(Source: Maggie Gordon The Stamford Advocate, Conn. (MCT) — Literacy coach Sarah Santasiero walked quickly through the wide hallways of Julia A. Stark Elementary Schoolon a recent Monday morning, her black flats hurrying silently across the tile floor. She has places to go, teachers to help, students to watch, lessons to model, data to chart, a long list of tasks to fulfill throughout the day. No time for high heels — or even lunch.
Santasiero is one of 15 literacy coaches in the city’s 20 schools, and a key component to the district’s formula in closing the achievement gap in reading and writing, which is being supported as part of the overall $25 million GE Foundation Developing Futures in Education grant. On this particular day, she spends a portion of her day sitting in a back table of Kim Marziarz’s first-grade classroom, teaching a small group of students a poetry lesson as Marziarz watches intently, taking notes.
There’s a long poem written on oversized line paper, which Santasiero hangs on the wall and reads along with the young students before asking them a series of what she and other educators refer to as “text-dependent questions,” which are used to encourage close reading of the text. The first-graders turn and talk to partners about clues they’ve noticed in the poem, which lead them to what the author’s message could be, before coming to a final conclusion after several minutes of collaborative discussion.
Marziarz’s classroom is a “lab classroom” — one where Santasiero models new lessons like Monday’s, which she presented to help tweak teaching for the coming implementation of the Common Core Standards. The modeling helps provide a living example of how to tackle new lessons for teachers like Marziarz, while also offering opportunities to see what works and what needs tweaking in real life.
“This is the first time we did this kind of deep thinking,” said Marziarz after the lesson.
It’s a new kind of professional development for Stamford.
“In the old days, you were supposed to learn something and then do it, and then when that didn’t work, you went back to the old way,” Stamford’s newly appointed Superintendent of Schools Winifred Hamilton said. Professional development used to consist of teachers sitting in desks, watching a lesson from a mentor at the front of the room at the beginning of the school year. Hamilton called it “drive-by” training, saying that the benefit wasn’t always long-lasting
Santasiero remembers the old way not-so fondly.
“I used to sit there and be like don’t waste my time or bore me,” she said. But boredom just isn’t part of the equation in the coaching model as teachers’ learning opportunities occur in real time. It’s an active process now.
A 2005 audit of the district, conducted by the National Staff Development Council Audit Team found plenty of room for improvement in the professional development Stamford used at the time. Some of the chief criticisms revolved around a lack of district-wide curriculum a lack of access to student-level data and a lack of a comprehensive plan for professional development offerings.
“It was piecemeal,” Hamilton said. But the GE Foundation had a more complete, holistic approach to supporting teacher learning and growth.
“Effective professional development requires school officials to continually test and revise classroom strategies,” stated a 2010 GE Foundation report. “It also requires innovative approaches such as the use of professional learning communities — focused professional-development sessions that bring together teachers and other school staff to talk about common problems and possible solutions — rather than having those educators simply attend training sessions on their own.”
More than half of the original $15.3 million grant the GE Foundation awarded Stamford Public Schools in 2006 was specifically directed to improving professional development in the city’s schools: roughly $2 million was allocated for improving teacher content knowledge; $500,000 was put toward creating and implementing professional learning communities; $2.6 million went to developing and institutionalizing models and strategies to make data-based decisions; $2.3 million went to creating coach positions for math and science; and $400,000 was spent on professional development in technology for a total of $7.8 million earmarked for teacher training.
When the district received a grant extension in 2010, tacking on another $10.5 million to improve literacy results, it included the addition of 15 literacy coaches, as an integral part of the district’s push to close the achievement gap in reading and writing. With salaries and benefits totaling just under $4 million over three years, the 15 literacy coach positions account for 38 percent of the entire $10.5 million literacy grant from the GE Foundation.
“Now we’ve hired coaches to be embedded professional development. That’s one of the most successful ways to do it, someone right in your building who’s right there, pushing in and out and helping you,” said Hamilton.
Santasiero is charged with being a “transformational leader” who supports implementation of the district’s new approaches to literacy both in the classroom and in professional learning communities. She also “supports the professional growth of teachers and increases the district’s capacity to meet the needs of all learners,” while providing “job-embedded professional development and assisting teachers in the collection and analysis of student assessment data,” according to her four-page job description.
“I’m already late for the fifth-grade,” Santasiero said as she zipped down the hall, up the stairs and around the corner to a fifth-grade classroom after the poetry lesson. When she reached the second classroom, she wasted no time getting to work modeling a lesson that required students to absorb a variety of texts — newspaper articles, YouTube clips and opinion pieces — about a recent debate revolving around whether chocolate milk should be available to students in school cafeterias. Once they read through the texts, Santasiero asked them to take a position on the issue, and challenged them to provide text-based support for their opinions through mock interviews, which she conducted in a talk show format. The fifth grade teacher took notes — like the first-grade experience, this was a practice lesson for next year’s focus on Common Core.
“I’ll see two to three classes a week. It doesn’t have to be that I’m modeling all the time. I could just be walking in and sitting down, or talking to a small group, and then to the teachers,” Santasiero said a little while later as she took a quick pause before heading to a professional learning community meeting, where she provides support to teachers one grade level at a time in weekly sessions.
The PLC meetings are a time for teachers to talk about their efforts in raising students achievement, and the Stark staff conducts the meetings in the school’s data room, where every individual student’s name is written on color-coded sticky notes, indicating his or her reading level at four specific times in the school year. A quick glance provides a wealth of data, visually explaining how students have risen from one reading level to another, or stayed the same, drawing attention to each individual name.
“What’s really fun in those data rooms is you start to see less kids in that bottom zone and they keep moving up, and it really becomes that no child is going to fall through the cracks here,” said Kelli Wells, director of U.S. Education at the GE Foundation.
During professional development sessions, teachers work through how to target specific children to help them move up from one level to another, naming names.
“I think it’s the time of the trust between the group, and I think we’re very, very fortunate here. I think we have a strong staff where we do trust each other, so they’ll share. And I’ll say come to my room or come see this, and people are really open with each other,” said Santasiero. “Years ago when I started here, it was really like I wanted to decorate my room. It was beautiful, and I made sure that I was on. And I mean, people really did want to come into my room, and I would not share what my good stuff was. This is me, and this is what we’re doing. We’re having fun. We’re moving around. And now it’s like it’s totally changed, which is awesome that it’s so collaborative. So that’s the most powerful piece of it. It’s not I’m by myself, separated doing my good things, it’s sharing all of my wealth as well as everybody else’s.”
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