By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, May 14, 2020
Part 2 of 3; read part 1 here
In 2016, Travis Elementary, in Texas’s Mineral Wells Independent School District, faced a challenge: Administrators knew that Travis, which had struggled for years, had an especially low-performing group of students coming up from the lower grades, so they would need to work even harder to meet these students’ needs and guide them to academic gains.
Elementary schools in Mineral Wells each serve only a few grades—one serves pre-kindergarten and first; another second and third; and, at Travis, fourth through sixth. Hearing about Opportunity Culture models piqued the interest of David Wells, then assistant principal at Travis.
Wells, now principal, took a group of teachers to visit other Opportunity Culture schools, and by the end of the trips, his fourth- and fifth-grade teachers knew they wanted to pursue these new models. Sixth-grade teachers opted out, and Wells did not push it, knowing the value of teacher buy-in.
That opting-out didn’t last long. The school took a full year to plan and hire multi-classroom leaders (MCLs), giving each of the two grades a math MCL and an English language arts MCL. At first, Travis was the district’s only Opportunity Culture school, but midway through, another elementary school jumped in, too.
And then: “By mid-September, I had sixth-grade teachers wanting to meet with me, and they were mad that they did not have this support,” Wells said. “So by September, I knew the following year we would extend this into sixth grade.”
Early Enthusiasm, Ongoing Refinement
“Opportunity Culture has been a real success story here, but I was incredibly skeptical when I received the first email abut OC,” Superintendent John Kuhn said.
As the new Mineral Wells superintendent, Kuhn was responding to the “program fatigue” in the district, working to drop, not add, initiatives. “The other thing I was really gun-shy about was top-down initiatives—there has to be bottom-up buy-in,” he said. “I was really, really pleased to discover that Opportunity Culture had come to the central office from one of the campuses; I really want teachers to have buy-in and voice. I flip-flopped immediately, and we got the ball rolling.”
Wells and his design team took care to learn from the other schools they visited. In some, they saw MCLs who were “full-release”—without a classroom of their own—but had too many team teachers to support each well. In another, an MCL had a nearly full load of her own classes and was the only MCL in her department. “She was swamped and flustered,” Wells notes. The Travis team decided to have only full-release MCLs, with a maximum of eight team teachers, and preferably six.
With each year, Travis refines its implementations according to what its students and teachers need.
“We were in love with Opportunity Culture before we had Day 1 of the first year, but we had noticed time as a stumbling block [in other districts]. So, after that first year, when I met with MCLs to brainstorm how to continue to improve—the beauty is the flexibility that it allows—we said we felt like we had a good amount of time but wanted to extend that,” Wells said.
According to the five Opportunity Culture Principles, staffing and pay changes must all happen within a school’s regular budgets (not through temporary grants or other funds), so while Wells has not been able to include reach associates yet, he is working on including them in his budget. These higher-paid, advanced paraprofessionals, known as RAs, support MCLs and provide them with more time to work directly with students and teachers.
Then, he notes, he sees a career path for RAs as well: “If I continue to hire these quality people, that we’ve done a good job of selecting, as RAs, I’m extending the impact of the MCL. So they have a team of six to eight they’re mentoring, co-teaching, and model teaching with, but in the meantime, they are also grooming what could be a phenomenal teacher in these RAs.”
New Roles Mean Powerful Support, Instructional Alignment
For Lindsey Wells, becoming an MCL was a welcome change from her previous role as a district-wide instructional coach. After teaching in her own classroom for 16 years, she had to support 65 teachers on three campuses. “Impossible,” she said.
She appreciates the MCL role even with its added accountability. Another Opportunity Culture Principle requires formal accountability to match each role, so she takes on responsibility for the learning of all of the students her team serves, which was, at first, “very intimidating.”
“I went from having my own students as a teacher to, as a coach, it didn’t matter. Now I feel like I need to touch every student, but I can’t. Our fifth grade has done really well [in improved test results], and now we’re under pressure to maintain that—I think I liked the climb up better!” she said with a smile. “Definitely, that’s a pressure and a stress that I feel.”
Patti Newsom, the ELA MCL for fourth and fifth grades, leads an eight-person team, with four teachers in each grade. Newsom appreciates having a team of MCLs who support one another, noting how she and sixth-grade ELA and math MCL, Carla Watson, often role-play and script out coaching sessions with a team teacher.
“When we started teaching 16, 18 years ago, it was so different,” Watson says. “It would be very hard to be a brand-new teacher now without support like we can give. Because the curriculum alone expects so much more of kids now, there’s a lot of demand on teachers.”
Newsom and Lindsey Wells note another benefit to having multiple campuses using Opportunity Culture models and meeting regularly with their MCLs—the instructional alignment from grade to grade.
“We have monthly MCL meetings looking at our data as a district and how can we do the same things for consistency,” Lindsey Wells said. “We never had that piece to connect our elementaries before, so we usually see a regress with a new grade level on campus. This has helped, especially with the writing test in fourth grade—we never really knew before what was happening below us.”
Read Part 3, Seeing Early Results