Guest post by Jack Baldermann

At Westmont High School (WHS)—a Title 1 school just outside Chicago, IL—our team has sustained tremendous growth and significant gains in student achievement. WHS continues to rank in the top 1 percent in Illinois and in the nation for its graduation rate. Over the past five years, 98.5 percent of our students have graduated on time, up from a 10-year average of 90 percent. For five years straight, 100 percent of Latino and African-American students at WHS have completed all graduation requirements on time. In addition, WHS can also claim one of the most improved and top performing AP programs in Illinois and in the nation.

What has caused our substantial growth and gains in student achievement? One of the reasons is that our staff has worked diligently to implement professional learning community (PLC) concepts to drive our improvement. Though many schools utilize PLCs, our teams do a few things differently that have achieved results. Here are a few of the distinguishing factors that separate teams that meet results from teams that exceed them:

Define a collaborative vision for the school.

The most crucial first step in gaining this success was to discuss our vision for our school openly and honestly. We agreed that we would focus on where we could make a difference, take action, and work as a cohesive team. We also made a commitment to not waste our time blaming others, making excuses, or giving attention to things that were beyond our control.

Over several months, during staff meetings, our staff collaboratively developed this vision: We maximize potential and success for every student, focus on what we can control, and develop young people who are compassionate, thoughtful, and make a positive difference in the worldThis vision guides all of our work throughout the school, and we utilize it constantly to reflect on our progress and improve our practices.

Let goals drive your daily work.

With a commitment to our vision, our faculty collaboratively built and passionately agreed to three S.M.A.R.T. goals that drive our work on a daily basis. Having goals gives us direction and a sense of accomplishment. It is important to keep the goals consistent and limited in order to keep us focused on priorities. For the past five years, our three schoolwide S.M.A.R.T. goals have been:

  1. 95 percent or higher of our students will graduate on time each year.
  2. Our AP program will be among the top 1 percent for improvement in Illinois and the nation with annual 10-percent increases in the number of students taking exams, passing exams, earning the AP Scholar distinction, and the number of exams passed by underrepresented students.
  3. Our student performance on state math and reading assessments will show continuous improvement with every student demonstrating grade-level, or more, growth, and an SAT-proficiency increase of 4 percent or more in ELA and 5 percent or more in math.

These goals help our teachers make decisions when designing curriculum and lessons, selecting instructional strategies, creating assessments, and more. Limiting our goals also allows us to monitor our progress more closely.

Use data: the fresher, the better.

Another important component of our PLC teams is what we call “fresh data.” Our teams must gather and collaboratively analyze data that is fresh—student performance information that is current and can be acted upon directly after the team meeting—to increase learning that is still occurring. Some examples of fresh data include exit slips, writing samples, or a project using a collaboratively built rubric. Fresh data allow for more productive meetings that don’t turn into conjecture and speculation.

When we first implemented the use of fresh data, it took some time for teams to adjust to this approach. What we did was to limit each meeting to a review of one learning target and one assessment at a time. This approach helped us to build small wins and kept the team from feeling overwhelmed. Now, we are so comfortable with collecting and reviewing fresh data that we can look at multiple targets and assessments in our meetings.

Celebrate success and learn from mistakes.

The last key PLC ingredient is having our team answer this question: How do we know this meeting improved student learning? Whether it’s the implementation of an instructional strategy or a new lesson, our team consistently follows through to see if these efforts made a difference. Following through lets us celebrate our success when we recognize student-learning increases, which motivates us to continue our hard work. If meetings or interventions fail to reach the desired results, we learn from the experience and use the information to try something new, just like we tell our students to do.

We are proud of our achievements at Westmost High School and our tenacious commitment to continuous improvement. Incorporating PLC concepts has helped our staff become a cohesive team that sees the best in one another and nobly works together to develop young students to maximize their potential. For more information about our approach and our school, please contact me at [email protected].

What other factors make for strong professional learning communities that achieve results?

Jack Baldermann is the principal of Westmont High School in Illinois. He was a finalist for the 2018 NASSP National Principal of the Year and he was the 2017 Illinois High School Principal of the Year.

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