The Power of Partnerships

West Michigan leads innovative efforts to support teaching and learning

“The power of teacher leadership has become clear to me. Teacher leadership has allowed us to get traction”

Katie Jobson, Principal
Parkview Elementary – Wyoming Michigan

Just a few years ago, Katie Jobson was like most principals working in America’s high-poverty schools: Overloaded and under-resourced, trying to manage the needs of dozens of students, educators and initiatives with too few dollars and staff to do so.

Fast forward to today: Jobson is still feverishly busy, but she also has a new leadership team by her side to implement systemic school improvements like never before. And most important, her students are winning in the process.

Parkview Elementary in Wyoming Public Schools is now among the highest-improving, high-poverty public schools in Michigan for subjects such as third-grade reading and math — no small feat in a state declining compared to much of the country.

Set in a scrappy neighborhood where immigrants have flocked in recent years, about 52 percent of Parkview’s children are Latino; many are English as a Second Language students. Indeed, 87 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

So what’s changed? Wyoming is part of a multi-sector, multi-organization movement in west Michigan to build principals’ and teachers’ capacity and effectiveness to dramatically bolster student achievement. Teacher-leadership is one key part of this overall talent strategy. “The power of teacher-leadership has become clear to me,” says Jobson. “Teacher-leadership has allowed us to get traction.”

Parkview Elementary is one of a network of schools that are part of an effort to pilot and test new innovative talent strategies
in west Michigan’s high-poverty schools. Seven schools located in three districts — Grand Rapids Public Schools, Wyoming Public Schools and Kelloggsville Public Schools — are part of the multiyear effort.

In partnership with the Steelcase Foundation, The Education Trust-Midwest opened the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in west Michigan to bring the highest-leverage research-based strategies from leading education states to support Michigan’s high-poverty schools.

The goal: to pilot such practices in Michigan to learn whether these strategies can help lift student outcomes as they have elsewhere around the country. Tennessee’s statewide teaching-effectiveness and principal-leadership efforts serve as the primary model for the CETL work being done in partnership with district and school leaders.

And while the schools involved have a long journey to go before being considered high-performing, the effort is showing clear gains. Consider:

  • In 2016-2017, Wyoming Intermediate was ranked in the top 20th percentile for fifth-grade low-income student performance in English language arts among high-poverty schools.
  • At Stocking Elementary in Grand Rapids Public Schools, 95 percent of students are low-income and 39 percent Latino. Yet poverty is not destiny. Stocking, a STEM-focused school, is making major gains in improvement in third-, fourth- and fifth-grade math and science. For example, Stocking’s Latino students are performing above statewide proficiency levels for fifth-grade math compared to not only Latino students statewide, but all students — regardless of race — statewide.
  • Also in Grand Rapids Public Schools, Sibley Elementary ranks among the highest-improving elementary schools statewide in third-grade math and reading. In 2016-17, reading proficiency rates at Sibley Elementary for low-income third graders outpaced Kent Intermediate School District, other Grand Rapids Public Schools and statewide proficiency levels for low-income students.

“GRPS is continuing to gain state and national attention for our Transformation Plan success in large part due to dynamic partnerships, like that with Steelcase Foundation and Ed Trust-Midwest, that provide a laser-like focus on
teacher-school leadership development.”

Teresa Weatherall Neal, Superintendent
Grand Rapids Public Schools – Grand Rapids, Michigan

To be sure, the teachers, principals and district leaders in Grand Rapids and Wyoming are the real leaders in the efforts demonstrating major gains in learning in the CETL network of schools. Among them, Grand Rapids Public Schools is doing deep work to support teachers and principals across the district.

“GRPS is continuing to gain state and national attention for our Transformation Plan success in large part due to dynamic partnerships, like that with Steelcase Foundation and Ed Trust-Midwest, that provide a laser-like focus on teacher-school leadership development, “ according to GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, M.Ed.

The work is also a testimony to the power of partnerships. In three of the CETL network schools, for example, the CETL team works closely with Kent School Services Network (KSSN) which provides wrap-around services and support to families and students. That partnership has been incredibly complementary. For example, at Parkview KSSN works intensively to raise student attendance, which provides more time for educators to focus on improving instruction

“Strong schools have shared leadership. The only way to accomplish that is to have leadership within.”

Chad Tolson, Director
Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

“Working alongside teachers, principals and other partners in a strategic and supportive way is a big focus of what we do, and how we do it,” says Chad Tolson, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

For Jobson, the work has led to a fundamental change. In Parkview — like many schools — the old school improvement model called for the principal to carry most or all of the responsibility of continuous improvement efforts. But that outdated model often leaves principals overwhelmed and unable to support all of their teachers, much less implement multiple initiatives in a coherent, comprehensive way.

In CETL network schools, principals and teacher-leaders work with the CETL team to build school-wide systems and a distributed leadership model to effectively — and sustainably — support continuous improvement efforts.

Teacher-leaders become the coaches of other teachers — and key leaders for improving instruction. When done right, the work provides schools greater capacity and the coherent systems needed to implement initiatives such as third-grade reading or new college-and career-ready standards in all classrooms.

Indeed, at Parkview, the CETL work has built a foundation on which to implement all improvement efforts. For example, a Kent Intermediate School District early literacy coach is being woven into the new systems being developed with CETL by Jobson and her new teacher-leadership team.

“I had to shift my vision,” Jobson said. “I thought my teachers had enough on their plates, and couldn’t take on leadership roles. But I’ve learned they want to be involved; they want to be part of the leadership team.”

Tolson’s own experience has cemented his belief in the need for investing in educator talent. He worked as a middle-school teacher before moving into administration, where he served as a principal at both the elementary and secondary levels in Godwin Heights Public Schools.

“Strong schools have shared leadership,” says Tolson. “The only way to accomplish that is to have leadership within, and that
includes your teachers.”

“I realize I have something more to give not just to other teachers, but also my kids.”

Paul Debri, Teacher
Parkview Elementary – Wyoming, Michigan

“The first thing we do is get to know the context: each school is different, each class is different, each teacher is different,” says Cheryl Corpus, CETL’s associate director. “The second step is to work to create a collaborative cohort of teachers in each building committed to making their schools better.”

“The biggest piece I’ve noticed is these teachers’ commitment to high achievement for their students, and to advancing their profession. The best teachers really believe in the power of high expectations.”

For Wyoming Parkview’s fifth-grade veteran teacher Paul Debri, the impact is clear. “They’re helping me understand my skills, my talents and my potential to help make me better teacher,” says Debri, a 20-year teaching veteran. “I realize I have something more to give not just to other teachers, but also my kids.”