implementation of integration practices
- identify master teachers already successful at integration and use them as mentor teachers or team leaders
- encourage local and regional collaboration between K-12 teachers in Program Review areas who can bring appropriate knowledge effective practices and integrated teaching in core subjects
- share best practices and scale up what’s working in Program Review curriculum areas
Debbie Passmore teaches music at Dennis Wooton and Willard elementaries (Perry County). The 25-year veteran is the group leader for the arts and humanities Program Review group.
She said the Program Review groups will meet later this month to reflect on common needs and to plan common professional development.
“By combining our limited funding we can actually provide the high-quality professional development that has been lacking in our area because of travel and resource barriers,” she said.
Passmore, the only elementary music teacher in the Perry County school district, said the group is a work in progress.
“We are learning to work together to leverage the resources and talents that are available in our region,” she said. “We also are working with folk who teach what we teach and no longer are we working in isolation. Some teachers are the only art, music or drama teachers at their school. We now have a network, and it feels really great.”
White said she thinks being a member of the collaborative effort is like having a cheering section.
“There is always someone you can go to with questions you have, and they are always supportive,” she said.
That is an approach other areas of the state should consider, Combs said.
“We don’t have a copyright on collaborations. All parts of the state need to work collaboratively,” she said. “It is not about eastern or western Kentucky. It is about a wonderful state that is striving to provide quality for all students. We can and should all learn from each other.”