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Professional Learning Communities

Frequently Asked Questions about Professional Learning Communites

Why will students be dismissed early on Fridays?

Teachers and principals say they need more consistent and frequent planning and collaboration time with their peers to improve student achievement. So students will be dismissed 90 minutes early from elementary schools and 60 minutes early from middle schools and the high school during the 2007-08 school year. Teachers will use the extra hour or so to work collaboratively on instructional improvements in a model called Professional Learning Communities.

What are Professional Learning Communities?

Put simply, a professional learning community is a team of teachers who get together at least once a week to analyze how well teaching strategies and curriculum are working, how well individual students are learning what they need to learn, and to generate ideas on how to improve each student's performance.

More formally, a professional learning community is a model of school improvement developed by Richard DuFour, former superintendent of Adlai Stephenson High School in Illinois. Richard DuFour introduced the concept to Durango teachers during a series of workshops in 2004. In a professional learning community, teachers work as a collaborative team to ensure that struggling students receive additional time and support, and when teachers work together to address an individual students' needs, they apply more experience, knowledge, and training toward solving the learning problem than one teacher alone can do.

The professional learning community's response to student learning includes several important components:

  • Timeliness. When a student has difficulty learning a concept as quickly as his peers in the classroom, he falls behind. In a professional learning community, teachers act immediately to provide intervention strategies to help the student learn and catch up with his peers. And when a student enters a class with mastery of the class content, teachers can provide enrichment or accelerated lessons to keep the student engaged.
  • Intervention versus remediation. A professional learning community is like a learning wellness plan. Teachers try to prevent learning gaps from occurring through immediate intervention such as giving students more time to learn, providing immediate tutoring, or individualizing instruction rather than relying on remedial courses, summer school, retention, or other expensive remediation practices.
  • Directs students to seek help. A professional learning community ensures that a student devotes extra time or obtains additional help until they have mastered the learning required.
  • Focuses on results, both short- and long-term. The professional learning community focuses not only on what teachers are expected to teach, but also on knowing when each student has learned. Teachers develop common and frequent assessments that they analyze so that they know what their students' have learned after teaching. They then work together to identify those students who don't have the skill levels expected and create the strategies to close those students' learning gaps. Similarly, they also identify opportunities for enrichment and acceleration for those who need it.

Why can't teachers use the professional development days they already have?

To be effective, professional learning communities must meet frequently to prevent gaps from occurring in student learning. That's why weekly meetings are so important. They give teachers a chance to address those learning gaps as they occur rather than waiting four to six weeks for another professional development day.

In addition, professional development days are used for just that - training. Teachers need time to learn about and use the latest developments in their profession. The district also has made a commitment to provide all teachers and staff training in cultural competencies to be more effective instructors with our ethnically diverse student population. That district-wide training will occur during the professional development days common to all schools.

Is this just for special education or at-risk students?

Not at all. The professional learning community model benefits all students, including gifted and talented students. Teachers will address all student learning needs, and they also will use the collaboration time to develop advanced learning plans for students who need enrichment or accelerated learning activities.

Don't teachers already have planning time during the day? Why can't they use that time?

Teachers do have individual planning times during the day, but that time is devoted to preparing lesson plans for their classes, meeting with parents, evaluating student progress, or working on other district initiatives. Plus, teachers' planning times are scheduled at different times of the day; they don't have time in common to work together as a professional learning community.

Why now?

Durango School District 9-R is a high-performing district already, but to make more progress schools need to address each student's learning needs individually and systematically. Our goal is to reduce the number of students who score unsatisfactory - and move all students to the next performance level, i.e., partially proficient to proficient, and proficient to advanced. When teachers work together to improve and coordinate teaching techniques and materials across programs, classrooms, and schools, students receive more consistent instruction throughout the day and the year. More consistent instruction improves student learning. But that kind of coordination and collaboration takes more time than teachers currently have during the week.

How will it work?

Beginning Friday, Aug. 31, 2007, and continuing every regularly scheduled Friday of school attendance, elementary students will be dismissed 1-½ hours early. Middle school and high school students will be dismissed 1 hour early. The high school will continue the half-day early release on the last day of each trimester.

Why Fridays?

Many students in the district already leave school early on Fridays to participate in extracurricular sports and academic activities. An average of 68 Durango High School students miss instruction weekly because of extracurricular activities on Fridays. (Some weeks it's as low as 29 students, and others, as high as 180 students.) In addition, fewer students are enrolled in the district's after-school program on Fridays, indicating less need. By scheduling the early release on Fridays, students involved in extracurricular activities won't miss so much school.

How will schools make up the time? Doesn't state law have attendance requirements?

State law defines the number of hours of instruction students must attend, but does not define how those hours are distributed. Elementary schools will reduce total instructional hours overall, but will still exceed state requirements. The secondary schools will divide their current professional development days into the weekly early release times. Middle schools actually will add two days of instruction, and the high school will add five days of instruction to the calendar. The middle schools and high school will start the school year on Monday, Aug. 20, and elementary schools will start on Wednesday, Aug. 22. Here's a breakdown of times:

Elementary Schools:
State requirement: 968 hours
Current attendance schedule: 1,048 hours
After early release: 1,003 hours
Current Number of Days: 170 days
Days after early release: 170 days

Middle Schools:
State requirement: 1,056 hours
Current attendance schedule: 1,083 hours
After early release: 1,064 hours
Current days: 171 days
After early release: 173 days

High School:
State requirement: 1,056 hours
Current attendance schedule: 1,058 hours
After early release: 1,058 hours
Current days: 171 days
After early release: 176 days

Will the early release mean that students have less time for art, music, or physical education?

Based on the current number of hours available for elementary teachers, the loss of 90 minutes should not impact the amount of art, music, physical education, and library time that students currently receive. Clearly, the intent is not to lose any of that instructional time. The high school will continue to offer the same number of instructional hours, and the middle school will reduce 17 instructional hours equally across the curriculum.

Incidentally, art, music, and physical education teachers also will participate in the professional learning communities with their peers.

This doesn't make sense to me. Shouldn't that time be spent teaching rather than talking about teaching?

When you're a teacher, more than 90 percent of your work time is spent teaching. No other profession requires that amount of sustained production. Think about it. Most businesses have weekly - even daily - staff meetings to problem-solve, set priorities, and plan. Durango teachers currently don't have that time. In addition, the professional learning community model is a research-based, proven strategy to increase student achievement. Research has demonstrated that substantive, sustainable improvement in student achievement occurs in those schools that operate as a professional learning community or a similar collaborative, results-based environment. Professional learning communities provide teachers with more opportunities to improve their teaching so they can be more effective with the time they DO have in the classroom.

Won't teachers be tired and unfocused at the end of a long week? How will you prevent them from leaving early rather than staying at school?

We explored a number of different release programs in districts elsewhere in Colorado, and districts chose release times that made the most sense for their communities. Some chose late starts for Monday mornings, others chose early release on Wednesday afternoons or on Fridays. The Pagosa Springs school district, for example, uses early release time on Friday afternoons and found that parents appreciated the early Friday release so that they could get a jump on their weekend plans.

Durango teachers are professionals who are committed to student learning and who are committed to using the time wisely. Many have said that they prefer the Friday afternoon release time, because it will allow them to summarize and analyze a week's worth of work so that they can plan effectively for a fresh start on Mondays.

See also Why Fridays? above.

How will you know that the collaborative planning time is effective?

The simplest answer? Student achievement will improve; the number of students scoring unsatisfactory will be reduced, and the number of students scoring advanced will increase.

We also will conduct a teacher survey this year to determine whether they believe the time was used effectively. The district will submit a report to the school board on activities conducted at each school, student achievement results, and the survey results next Spring to determine whether the early release program should continue.

Will the bus schedules change for the early release?

Yes. School buses will pick up elementary students 90 minutes earlier and secondary students 60 minutes earlier on Fridays to accommodate the early release schedule.

What about students who attend Kids Kamp? Won't the early release mean more expenses for parents?

No. The Kids Kamp after-school enrichment program will provide watch elementary students for free during the 90 minutes of Professional Learning Communities. Families who do not pick up their children by the regular dismissal hour will be charged for any time their child stays in Kids Kamp after the regular dismissal hour.

If you have additional questions, call the Office of Public Information at 247-5411, ext. 1440.

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