Valuing Youth – Reflections from a Professional Learning Community

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., and Josie Danini Cortez, M.A.

Almost 30 years ago, as Dr. José A. Cárdenas, IDRA’s founder and director emeritus, addressed a migrant education management training workshop in San Diego, California, on how to make power work for children. His statement is as timely today as it was then: "I have found that the most effective parents and professionals… are effective not because of what they do but because of the philosophical understandings they bring to the task. It is not so much a matter of strategy as it is a matter of approach… I have seen in such individuals, regardless of their economic or educational achievement, an intelligence and a dignity that pervades all that they do in the name of children, and it is neither transitory nor occasional" (1995).

Dr. Cárdenas went on to say that there are three elements to making power work for children: purposefulness, perspective and leadership. Individuals must be clear and united in their purpose as advocates for children. Their purpose must be aligned with their perspective of what needs to change. Finally, their leadership must be: "dedicated to the development, nurturance and maintenance of the group’s strength: sharing information, visibility and rewards generously and diligently…[They] must operate from a secure level of self-knowledge and knowledge of each other that will enable them to deal with the unfamiliar, ambiguous and rapidly changing situations with success" (1995).

This purposefulness, perspective and leadership permeates IDRA’s work this past year with administrators, teachers and staff at a middle school in south Texas. IDRA launched the pilot test of its Professional Learning Community and Mentoring Model (PLCM) to create a successful school experience for children. Five content area teachers, one counselor and one social worker at the school formed the professional learning community and mentoring group. They, in turn, became mentors for 16 migrant students, most of whom were also
Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program
tutors.

IDRA’s
Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, when implemented as designed, reduces the dropout rate for students deemed at risk of dropping out and concurrently lowers absenteeism and disciplinary referrals, improves student self-concept and attitudes toward school, and increases academic achievement.

The Professional Learning Community and Mentoring Model was designed and researched as a planned variation of the
Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program and centers on the program’s valuing concepts and effective mentoring characteristics. With this planned variation, participating teachers are expected to develop greater competencies in instruction, self-knowledge and teamwork.

IDRA provided extensive research-based resources to the participants throughout the year in order to develop a collective grounding for the implementation of this learning community. One of those resources included the SEDL Outcomes of Professional Learning Communities for Students and Staff reports (Hord, 1997).

These reports have indicated that professional learning communities have improved outcomes for staff and for students. For staff, those improvements include:

  • Reduction of teacher isolation,
  • Increased commitment to and increased vigor to strengthen the mission and goals of the school,
  • Shared responsibility for the total development of students and collective responsibility for students’ success,
  • Powerful learning that defines and creates new knowledge and beliefs about good teaching, learning and classroom practice,
  • Increased understanding of the content that teachers teach and the roles that they play in all students’ achievement,
  • Teachers more likely to be well-informed, professionally renewed and inspired to inspire students,
  • More satisfaction, higher morale and lower rates of absenteeism,
  • Making teaching adaptations more quickly for students,
  • Commitment to making significant and lasting changes, and
  • Higher likelihood of undertaking fundamental, systemic change.

For students, the results include:

  • Decreased dropout rate and fewer classes "cut,"
  • Lower rates of absenteeism,
  • Increased learning that is distributed more equitably in smaller high schools,
  • Larger academic gains in math, science, history and reading than in traditional schools, and
  • Smaller achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds.

Model Key Components

The key components of the model are as follows.

  • Students assigned to participating teachers – Student tutors are scheduled in linked courses to the same content area teachers.
  • Team planning – Teachers in team planning focus on tutors’ success; during team planning, teachers, counselor and social worker (PLCM team) have collective discussions and bring in-depth understanding of students’ problems and "check for understanding."
  • Mentoring – Each teacher mentors, counsels and advocates for two to three tutors. Teachers and mentees meet weekly.
  • Professional Development – Four retreats guided by IDRA also serve as teacher renewal.
  • Guided Reflection and Case Studies – Teachers reflect on their mentees’ issues and success.
  • Administrator support – The middle school principal supports the learning community variation by allowing PLCM teachers to have the same planning period and allowing program tutors to be assigned to the PLCM teachers.
  • Teacher Compensation – PLCM teachers are paid a stipend for participation in professional development retreats.
  • Content Area Focus – PLCM teachers focus on any teaching issues, such as competencies in English as a second language and sheltered instruction as well as connecting heuristics (natural knowledge) to content area.

Findings and Reflections

The participants mapped out assisting and restraining forces in the establishment of a learning community. The assisting forces included community leaders and role models, extracurricular activities, teachers nurturing respect and politeness, communication and the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. The restraining forces included limited or negative expectations, student peer pressure, adult prejudice, and a stereotyping of English language learners and migrant families.

Case studies and guided reflection became an integral part of learning community process. Each focused conversation would key-in on four questions:

  • How do you measure your students’ progress?
  • How is their English language development and fluency?
  • How is their behavior and attendance in your class?
  • How well are they learning the concepts in your class?

Sharing of Content Knowledge and Peer Support

The Professional Learning Community and Mentoring Model allows for a sharing of content knowledge and peer support for students needing help in particular subjects. Following are comments from participants.

  • "I think a prime example is… the math scores were kind of low… And so, we realized that it was an issue, and we said okay, we need to fix this… Okay, you’re going to do math here…you’re going to do math there…and everybody said okay. We’re going to do it. And we’re doing it! Ms. L. is helping me teach math."
  • "It’s not whether you taught three years or 33 years, because you can teach one year 33 times."
  • "It is not about me succeeding; it is about all of us succeeding."
  • "The most important aspect of this program is that it focuses on the students… on what they are doing, how they are doing it; it deals with both academic and home issues."
  • "You actually have time for reflection. You have discussions about the end of the day, and not only about the individuals but also as an educator, what am I doing to help these kids."

Student Feedback

Participating teachers are affirmed by their students’ success and their students’ feedback:

  • "I had the kids write an essay about what they like and don’t like to do in science. It was going to be fun reading them, but I never expected to see several essays saying that they like the way I teach, the way I explain things, and that if they don’t understand it, I go back and make sure they understand."
  • "You feel that you are touching their lives; you are making a difference. And that is what teaching is, you want to make a difference."

Checking for Understanding

Participating teachers now take the time to "check for understanding" with their students and help build their students’ confidence:

  • "Another student… He’s one of our special students… I knew he had a question but he didn’t ask me…I told him, ‘Why didn’t you ask me how to do it?’ I have a sign in my room … ‘If you never ask a question, you will never know the answer.’ So I told him, ‘Look, read that sign’… Yesterday he came up to ask me a question, and I’m like, ‘Oh, awesome.’ I guess he feels confident to come and ask me… And I felt really good; it’s just like one of those awesome moments."

Seeing Student Gifts

Teachers have learned to see the gifts and talents their students bring with them and to tap those for academic success:

  • "How can we look at them [students] in such a way that we start helping them see the array of their gifts and talents and how those connect very specifically to decisions I make in the classroom? Because we all know that no matter how we plan it, things will change or something will just not work with some kids and will work with others."

IDRA is expanding its Professional Learning Community and Mentoring Model this year with all of the middle school content area teachers participating. Initial findings are even more promising with teachers, staff and administrators realizing their individual and collective power to make schools work for children.

Resources

Cárdenas, J.A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing, 1995).

Center on English Learning and Achievement. "Teachers Share Their Views About Effective Professional Development," English Update (Albany, N.Y.: CELA, Winter 2002) http://cela.albany.edu/newslet/winter02/win02.pdf.

Crawford, B.A., and J.S. Krajcik, R.W. Marx. "Elements of a Community of Learners in a Middle School Science Classroom," Science Education (1999).

Fulton, K.P., and M. Riel. "Professional Development Through Learning Communities," Edutopia Online (San Rafael, Calif.: George Lucas Educational Foundation, 1999) http://www.edutopia.org/php/article.php?id=Art_481.

Hord, S.M. Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continous Inquiry and Improvement (Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1997) http://www.sedl.org/pubs/change34/.

Loucks-Horsley, S., and K. Stiles, P. Hewson. "Principles of Effective Professional Development for Mathematics and Science Education: A Synthesis of Standards," NISE Brief (Madison, Wis.: National Institute for Science Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, May 1996) http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/archive/nise/Publications/Briefs/NISE_Brief_Vol_1_No_1.pdf.

Pearce, K.L., and K.Gusso, L.Schroeder, R. Speirs, J. Zwaschka. "The Impact of a Teacher Learning Community on School Climate," Journal of School Improvement (2002).

Roffman, J.G., and J.E. Rhodes, J.B. Grossman. An Overview of School-Based Mentoring (2002).

Russo, A. "School-Based Coaching: A revolution in professional development – or just the latest fad?" Harvard Education Letter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Graduate School of Education, July/August 2004).

Sweeny, B. Defining the Distinctions Between Mentoring &Coaching (Wheaton, Il.: Best Practices Resources, 2001).

Thompson, S.C., and L. Gregg, J.M. Niska. "Professional Learning Communities, Leadership, and Student Learning," Research in Middle Level Education Online (Springfield, Mo.: Missouri State University, 2004). http://ww.nmsa.org/Publications/RMLEOnline/tabid/101/Default.aspx.

Tinto, Vincent. "Learning Better Together: The Impact of Learning Communities on Student Success," Promoting Student Success in College (nd) http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/fsd/c2006/docs/learningbettertogether.pdf.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed, is an IDRA senior education associate and director of the Texas IDRA Parent Information and Resource Center. Josie D. Cortez, M.A., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]

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