Cedar Hill Elementary in Jefferson City looks a lot like other elementary schools across the state and country. Blocks of brightly colored tiles are inlaid in the floor. Teachers lead students through the halls with reminders to “follow the person in front of you.” Some students follow, some don’t – some practice their dance moves as they walk. It’s a familiar scene.
But this is no ordinary elementary school. Cedar Hill recently achieved status as an Exemplary Professional Learning Community (PLC), a school-improvement designation for schools that implement systems that promote high levels of student and adult learning. Cedar Hill Principal Stacy Fick said the school began planning for the designation six years ago when Lorie Rost was principal. Rost is now the district’s assistant to the superintendent of elementary education.
“The final piece came this year – my first year in the building,” Stacy said. “Interestingly, the same thing happened in Hallsville when I was there. The school earned Exemplary PLC status my first year.”
It may be nice to come into a school where PLC planning is already underway, but Stacy said the administrator, while important, isn’t the key to the effort.
“Teachers need to lead the way,” she said. “That makes retention critical. Most of the Cedar Hill teachers that are here now were here when planning began six years ago.”
Stacy said collaboration among teachers is also vital to building a PLC. If something works for one teacher, he or she can share the information with others to help improve student learning across grade levels. Conversely, a teacher whose students are struggling may ask, “Your kids are excelling. How are you teaching them?”
One result of PLC planning is a renewed focus on goal setting. To measure progress, teachers continually analyze data. Although results from state assessments are considered, they don’t make up the bulk of data that the school reviews.
“MAP is an autopsy, because we get it at the end of the year,” Stacy said of the spring state assessments. “So we use classroom data for tracking improvement throughout the year.”
Cedar Hill formed intervention groups to address student needs. Kids at the same achievement level are grouped together for six-week classes. Teachers with particular strengths lead each group, resulting in individualized education for each child.
“We have to maintain the mindset that all kids can learn,” Stacy said. “Kids’ needs are different, and we have to even the playing field. It is a challenge to teach students who have different levels of achievement and ability.”
Two big challenges to being named an Exemplary PLC school are buy-in from staff and the ability to keep the progress going. Stacy said that many veteran teachers have seen initiatives come and go, so they may be skeptical of new strategies. It’s also hard for a school not to rest on its laurels after years of planning and accomplishment.
“We have to commit to an agenda and keeping aiming toward improved student achievement,” Stacy said.
For a moment, though, Cedar Hill will celebrate its achievement. They have already had an after-school party at a Jefferson City restaurant. Parents decorated for the celebration while the kids and staff were at school. Stacy said the biggest part of the celebration, though, is being able to tell Cedar Hill’s story.
“Other schools and the media and parents have called,” Stacy said. “They want to visit to see what we’re doing. We have good things to look forward to.”