Maria Cruz was thrilled when the local school council at Moos Elementary chose her to replace the principal who retired last year. With 18 years under her belt at the West Town school—as a math teacher, then as a math and bilingual coordinator and, most recently, as assistant principal—Cruz knew the staff and the students well.
She also knew that something needed to be done to boost students’ academic performance, especially in reading, and to get the school off probation, where it had landed the previous year. The problem was that she wasn’t sure how to do it.
“Students needed something that would make them excited about coming to school,” Cruz says. “I’m a math person; I needed help with literacy.”
Hesitant at first to ask for help, she eventually turned to Area Instructional Officer Olga La Luz, who oversees 28 schools on the Northwest Side.
“I was afraid she would say, ‘You’re a principal. You’re supposed to know these things,'” says Cruz. “But instead, she said, ‘Okay Maria, I have a staff that will help you.’ I thought, ‘Thank God. I don’t have to walk on eggshells.'”
In all, last year, area instructional office staff clocked in more than 150 hours at the school, working with Cruz and her faculty to develop classroom lessons that are organized by themes and aligned to state academic standards. Curriculum coaches worked with teachers to create year-by-year plans that identify goals for students in every subject, in every grade. The coaches also guided teachers to develop better teaching habits on their own.
The relationship between Moos’ principal and faculty and Area 4 staff illustrates how central administrators can effectively support school leaders who are working to improve instruction. Spending time with the principal and teachers is critical, but equally if not more important for area office staff is to position themselves as partners seeking solutions rather than as overseers who dole out punishment.
“You have to empower people and trust them,” says La Luz. “And at the same time, people have to be honest and open to support.”
Asking for assistance, “is powerful,” she adds. “To know that you are not strong in a [subject] doesn’t make you a bad person.”
‘Not a one-shot thing’
Once Cruz got the ball rolling, the area office sent coaches in reading, math and science to Moos to introduce staff to key academic goals in the Illinois Learning Standards.
“They came to the school and they really worked,” says Assistant Principal Karime Asaf. “They even worked with our teachers over the summer. This has not been a one-shot thing—they follow up.”
Over the past 12 months, coaches and Moos teachers mapped out what students should be able to do and know by the end of each grade. Then teachers used these maps as guides for their lesson plans. In a group meeting, teachers assessed what students are supposed to know by the end of 8th grade and discussed how each teacher along the way contributes to those final academic goals.
“Teachers didn’t have a sense of essential things that needed to be taught,” says Area 4 reading coach Blanca Campillo. “The standards can be overwhelming. There are more than 800 standards.”
For example, one state standard requires that students know 300 sight words by the end of the 2nd grade. Primary teachers worked together and decided that children would be introduced to 40 words in kindergarten, then learn another 100 words and 35 word families (lug, mug, rug) in 1st grade, and by 2nd grade, enough new words would be taught to meet the goal.
“This is a multi-year process and teachers are not teaching in isolation,” says Campillo.
To capture students’ attention, lessons are based on themes that apply standards-based knowledge and concepts to the real world. Also, teachers teach specific subjects to children when it is believed they are cognitively ready to learn them.
For example, Kindergarten and 1st-graders are usually very curious about animals, their life cycles, and where they live, so science lessons are built around that.
In 3rd grade, children are ready to tackle physical sciences and concepts like force, motion and matter. So lessons have been based on real-life examples, such as exploring how it’s possible for airplanes to fly or how a dishwasher or construction crane actually works.
By 8th grade, students are studying outer space. At each level, students are immersed in projects, trips, novels and guest speakers who revolve around the theme.
Area office coaches also have taught Moos teachers to go beyond what is required by state standards and teach children to develop critical thinking skills, such as making comparisons and drawing inferences, through more complex lessons.
For example, instead of having students read a book about dinosaurs and testing them on the facts, teachers would have children apply and build on what they’ve learned by assigning a project, such as writing and producing a play about dinosaurs, Cruz says.
“It’s about not keeping it simple,” she says.
Academic coaching, phase two
Last year, under Cruz’s first watch as principal, the reading pass rate on the Illinois Standards Assessment Tests rose 15 points to 51 percent. (A new test format was debuted, however, and scores went up significantly districtwide.) Student attendance rose by one percentage point. Behavior improved, too, says Cruz, because students are more engaged in their assignments and they are participating in classroom projects.
Teacher Ellice Schneider Young notes a difference in her 6th-grade class since she began using social studies lessons that were organized around thematic units. This year, for instance, students were interested in the gubernatorial election because they had been studying government and political parties in ancient civilizations, says Young.
Working with Campillo and other Area 4 staff “has been empowering,” she says. “I can’t wait to get in my classroom and try what I’ve learned.”
Last year, area office staffers helped Moos staff create an academic plan. This year, teachers began with self-assessments to determine whether they reached those goals, then set new goals for the current school year.
“We are creating a living document,” says Campillo. “We are not there yet, but teachers know this is a multi-year improvement plan and when all is said and done, they will have grown professionally as a staff and will possess a coherent, comprehensive schoolwide instructional plan.”
Cruz is on the same page. “What we are doing is an ongoing process.”