PLCs coming to Elkhart schools

This summer, 300 teachers and staff attended the Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute in Lincolnshire, Illinois. The institute was attended last year by 200 ECS staff members.

According to the All Things PLC website, a PLC is defined as “an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. Professional learning communities operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous job-embedded learning for educators.”

PLC leader Dr. Rick DuFour summarizes PLC in another way, “The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught, but to ensure they learn.”

The basis of the collaboration itself is broken down into four key points:

  1. What do we want our students to learn?
  2. How will we know they are learning?
  3. How will we respond when they don’t learn?
  4. How will we respond when they do learn?

A PLC is not a meeting, or a program, but a collaborative ongoing process with a focus on learning.

“The goals for Elkhart in becoming a PLC are centered around these four questions,” said Tara White, Directory of Literacy, who leads the district in PLC development. “Ultimately, these four questions will help us increase student achievement. We’ll build stronger teacher collaboration teams across a grade or subject, we’ll build stronger curriculum, resources, and instruction; and we’ll be able to provide the commitment to parents that regardless of which school or teacher their child has, he or she will receive a consistently excellent education.”

“The very essence of a learning community is a focus on and a commitment to the learning of each student. When a school or district functions as a PLC, educators within the organization embrace high levels of learning for all students as both the reason the organization exists and the fundamental responsibility of those who work within it. In order to achieve this purpose, the members of a PLC create and are guided by a clear and compelling vision of what the organization must become in order to help all students learn. They make collective commitments clarifying what each member will do to create such an organization, and they use results-oriented goals to mark their progress. Members work together to clarify exactly what each student must learn, monitor each student’s learning on a timely basis, provide systematic interventions that ensure students receive additional time and support for learning when they struggle, and extend and enrich learning when students have already mastered the intended outcomes,” according to the All Things PLC website.

“Last year, when we sent 200 teachers and staff members to the PLC Institute, it was to see it, understanding it, and to start thinking about how it would look in their buildings and classrooms,” said White. “We’ve already had similar collaborative teams in place for years – with things like data teams and 8-step – but PLC goes further. We’re not just looking at the data, but determining how we use it to change and improve. When we look at the third question – how do we respond when a student doesn’t learn? – this means being more thoughtful about our data and interventions. How can we help this student before there is a measurable gap? Likewise, for the fourth question – how will we respond when they do learn? – how do we keep our students actively engaged in learning when they know the material? Collaboration across teams helps ensure we can answer these questions in ways that improve our educational system for students.”

White continues, “By sending an additional 300 people this year, we are getting closer to implementing the PLC culture across the district. It’s our expectation that everyone will be part of a collaborative team and we will see improvements. The district has established the expectation that all staff will be a part of weekly collaboration, but it’s our goal that this open collaboration and communication becomes the culture of our schools. When it becomes our culture, we no longer think about collaboration as a time and place, but it becomes engrained in our daily work and activities.”

Breakout sessions of the institute included topics like: understanding the big ideas and foundational blocks of PLC; proven practices; learning for all; establishing collective collaboration; taking steps when students don’t learn; alignment across the district; raising the bar; simplifying assessments; abandoning archaic practices; building a culture of PLC; and more. ECS staff attended three keynote addresses and then each selected five breakout sessions to attend.