Outside Experts See How Wallace Grant Makes Difference
This article is one in a series of reports on how support from the Wallace Foundation is making a difference at Des Moines Public Schools. In June 2014, DMPS was awarded a substantial grant by the Wallace Foundation to improve teaching and learning by improving the work of principals and their supervisors. DMPS is one of six urban school districts from across the country selected to participate in the initiative.
Last fall district administrators Susie Tallman and Tim Schott visited the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) in Maryland in connection with the Wallace Grant that Des Moines Public Schools received in 2014 to underwrite what’s shaping up to be a sea change in school leadership in the school district.
PGCPS is one of the nation’s 25 largest school districts. While it is bigger than DMPS it is similar demographically. PGCPS also received a Wallace Grant, in 2011, so it is further along in the process that is underway here and gathering steam as the district undertakes a complete paradigm shift from traditional school management to an innovative, dynamic model of instructional leadership.
We have been reporting periodically on key fundamentals of what the prestigious Wallace Grant is making possible: districtwide implementation at all levels, K-12, of the Marzano Instructional Framework, an increased emphasis on coaching in the field by principal supervisors and development of a steady flow of effective school leaders through a Principal Leadership Pipeline.
This week a delegation from PGCPS is in town to reciprocate the fact-finding mission of Tallman and Schott and after a Monday morning introductory session at the district’s central offices they fanned out for a series of school site visits designed to see how the transition is going so far.
Two groups were assigned to four elementary schools: Lovejoy, Edmunds, Windsor and Morris. A third visited East High School in the morning and North High School in the afternoon. It was comprised of DMPS Executive Director of Secondary Schools Schott, Director of High Schools Kathie Danielson along with Damaries Blondonville (Project Manager) and Lynn Scott (Consultant) from PGCPS.
The group met East principal Leslie Morris at the school office and accompanied her to three classes to observe. After each session Danielson and Morris would adjourn to the hallway for immediate comparison of notes.
First was a French III class taught by Angela Schreck. She was explaining an assignment to her students that dealt with apartment hunting in Paris. The back and forth was quick and lively, an animated mix of French and English. Afterwards, Danielson was so enthused, “I almost jumped up and down,” she told Morris. The students were engaged. The “learning target” was clearly spelled out, even posted in the classroom. The pace was crisp. The teacher was on the move around her room.
Next was a senior English class taught by Shawna Green. On the way there Schott talked about how additional supervisors made possible by the Wallace Grant in turn enable principal supervisors like Danielson to spend less time in their offices bureaucratizing and more in the field coaching principals on how to coach their teachers. “Management will eat up your day if you let it,” he said. The packet that was prepared for the PGCPS delegation included a “week-at-a-glance” handout that outlines how the reduced ratio of supervisors to principals is enabling DMPS directors like Danielson to swap time in conference rooms for time in classrooms.
Green’s classroom was a different subject area but many of the same ingredients were on display. There was never a dull moment and the colorful balloons that were employed could as well have been a metaphor for the atmosphere in the class as a literal part of one of the exercises. Danielson and Morris agreed on many of the highlights and discussed positive feedback that Morris will deliver to Green when she meets with her for follow up.
Then it was off to Ryan Hawkins’ ELL Speech class where he presided as a facilitator while his English Language Learner students took turns doing something they’d never done before: standing behind a podium speaking to a group. Besides making the speeches, students asked the questions, too. It was a glimpse of a “student-centered classroom” in action, one of the telltale signs of a “school of rigor” which, according to the Wallace Grant timeline, all 60+ DMPS schools will become in the next three years.
Observation and coaching aren’t just for special visitors. They’re the guts of this overhaul.
Only the professionals are fluent in the jargon unique to the master plan, rubric elements like what constitutes “developing” vs. “applying,” or what is the appropriate level of “cognitive complexity,” but even casual observers can understand why terms like “rock star” peppered Danielson’s X and O coaching sessions in the halls with Morris after they exited classrooms. Or what the “intensity and enthusiasm” that DMPS Chief of Schools Matt Smith both preaches and practices looks like flowing back and forth between teacher and students.
Following the classroom drop-ins the group fell back to Morris’ office for some shared reflection.
Danielson, formerly the principal at Callanan Middle School and Roosevelt High School, said that “I was never too wild about the educational management piece of being a principal but instructional leadership – that’s different; that’s exciting.”
The visitors were impressed.
“I commend you,” Blondonville told Morris, on many counts. Both she and Scott were struck by how many students Morris interacted with by name as she made her way through the hallways between classrooms, especially considering that she is in her first year at the helm of a high school with a student population in excess of 2,300.
Scott sounded a cautionary note. “It’s clear that your team is made up of talented people,” he said. “But don’t neglect to document the manual on how to handle turbulence so the next pilot after you knows where to turn when turbulence arises. Because it will.”
Blondonville echoed that.
“The private sector has been on top of succession management forever,” she said. “We in education have not.”
That’s why the Principal Leadership Pipeline, or PLP, is a cornerstone of the Wallace Grant work.
Later this week, after the PGCPS officials have gone home, another curious group arrives, this one from the Council of Great City Schools. Superintendent Ahart promised the model for urban education when he was hired. It isn’t fully built yet, but already they are coming.