Successful Schools: A Place Where Learners Are Teachers And Students

Dec 8, 2017

Teacher Wade Kinsey helps fourth graders learn about fractions at Woodland Park Elementary School in Sheridan.
Credit Tennessee Watson

Nicole Rapp is the principal at Crest Hill Elementary School in Casper. Last February, she took a road trip with some of her staff to Sheridan to see one of the state’s highest-performing districts in action.

“Our excitement when we got back in that car that day to drive back to Casper was just wow. It is different," Rapp said.   

She said that’s because Sheridan School District #2 uses the Professional Learning Community model—or PLC—where teachers and administrators work in collaborative teams to support student learning.

That might not sound innovative. Perhaps you’re wondering, "Don’t teachers always work together? Isn’t their job all about learning?"

But Rapp said, sadly, that doesn’t always happen.

“We had collaborative teams. We had sat down at the same tables and talked about stuff and teaching,” Rapp said. “But what we witnessed was depth and an ability to be humble.”  

She returned to Casper, committed to using PLC at her school. And with ongoing support from Sheridan District #2, her school is making the transition to this kind of empowered learning.

Lawmakers would like to see more schools go in this direction. Education consultants hired to advise the Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration have pointed out that Wyoming’s 56 most successful schools emphasize teacher collaboration and provide students with tailored interventions.

The day I visited the award-winning Woodland Park Elementary School in Sheridan, I ended up tagging along with a group of teachers visiting from Cody. Our first stop was the 4th grade, where everyone was working on fractions.

In one room students were at their desks, gazing up at a teacher writing on the board. Next door, they were clustered in a circle on the floor pondering math problems together. Across the hall, kids were writing fractions on scrap paper and hanging them on something that looked like a clothesline.

I paused by Wade Kinsey who was working with just three students at a small table in the hall. Mr. Kinsey isn't their primary teacher, but he was teaching their WIN group that day. WIN stands for What I Need.

When I asked the three young mathematicians why they were in this group, they told me it was based on a test they took. 

“We messed up on a few things,” they said.

And when I asked what it was they needed to understand better they all a piped up to tell me “fractions, number lines, decimals.”

They said that the Mr. Kinsey's WIN group made them confident that they would do better if they took the test again. 

And they will be tested again. But it’s not simply about getting a grade. It’s a tool PLC teachers use to gauge learning. They write assessments as a team so that every fourth-grader is evaluated on the exact same thing.

Based on the results, students are sorted into WIN groups for more focused learning. The kids who scored well went on to learn more advanced math, while Mr. Kinsey worked to get these three up to speed. He said he loves how PLC embraces different teaching and learning styles.

“There might be something that one of the other teachers has said or done slightly different that helps it click with the student,” Kinsey said.

And he added it’s likely he took a different approach, “so we try to have a chance in these small groups to be with students from other classes because it might be the little thing that helps it make sense.”

Immediately following the WIN groups, the teachers circle up in a classroom to debrief and plan next steps. Assistant Superintendent Scott Stults said these team meetings are built into the school schedule, which means no one works in isolation. And to keep the focus on student learning, the conversation starts with one main question.

“The first question is: What do we expect all kids to know and be able to do?” Stults proclaimed.

Once teachers get on the same page about what they want kids to learn, they ask how they'll know if students learned it, what to do for the kids who get it, and what to do for those who don’t?

I saw this in action again and again throughout my visit—with 4th grade and 5th grade teachers, and with math and language arts teachers. At Sheridan Jr. High, I sat in with three sixth-grade science teachers. Colter Huhn gave his co-teachers a rundown of the results of a recent test.  

“It looks like you’re really close, Sarah. And Pete you’re at 86 percent, so you met the goal. And I was very very low,” Huhn said.

He admits his students didn’t do so hot. It’s a model that requires humility on every level, and Huhn said it does make him feel vulnerable.

“Because you have to admit: Oh man I must have messed up something in my teaching,” Huhn said. “But I guess the reason I can do it easily is we just want to make sure the kids learn what they are supposed to learn. If I’m not doing it right by the standards we’ve come up with together, then I need to take tips from other people who are doing it a little better.”

His co-worker—whose kids scored higher—will work with the students Huhn didn’t reach with his lesson plan.  

“And then for next time, I can learn from him. Then next year, I can do it better,” Huhn explained.  “But for this year, he’ll take that load, and those kids will go to him to try to relearn it so that we make sure that all of our kids together learn what the need to learn.”

Huhn said PLC nurtures that desire to grow because teachers, right along with students, are asked to be honest about what they know and what they need to learn. And it seems to be working. This fall, Woodland Park Elementary and Sheridan Jr. High won Blue Ribbon Awards—the highest national honor a school can receive.