Opportunity Culture® Expands, Bringing More Excellent Teaching to SCSD Schools

Published December 20, 2016 on www.syracusecityschools.com

This year, five new SCSD schools have implemented Opportunity Culture®, a staffing model designed to provide more students with access to excellent teaching while also providing teachers with added support and room for career advancement.

To make this happen, schools designate Multi-Classroom Leaders (MCLs) to collaborate with content area teachers on strategies and best practices. MCLs serve as mentors and team leaders, allowing them to assist other teachers and gain leadership experience while also maintaining their own classroom. Now in its third year in the SCSD, 13 schools are currently on board with Opportunity Culture®.

Grant Middle School was in the first cohort of schools to try Opportunity Culture®. Over the past three years, the school has seen a 60 percent drop in its referral rate, as well as a decrease in suspensions and other improvements. Principal Pamela Odom said there has also been a shift among teachers, from a disappointed “Oh, I need a MCL?” reaction to an eager, “Could I work with an MCL this year?”

“When we started to really work together as a family unit, we all started to get better,” Principal Odom said. “Parents know teachers are being supported from within the building. Students know it’s okay to ask for help because they see teachers receiving help. More students are taking part in our school wide incentives. These seem like little things, but they have really improved our school culture.”

Ms. Odom said the key to these changes have been the school’s four MCLs, as well as the MCL2 who oversees them.

“We have teachers who we initially thought wouldn’t make it who are now blossoming in year three,” she explained. “They took it seriously, worked closely with the MCLs and have grown in leaps and bounds. Now, those teachers need less support but they still have a great partnership with the MCLs that has led to solid instructional partnerships and practices.”

At Grant, the MCLs have become in-house experts on AVID, blended, personalized learning and  restorative practices. One MCL also holds a unique position: rather than supporting teachers in one content area, he focuses on social and emotional behaviors.

Gregory Lawson is in his third year in the role. In addition to teaching four classes of self-contained special education students each day, he also spends a good amount of time observing in other classes.

“When you’re dealing with social or emotional issues, you have to force yourself to understand the student as much as you can,” Mr. Lawson explained. “That takes a lot of observation. It forces us to think about the entirety of the student, taking their outside environment into consideration.”

By addressing the root cause of a student’s behavior, Mr. Lawson said students are staying in their classrooms more and the school culture is continuing to improve. In addition, teachers have become more comfortable having conversations about why a student may be acting a certain way and come up with solutions.

“We would never stop serving breakfast, because we know students need full stomachs to learn,” Mr. Lawson added. “We need to make sure their hearts are full, too. Without that, you’ll never be able to teach them higher level thinking.”

Meachem Elementary is in its second year of implementing Opportunity Culture®. MCL Kristen Duffy said the model appealed to her because of the ability to analyze data to find room for improvements, but that she never aspired to be a MCL.

“It’s a huge responsibility, because I have to be able to prove that 80 percent of our students have improved in reading… in addition to my normal responsibilities!” Ms. Duffy noted. “But I’m glad I did it. It’s the best role you can have, because you’re a mentor. I’m like a coach – I’m not above the teachers – I’m not out of the classroom – I’m here with them. You can see that everyone wants to change.”

At Meachem, to reach their goals for improvement, Ms. Duffy leads staff in three focus areas: small, guided reading groups; personalized, blended learning – which includes computer programs that align with curriculum while also tracking student achievement data; and social-emotional support with Reach Associates.

To make this happen, Ms. Duffy leads team meetings in the morning, afternoon meetings for one-on-one discussions with teachers and regular general meetings where the team can discuss trends, challenges and successes.

In just the first year of implementation, Ms. Duffy said 50 percent of Meachem students saw growth in their reading ability. Parents have also voiced support for the changes, noting that the computer programs used in the classroom also allow students to continue their academic growth at home. In fact, teachers have even grown through Opportunity Culture®.

“It’s taken teachers out of the box that they’re used to, while not making them afraid of it,” Ms. Duffy said. “Some teachers would have never touched a computer. But they see the students love it and they’re implementing computers now. Opportunity Culture® is really changing the culture of our school. I hope we can keep adding to and expanding the systems we now have in place and see it continue.”

Bellevue Elementary is also in year two of Opportunity Culture®. Special Education teacher Kathryn Smith is currently in her second year at Bellevue and her first year as a MCL. This year, Bellevue’s six MCLs have each focused on a defined, specific lens through which to address feedback. Rather than focusing just on math, literacy or content areas, they have each become somewhat of an ‘expert’ in culture and climate, personalized blended learning, student differentiation and more. Ms. Smith said this focused approach has helped MCLs notice and troubleshoot issues among students and staff alike.

“You see a lot more student-centered learning happening, because there are clear expectations and procedures in place now,” Ms. Smith said. “Relationships between students and teachers have also improved, because teachers are more supported now. That lends them to be able to provide more quality instruction and create more meaningful relationships with students.”

Ms. Smith noted that along with the shift to more focused MCLs, teachers have started viewing them as a resource, rather than simply a coach.

“The benefit to how Bellevue has implemented Opportunity Culture® is really in how we’ve adjusted to meet the specific nature and needs of the school,” Ms. Smith added. “We’re really lucky to have Principal Cupelli in this process because she’s been an amazing leader. She has been clear about why it’s here, why we’re doing this and presenting the results to teachers. It makes it easy for all of us to be on board!”

Great teamwork, SCSD staff. We look forward to seeing how you continue to use Opportunity Culture® to improve the quality of your instruction – and student results!

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