Building an understanding of professional learning communities (PLCs) includes focusing on their purpose, expectations, and benefits. PLCs are not meetings nor a checklist, but instead do the necessary work to ensure learning takes place; they are formal conversations on designated days—but also informal discussions, emails, or even text messages about education, students, and teaching.

At Burns Middle School, each grade-level content area focuses on the four critical questions for PLCs developed by Rick DuFour. What do we want students to learn? How will we know if they have learned? What will we do if they don’t learn? What will we do if they already know it? Our discussions also focus on learning over teaching.

Our grade-level PLCs work in teams to unpack standards, monitor their own team’s progress through their pacing guides, create learning targets, discuss strategies, build common assessments, and review data.

Studying PLC Structure

Each PLC has a lead teacher. An agenda template includes links to essential documents, trainings, data sources, and research for PLCs to consider for implementation in their classrooms.

Administrators serve on grade-level content teams; however, the agenda and conversations are guided by the teacher-facilitator. Administrators are responsible for communicating any concerns to the multitiered systems of support (MTSS) leadership team for further conversations.

To have a successful start to our PLC journey, we took time to explain the “why” behind the need for collaboration to be built into our school culture and how schoolwide, strategically built teams meet this need. We spent time with staff discussing the PLC model, expectations, and outcomes from schools with high-functioning PLCs. We strategically built a system of teams across the school and continue to refine the teams and lines of communication between content-area teams and leadership teams.

Our MTSS leadership team comprises our MTSS coordinator, school psychologist, mental health clinician, social worker, counselor, exceptional children compliance manager, and administrators. The group meets weekly to discuss schoolwide issues related to core and tiered academics, behavior, and social-emotional work and systems. The team completes individual problem-solving for students not responding to Tier 3 instruction. Monthly, we review a system starting with a broad view and narrow our focus to areas needing attention using a problem-solving guide. We review core and intervention data, behavior data, and risk data.

The MTSS leadership team also reviews schoolwide data sources that drive decision making, resource allocation, professional development opportunities, policy and procedural changes, and work with individual teachers and/or grade levels. We review results from the FAM-S (Facilitated Assessment of MTSS at the School Level), the North Carolina Beliefs Survey, the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey, and student climate surveys.

The intervention team consists of core teachers serving students in literacy or math intervention settings. We follow a progress-monitoring problem-solving guide as we discuss fidelity of interventions, students who can exit interventions, and also students who may need to be referred to the MTSS leadership team to be reviewed for an intensification of interventions. We review the progress-monitoring documentation spreadsheet for each student and fidelity of implementation as we discuss group progress, student attendance, motivation, engagement, and the overall intervention plan.

Our instructional leadership team is made up of lead teachers from each content area in addition to support staff and administrators. The group addresses schoolwide instruction-based issues. Initially, the team completed a six-month study of grading practices and rewrote our school’s grading parameters to ensure that our approach is grounded in research and evidence-based best practices. We found it vital to separate grading for behaviors from grading for mastery; therefore, the team created a soft skills report card that reflects our behavior expectations in addition to the traditional academic report card. This team also engaged in conversations about restructuring our school’s approach to behavior expectations and management.

The MTSS leadership team and instructional leadership team make recommendations for professional development based on teachers’ needs, as evidenced through work in grade-level content-area PLCs. Teachers complete a survey each spring and identify areas for professional development. For areas where we do not have expertise, we reach out to the county or contracted level for opportunities. We have three staff members trained in the Strategic Instruction Model through the University of Kansas, which we use across content areas. These three lead teachers can teach new strategies, provide refreshers and coaching opportunities for teachers, and instruct new teachers on the methods already used.

Across all teams, it is our mission to make student-centered, data-driven decisions, avoiding “I think” or “I feel” decisions. We review multiple data sources and often triangulate data to make the best decision for an individual child or group of students concerning core or tiered academic, behavioral, or social-emotional work. Over time, we have worked to build capacity to collect, analyze, and problem-solve with singular and multiple data points.

The installation of PLCs used to discuss student progress from all angles has propelled our school to new heights. We have exceeded state growth standards the last two years, our school performance grade has increased to a B, and our numeric grade has increased by nearly 15 points. Our school has been designated as a Model PLC School by Solution Tree—the only school designated as such in North or South Carolina, one of approximately 300 in the country, and one of only approximately 60 middle schools.

Maintaining a Collaborative Culture Through COVID

Our schools closed in March 2020, and learning communities began to play an even more pivotal role for our teachers, as we had to pivot quickly from face-to-face instruction to remote learning.

Our school is located in a rural area, and grade-level content-area PLCs quickly devised a plan to teach students remotely with and without internet connectivity. Teachers reviewed their pacing and looked at the yet-to-be-taught standards and determined what students would need to be successful the subsequent year and how they could collectively address the standards. Together, teaching teams developed online activities for students with web access and paper/pencil assignments for students lacking connectivity. The teams provided feedback to students based on their submissions for the remainder of the year.

Prior to the start of school in the fall of 2020, content-area PLCs worked to determine which standards were adequately addressed the previous year and which standards needed further investigation. We created a document that shared the vertical grade level for planning purposes. Teams worked over the summer to modify their pacing based on our state’s and district’s return to school plan. Additionally, teams created a plan for students who chose to be fully virtual learners. PLCs were tasked with determining the power standards—the standards that are vital for students to know in their current grade level and standards that are essential for future success in the same content area. Also, embedding necessary content and academic vocabulary into their lessons.

Our students are in two cohorts, with each cohort attending two days per week and Wednesday as a fully remote day. For multiple reasons, teachers are responsible for both their in-person and remote students. Given this, we chose to hold formal PLC discussions on Wednesdays and created a schedule allowing for PLCs and virtual lessons. For PLCs with teachers who choose to work remotely on Wednesday, each grade-level content area has a standing video conference link through which their PLCs can meet.

Our MTSS leadership team is also playing a different yet vital role through COVID-19. We have successfully scheduled and implemented targeted screenings for math, literacy, and behavior/social-emotional learning and created intervention groups for each area. Students are being served using an evidence-based program, and we’re monitoring progress. In lieu of interventionists analyzing data, our MTSS leadership team will analyze data and determine progress in interventions, including tier changes or moving students back to core support. Additionally, we have collected data points from multiple sources and created tiered behavior and social-emotional groups for students.

Even through COVID-19, we are still able to serve the whole child—we can help students fill skill gaps through intervention, build an understanding of standards in core content areas, and make progress with students’ behavior and social-emotional well-being all due to the integration and sustainability of professional learning communities. 

Chris Bennett, EdD, is the principal of Burns Middle School in Lawndale, NC.