Fostering a school district-wide culture of professional learning and collaboration can pose a challenge when schools and teachers range across a district that covers 6,062 square miles.
The Klamath County School District is 40 times the geographic size of Portland Public Schools. Yet the district has 6,500 students in 23 schools, compared to Portland’s 48,000 students in 79 schools.
But thanks to a dynamic district leadership team and a grant through the School District Collaboration Fund, distance is less of a barrier to teacher collaboration in Klamath County.
“Geography can very much be a challenge when you’re providing an opportunity for staff who have to travel 100 miles one way,” says Superintendent Greg Thede. “That’s why you have to make it a priority for teachers to come together and work with peers to discuss best practices.”
Three years ago, the district implemented professional learning communities. In addition to participating in building-based communities, teachers collaborate in communities focused on literacy at the elementary school level, as well as communities based on the subjects they teach at the high school level—English/language arts, math, science, social studies, career/technical education, arts, and health.
The result is a district in which teachers who may have once felt isolated are now empowered. Getting the chance to participate in meaningful collaboration can be especially vital for teachers at smaller schools in remote towns, where they might be the only teacher in their subject. Some 91 percent of secondary teachers surveyed by the district agreed that professional learning communities improved their instruction.
Kjaersti Roberts, an English teacher at Brixner Junior High for the past 12 years, says that in the past she rarely worked with, or even met, English teachers at other county schools. Now she meets three days a year with 20-30 of her colleagues from across the district.
“The grant really helped us solidify what a professional learning community (PLC) should be, with training, materials, and time,” says Roberts. “It allowed us to reflect on our practice and focus on four critical questions: What are our students learning? How do we know they’re learning it? What do we do if they’re not? How do we continue challenge those who have learned it?”
Klamath’s English/language arts professional learning community focused primarily on developing student assessments that are meaningful and consistent across schools. Teachers in the other subject areas worked on their own priorities. The importance of having every teacher “on the same page,” as Roberts puts it, is raising the bar for all students.
“Before, we were all doing our own thing,” she says. “Now we’re working together to make sure our students are where they need to be to be successful. It is a true collaborative effort.”
Working with Chalkboard Project Coach Cec Amastegui, retired superintendent of Klamath Falls City Schools, was an invaluable resource as the district embraced new ways of doing business.
“I’ve definitely seen a shift from a more traditional hierarchy towards a new culture and a new leadership model in which teachers talk about important issues and there’s communication back and forth with the administration,” says Jeff Bullock, director of secondary education. “We’re a much better, stronger district when every person has ownership in making decisions.”
What’s more, Klamath County is planning for sustainability. Although the three-year grant ended this year, the district is continuing to fund other SDCF grant initiatives, including the PLCs.
“We want to sustain as much as possible” despite a tight general fund budget, says Bullock. “We just have to be a bit more creative about how we keep this work going.”
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