By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, February 17, 2021
How can it work to lead Opportunity Culture from the state level? I spoke recently with Kelly McLaughlin, who leads the Opportunity Culture state initiative within the Arkansas Department of Education, to get the scoop on the benefits to districts when the state takes the lead to spread and support Opportunity Culture (OC) implementation. McLaughlin took this role, based in in the Division of Elementary & Secondary Education, in August 2020, after more than 20 years as an English teacher and literacy facilitator and five years in other areas of the state education department.
“It is our hope, at least from my perspective, to increase teacher retention and recruitment in the state by meeting equitable goals, and we believe we can reach these goals by increasing and growing OC throughout the state so that all students will have equitable access to effective teachers,” McLaughlin said. “That is the big dream, that we can spread it to every district in the state…we want to improve the equity [across the state] of teaching instruction, teaching salary, and this is one step in which we think we can move in that direction.”
To get involved, districts must attend an informational webinar and submit a letter of intent by April before applying in June; approvals for about five or six districts each year come by late July.
“I’m very excited about leading OC to increase teacher leadership opportunities and to help raise the rigor of instruction for our students,” McLaughlin said. “I think one of the main reasons that school districts want to be involved is that they really hope to improve the instruction of their students, and they hope to retain their teachers.”
New Opportunity Culture Arkansas districts get intensive support from Public Impact for implementation planning through district and school design sessions and school coaching. District-level sessions begin in the fall and school-level sessions run through the winter and early spring, to prepare to begin the hiring process for Opportunity Culture roles in March.
After the initial design and implementation take place, McLaughlin and her colleagues aim to provide ongoing support and training sessions.
Districts get full funding from the state for the year of design work. The ongoing costs for Opportunity Culture educator pay supplements come at the local level, through budget reallocations, making the pay for these roles sustainable, rather than dependent on grants.
“We do tend to approve many smaller districts that would not be able to afford the design and training sessions and get the one-on-one coaching support,” she said. “I really think that what we do is to take that stress off of them and help them to become totally engaged in Opportunity Culture.”
In her first semester on the job, McLaughlin has been excited to see changes in school culture and student achievement coming from Opportunity Culture implementation.
“I know from our site visits this year and our surveys from the schools, their communication is improving, their coaching sessions are leading to improved student achievement, and what’s really exciting is we have seen tremendous growth with schools that in the past have struggled with their student assessments,” she said. “I think that that’s very exciting to see that growth. When we see a school truly implement the model as it is intended, we will continue to see that growth.”
In Forrest City, for example, in the Delta region of Arkansas, McLaughlin highlighted the “tremendous” growth within one school in one year, and in Opportunity Culture schools in several northwest districts, she noted the difference that multi-classroom leaders have made during Covid.
“With those folks in place and in tagging on those leadership roles, they’ve been able to take on a lot of tasks and responsibilities that a principal would have. That’s been the most impressive thing to me in this particular year because it’s a hard year…for those that have implemented this year, they’ve all responded favorably with how they’re having to deal with the different stresses, the blended learning and such.”
For team teachers, MCL support has proved crucial. “The response that we’ve received is that [the MCLs] are awesome—they are there to support them and they are there to help them strengthen their instructional practices but they are kind-of like their main go-to person now.”
McLaughlin champions the role of the state in making this possible for districts.
“Any state ought to do OC,” she said. “If you want to have a solid recruitment and retention policy for your teachers, if you’re losing teachers to higher-paying districts nearby, you want Opportunity Culture. If you feel like parents are moving their students to other districts, this will help you extend the reach of your best teachers, and it will work. It won’t work overnight, but if you truly implement the model the way it is intended, I believe that every school district can make this work for them.”
Read more Opportunity Culture in Arkansas: