professional learning communities in schools

Originally published in District Administration, July 8, 2021

Our district was in the bottom 5% of districts in South Carolina and had been taken over by the state. Here’s how we turned it around.

When I joined Allendale County Schools in Fairfax, South Carolina, as superintendent in 2018, all our schools were performing in the bottom 5% of South Carolina’s schools. Our 1,100-student district includes the Little New Steps child care program, two elementary schools, a middle school, a high school, an alternative education facility, and an adult education program.

Required to provide intervention and support to at-risk schools, South Carolina’s Department of Education partnered with Cognia, the largest education improvement organization in the world, which conducted diagnostic reviews and helped determine improvement priorities. Our district had been taken over by the state department of education, and this process gave us a road map for moving forward.

5 steps to success

I knew we needed to change the narrative coming out of Allendale from being a low-performing school district to, one day, becoming one of the highest-performing districts in South Carolina. We’re not there yet, but we’re on a trajectory to get there. We’re going from the bottom to the top. Here are five steps we took to make this happen.

1. Work with an experienced provider to perform a diagnostic review. Our improvement partner is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that focuses on holistic school improvement and accredits primary and secondary schools globally. We initially worked with the organization’s diagnostic review team for the 2016-17 school year, and then they came back to conduct progress monitoring in 2019. The review team helped us identify the goals and objectives we needed to transform our schools. They performed classroom observations using the company’s eleot (Effective Learning Environments Observation Tool), and they interviewed our external and internal stakeholders as well as our students. They reviewed our instructional program and took a deep dive into the classrooms, which is the most essential factor in giving kids a quality education.

2. Set improvement priorities. The review team identified key improvement priorities that we have been working on since the diagnostic review team left. Some of our top priorities were to:

  • Develop, implement, and monitor districtwide process to address curriculum, instruction, and assessment (e.g., challenging learning experiences for students, individualized instruction), and to recruit, employ, and retain qualified professional and support staff members
  • Increase the emphasis on developing students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Help students use technology to learn and apply content knowledge

If we could implement those priorities with fidelity, we would effectively transform or improve each school.

3. Take the priorities seriously. Since 2018, we’ve been working with this framework to address our improvement priorities and implement school improvement plans around them. We put the priorities on our faculty meeting agendas and our principal meeting agendas to ensure they’re at the front of everyone’s minds. For example, one of our improvement priorities involved analyzing student performance data and using it to transform classroom instruction every day. We developed “The Allendale Six,” an instructional process to ensure that teachers are using bell-to-bell instruction, conducting formative assessment, and providing students with feedback in an active learning environment across all classrooms. The Allendale Six also guides teachers to develop positive relationships, well-managed classrooms, and student-centered instruction. This approach spun out of the company’s observation that we lacked a robust instructional process, which was one reason our students weren’t achieving.

4. Choose a strong leadership team. Leadership matters. For real transformation to happen, districts and schools need strong leadership teams to help guide and support the work. At the school level, having principals and assistant principals who were strong as both operational and instructional leaders was essential to the success of our turnaround efforts. Additionally, district-level directors in curriculum and instruction, human resources, federal programs, finance, human resources, technology, and special services played a fundamental role in turning our district around. These departments have worked together to create a level of support that extends out to classrooms and schools as a whole.

5. Support teachers through the process. When it comes to major transformations in education, teachers are critical players in the process. Previously, we lacked a solid and robust professional development approach, so we made it a focal point during our district transformation. For example, we knew teachers were facing challenges with classroom management and instructional strategies. We started using data to assess, interpret, and transform instruction within those classrooms. We held “Saturday Academies,” where we paid teachers to spend five or six hours on the weekend engaging in intensive professional development. We also assessed the core curriculum to ensure alignment with state standards, and began using more technology in the classroom. Today, we do a lot of instructional rounds, where we visit classrooms and provide teachers with feedback on how to hone their craft, become better classroom educators, and provide quality instruction to our young scholars.

The proof is in the results

Since implementing Cognia’s improvement priorities, our district’s graduation rate has reached 87.3%—the highest it’s been in the past 10 years—surpassing the state’s graduation rate. Our high school will soon become an early-college high school, where students can earn a high school diploma and a two-year associate degree (or up to two years’ college credit toward a bachelor’s degree). In fact, last year Fairfax High School had more students taking dual enrollment courses, sent more graduates off to college, and received more scholarship funds than it ever had before.

Today, not one of our schools is on the bottom 5% list. The progress and improvement are unparalleled; it’s not the same school district. It’s Allendale, forward!

Dr. Margaret Gilmore is superintendent of Allendale County Schools in Allendale, South Carolina.