By Dr. Davita Lancelin
In more than 20 years as an educator, I have served in many roles, from classroom teacher and teacher leader to executive master teacher and network coach for the Louisiana Department of Education. My passion for education is rooted in the belief that all students deserve a quality education and that the best way to achieve this is to invest in developing highly effective teachers. In 2016, I accepted the opportunity to continue the work of building highly effective educators when I joined NIET, and as a senior program specialist and now as the LA BOLD project director, the opportunity to support teachers and provide students with equitable access to quality educators has been multiplied.
In 2017, NIET partnered with public schools across Louisiana through a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant, which we call the LA BOLD (Building on Leadership Development) network. LA BOLD includes six public school districts – DeSoto, East Feliciana, Madison, Orleans, Rapides, and St. John the Baptist – as well as Algiers Charter and InspireNOLA Charter Schools. The grant aims to increase student achievement by building the capacity of teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators to provide students with access to high-quality instruction. During our initial year of implementation, our LA BOLD work coincided with the rollout of new requirements for the use of high-quality, standards-aligned curricula, and our team was poised and ready for the opportunity to support partners with using these new resources.
Now in the third year of this project, the LA BOLD districts are providing a powerful model of how to create school-based professional learning systems that connect what to teach (new curriculum) with how to teach it (instructional practices). This professional learning is led by teacher and school leaders in the building and is targeted to the needs of their students.
Key Takeaways from New Curricula Implementation
Keep Teachers at the Table
As Louisiana transitioned to a new set of college-and-career-ready standards and new high-quality curricula, LA BOLD districts became testing grounds for innovative ways to roll out the new expectations and material. Educators faced challenges in learning the content of new instructional materials while at the same time thinking about how to deliver this content in ways that would support student mastery.
We have supported teachers and administrators to navigate state guidance and develop strategies to align the new curricula and teacher practices. An important strategy has been creating school leadership teams that include teacher leaders, who are implementing the new curricula themselves and bring an on-the-ground perspective. In Madison Parish schools, for example, having teacher leaders on the team brought direct classroom experiences into conversations around the amount and type of coaching and support needed in key grades and subject areas. This enabled the team to adjust professional learning and coaching plans to better address emerging challenges and needs.
Mentor Teachers Play a Key Role
A key element for strong curriculum implementation is the position of mentor teacher. Partner districts and schools have learned that master teachers charged with leading professional learning cannot play all of the roles alone. Mentor teachers – full-time classroom teachers with several hours of release time to support peers – play a critically important role in the implementation of new curricula, especially as experts in their respective content areas.
As a mentor teacher at Lake Pontchartrain Elementary in St. John the Baptist Parish, Michel Delatte served as an English language arts content leader and valuable support for the teachers on the campus. She helped to lead professional development in her school and district, served as a model teacher for others, and supported educators with understanding the structure, content, and best practices aligned to the Louisiana Guidebooks 2.0 curriculum. She has an ability to build relationships with her peers and strong understanding of the pieces she needs to incorporate in her teaching: ELA content standards, aligned curriculum, and best practices that provide access and opportunity to all students – and she's shown success. In turn, teachers are willing to follow her because of her ability to build relationships and produce results.
With mentor teachers in place, weekly professional learning groups and individualized feedback and coaching are more relevant and impactful. The knowledge that comes with doing is what makes teacher leader roles effective. Mentor teachers have the opportunity to continuously strengthen their skillset at the same time they are supporting the growing knowledge and expertise of others.
Building a Statewide Network for Educators
Another takeaway from our work over the last two years is the importance of building a network across schools and districts. Our BOLD districts were experiencing challenges managing change, but they weren't alone. Our Louisiana partners outside of BOLD were experiencing the same shifts. In response to the growing need, our team developed networking opportunities for our partner schools. Participants engaged in trainings and collaborative sessions focused on the development of the best practices needed to strengthen the instructional program on their campuses. As a result, schools in the LA BOLD network are making strides in curricula implementation and, while student and teacher populations vary, educators are learning from each other.
For example, we organized principal meetings where we focused on building cultures of reflective practices. We acknowledged that teachers needed opportunities to grow in their understanding of the curriculum before they could effectively address the varying needs of their students. The power in the sessions was rooted in the shared experiences of our partner schools, and we saw improvements. For example, at East St. John Preparatory Academy, the leadership team led by Johnika Gayden-Gaines realized the value in differentiated coaching and support models. As a result, the team developed individualized support plans for teachers based on their level of reflective practice. Conversations in instructional leadership team meetings began to shift focus to strengthening teacher understanding around curriculum, using student work to make decisions, and understanding the impact teacher actions have on student outcomes.
Student Academic Achievement Results
An exciting moment this summer was celebrating the release of the 2019 Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) scores. We celebrated with our partners the notable gains they made in student achievement. DeSoto Parish and East Feliciana Parish were in the top 10 most improved school systems in the state across all grades and subjects. DeSoto Parish moved from having 40% of students in grades 3-12 scoring Mastery+ in 2018 to having 44% reach that level in 2019, and East Feliciana Parish increased from 26% of students scoring Mastery+ to 29%. DeSoto was also ranked in the top 10 outstanding school systems for overall growth and growth among English Learners. Madison Parish earned top-growth status among African American students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities.
Where We Are Going Next with LA BOLD
After meeting with each LA BOLD partner to reflect on the past year and analyze the 2019 student achievement results, my team highlighted two major goals we will be working toward this school year: 1.) helping districts and schools to adopt tailored goals and 2.) supporting partners to strengthen plans for sustainability.
Setting Intentional, Specific Goals
Setting goals is a critical part of outcomes for teachers and students. Districts were asked by our team to create what we identified as "signature goals." For many of our districts, at least one of the signature goals was tied to a numerical increase in student achievement. However, we wanted our partners to begin to think not only in numbers but in actions. We wanted them to think about the changes that needed to occur in order to realize the goals they set.
Here is an example: Prior to becoming an LA BOLD partner, East Feliciana set goals based on district and school performance scores using state requirements. However, without a systematic process for supporting and monitoring progress, there were some missed opportunities for alignment to the critical work of addressing the individual needs of the teachers and students. This approach resulted in underwhelming results.
After partnering with NIET through the LA BOLD grant, East Feliciana district leaders initiated changes in the schools and realized the need to create a structure at the district level to not only monitor but also support leadership teams. As a result, the district staff developed a district leadership team and created three signature goals that have helped East Feliciana district leaders keep a pulse on their schools and assess whether or not they were making traction. Ultimately, the district realized that being more specific and intentional around goals, supporting teachers to meet goals, and working together as a team has impacted school culture, improved teacher retention, and increased student achievement.
The strategic planning with our partners has facilitated a direct alignment between what schools need and the goals set by the district, leading to stronger weekly professional development sessions.
Expanding and Sustaining Progress
Another priority for the coming year is to continue to integrate the most effective practices into school culture, budgets, and systems – ensuring long-term sustainability. Districts and schools across the project have developed highly effective practices and seen great increases in student achievement that they want to continue to grow and sustain. NIET builds conversations about sustainability into on-site support in order to help partners develop or strengthen the ways they communicate the impact and success of the project.
Teacher leaders can speak to the importance of educators taking a leading role in guiding the work of school improvement. School leaders and teachers themselves are best positioned to identify and advocate for strategies that benefit their students. The LA BOLD network enables them to develop local solutions that address their unique needs, all while being grounded in the most recent research and best practices. Support from community leaders is growing as they see academic improvement and hear about the enthusiastic support from teachers for a new approach.
The reach of the BOLD grant spans across varying districts and structures. It is rewarding to see small rural districts such as Madison Parish and East Feliciana experience success alongside schools in New Orleans. Their success is attracting and retaining effective teachers who can help students become lifelong learners and community builders.
The grant continues to build on NIET's 20 years of success providing support and structures that have had a direct impact on student learning, including right here in my home state of Louisiana. Having been a classroom teacher and teacher leader myself, I am excited and honored to lead our team in helping classroom teachers become more effective and to see the impact this has on their students' success. We are excited to see the innovative ideas and student achievement results that our LA BOLD partners achieve this school year.