Fidelity and Collaboration: Opportunity Culture Directors Share Advice on Common Challenges

by | October 17, 2022

Whether in districts large or small, rural or urban, Opportunity Culture directors often travel similar arcs from initial design issues to implementation challenges and successes. At the September virtual gathering of Opportunity Culture directors, four panelists shared how Opportunity Culture implementation has improved their district recruitment, teacher support, and student success, and discussed the collaboration needed among district offices, accountability concerns, and how their roles have changed.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (North Carolina) Schools Area Superintendent Timisha Barnes-Jones has extensive Opportunity Culture experience: She previously served as principal of West Charlotte High School—one of the first high schools to implement Opportunity Culture roles. Under her leadership, West Charlotte’s graduation rate increased by over 31 percentage points, and the school was removed from the state’s low-performing list and named a school of high growth in 2017.

When she came to Winston-Salem/Forsyth, which had begun Opportunity Culture work during the pandemic, Barnes-Jones saw that district departments needed to better come together to support the work and share a clear vision for it.

“Now we have many departments working together,” she said, including instructional services, professional development, and accountability. Getting the right people at the table is making a difference, and 80 percent of the schools in her turnaround area met or exceeded expected student learning growth, she said.

Marlene Garcia Sauceda is the assistant director of Opportunity Culture in the Klein (Texas) Independent School District, where multi-classroom leader (MCL) teams may include paid, yearlong teacher residents.

Now in its second implementation year, Klein focused first on its most economically disadvantaged campuses.

“Bringing in our high-quality teachers and setting that expectation of high rigor to those campuses really grew our collective efficacy—it has been amazing. The students are no longer ‘my’ students, they’re ‘our’ students—how are we as a campus, how are we as a grade level going to grow our students?” Garcia Sauceda said. “Now that they’ve seen this growth last year, oh my gosh, walking on to those campuses has been completely different. The culture on the campus is the teachers [saying] ‘we can, yes, we can, the students can.’”

At its nine campuses that began implementation last year, one went from a C to an A grade and five from a C to high Bs , while two stayed at a C but still showed growth. Only one slipped slightly and is the focus school this year.

The school that slipped had MCL coverage only for sixth grade, while another middle school that stayed at a C but showed growth covered sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, she said. “That really came to show that strategic placement of your MCLs is huge. To make a bigger impact, you want a broader scope. You want more content areas.”

Klein had Opportunity Culture assessments that MCL teams had to use, but grades or subject areas without MCLs could still take them, and their backward-planning from those assessments led to even broader growth, she said.

Robin May, the assistant superintendent of instructional services for Wilson County (North Carolina) Schools, said Opportunity Culture implementation had an enormous effect on school culture and student achievement in its first year.

“Every school in our district that implemented advanced teaching roles last year either met or exceeded growth on the academic testing results. That was a tremendous testament to the work that our folks that are in Opportunity Culture roles have done,” she said.

Because a design team creates a plan that responds to its school’s data and needs, school culture felt immediate, positive effects, May said. “Knowing that it was personalized for their school, and staff members had a part in the planning process, helped to develop that buy-in early on.”

And MCLs and master team reach teachers having “skin in the game,” she said, also shifted school culture. “We’ve seen it really tremendously impact our instructional planning, our data analysis, and specifically using that data to decide what the next steps are for students.”

The district deliberately began with its most at-risk schools last year; this year, all Title I schools are implementing Opportunity Culture designs.

“We were trying to recruit our very best folks to go into those hardest-to-reach areas of our district, and we really saw that pay off,” May said. “Some of our schools just made extreme growth that we haven’t seen since North Carolina implemented the accountability model.”

Christie Toland, assistant superintendent of Gentry (Arkansas) Public Schools, has seen Opportunity Culture roles help with teacher retention despite the challenges of beginning implementation when the pandemic struck.

“We are located in Northwest Arkansas, near the four biggest districts in our state,” Toland said. “And so, our initial strategy coming into Opportunity Culture, before the world shut down, was just to keep what we had because we were considered a training ground for the big four—as soon as anyone showed any type of promise, they would snatch them up. We wanted that to stop, and this Opportunity Culture was the perfect way in our eyes to make our salaries more comparable and to train up and keep the teacher-leaders that we had in the district and give them a way to move up without going into administration. So now we have a teacher leadership career ladder, and that has given us recruitment leverage for new, young, go-getters coming into the district, but also we have been able to keep our teacher-leaders in the district—we haven’t lost a single one, and this is our third year, that we wanted to keep.”

How do these districts track their Opportunity Culture teams’ progress to make immediate adjustments when needed, with data to compare across schools?

Klein uses MAP as the main source of data, but also uses its own Opportunity Culture assessments to compare MCLs across campuses, pinpointing areas of concern, such as a struggling MCL team, and successful MCL strategies to share district-wide.

Gentry likewise relies on common formative assessments and MAP data, along with evidence from MCLs, providing valuable data for principals and the district.

“That’s one way that they get real-time information about student progress, and how things are going. The MCLs keep anecdotes, notes, their coaching sessions, and different things like that, and the principals play a key part in that district-wide,” Toland said.

District leaders often want to know how others created an accountability system for Opportunity Culture roles.

Revising their system was a focus last year in Winston-Salem/Forsyth, Barnes-Jones said, to create a clear framework for educators.

“We had to come up with not just which data points we would look at, what performance management form we would evaluate them on, but how we would balance both support and accountability. So we really had to come up with a clear metric system that [MCLs] understood.”

One barrier, she said, is the lagging data from the state—to fully evaluate an MCL’s impact for a year, for example, they must wait until the following fall to get state results.

Because of that lagging growth data, May said, the accountability department and Opportunity Culture leaders in Wilson County decided to use Lexile reading measures taken in the beginning, middle, and end of the year, as an early measure of MCL effectiveness. The advice and coaching that Public Impact provided in the first year to help strengthen implementation, based on “feedback rounds” of school staff interviews, also helped, she said.

“Those feedback rounds give us the opportunity to hear from stakeholders and synthesize that information early on to drive that continuous change and improvement in our processes and in the implementation cycle. That’s worth noting—the data that we get from those feedback rounds is very useful and actionable in the minute.”

In Gentry, MCLs must reapply for their role every two years—a key piece of district-wide accountability, Toland said.

That can be uncomfortable, especially in a small district, when an MCL does not quite meet the criteria to stay in the job.

“It would have been very easy to say, ‘well, you got close,’” Toland said. “But no, that’s not what we said we were going to do, and it’s important that you stick to that to keep the fidelity of your program.”

Getting staffing and schedules right often comes up as a challenge, to ensure enough planning and collaboration time. Reach associates (RAs) are a crucial part of the MCL team, especially with partial-release MCLs, the panelists agreed.

“That reach associate is critical in giving [MCLs] some of the time to go and push in, and to go coach and do observation-feedback cycles,” Barnes-Jones said.

As a smaller district surrounded by large ones, Klein found it needed to do more to attract RAs, especially by providing higher pay. Wilson County likewise raised stipends for RAs when it struggled to recruit.

Elementary teachers and partial-release MCLs in Klein are subject-specialized, with MCLs paired by grades as “switch partners” (such as a third-grade math MCL and English language arts MCL). That way, a math MCL can take both her own and the ELA MCL’s students in the morning, giving release time to the ELA MCL, then switch in the afternoon—crucial without enough reach associates or residents who could otherwise provide that time.

As Opportunity Culture implementation progresses, directors may find their roles shift significantly.

Klein expanded from nine to 17 Opportunity Culture campuses this year, and from 32 to 90 MCLs. That has shifted Garcia Sauceda’s focus to expanding the pool of potential educators, especially reach associates and teacher residents who can become teachers.

In Klein’s first year, “I held the MCLs accountable. I had a hub for them. I had all their documentation, and I kept track of who was doing their coaching cycles, and who was doing their debrief sessions, and all of that,” she said. Now she has given principals that responsibility.

Another positive change, she said, was in expanding the monthly meetings that bring all MCLs together from 90 minutes to three hours. “We use an hour and a half to two hours on me coaching them, and then we use the remainder of the time so that they can collaborate on the Opportunity Culture assessments together.”

Toland is working more now on building teachers’ capacity so Gentry can expand Opportunity Culture roles throughout the district, and on guiding the reapplication process for MCLs.

And communication remains critical to success, she said, even as what gets communicated shifts over time; the district focuses on communicating regularly about Opportunity Culture progress to its board and community.

Learn more:

About our panelists

Analysis: Mentors, Team Teaching, 7-Week Class Cycles 12 Months a Year — Some School Innovations in Staffing and Scheduling During COVID-19 (from The 74)

When Learning Went Home, Newly Named Multi-Classroom Leaders Jumped In (OpportunityCulture.org post about Gentry Public Schools)

Introduction to Opportunity Culture Models + Residency (webinar, featuring Marlene Garcia Sauceda)

Wilson County, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Districts Implement Opportunity Culture (press release)

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