Making Time: Leadership Creativity - Steve Barkley

Making Time: Leadership Creativity

The current budget cuts in most districts around the country will pressure leaders to use their creativity and risk taking to maintain and implement professional development best practice. Kathy Fuchs, the superintendent for Jefferson Township, NJ, recently informed me of her district’s approach to this challenge. I’ve invited her to be a guest contributor this week.

Welcome Kathy!

Jefferson Township is a suburban K-12 district of approximately 3600 students, located in the northern portion of Morris County, New Jersey. I have been superintendent for four years.

Since January of 2009, I have served as a member of the New Jersey Department of Education Professional Teaching Standards Board (PTSB). When I was approached by the Executive Director of NJASA and asked if I would be interested in representing the organization on the PTSB, I immediately said yes. My passion has always been curriculum and professional development. My involvement in the PTSB continues to be a very rewarding experience.

Prior to becoming a member of the PTSB my district had begun efforts to implement professional learning communities. We were more or less at the mission/vision stage as a result of a strategic planning initiative, but needed to focus on student achievement and determine the path that would be taken in order to meet our goals. Professional learning communities made a lot of sense and gaining interest and support for the idea was made easier by the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the NJDOE, as well as all of the research provided by the National Staff Development Council (NSDC). (See Common PLC Language )

In the spring of 2009 our district applied to be part of a LAB school research project conducted by the NJDOE and EIRC. These organizations were looking for districts that would be willing to participate in action research. Our middle school staff was very interested in the project. A new schedule that would help to facilitate PLC work would be in place for fall of 2009 and the work of collaborative teams would be strengthened by the PLC model. The school applied and was selected. We were thrilled! PLC training has provided, use of the SAI (Standards Assessment Inventory) developed by NSDC provided the district (we opted to pay a fee so that all schools used the SAI—not just the middle school) with additional data for the development of the building level professional development plan.

At the same time our middle school was involved as a LAB school, other schools within the district were piloting PLCs. A PLC model was used for Administrative Council Meetings which provided a means to model and discuss ways to assist staff as we continued to move forward to put PLCs in place. We—teachers, administrators, and support staff—spend time defining student achievement, taking a close look at curriculum, looking at school culture, and identifying ways that we would provide support for students and staff when students did not reach the achievement levels we expected.

Then in March 2010 things changed…When the district was faced with a loss of almost $2.7 million dollars in state aide, when the proposed budget was defeated, and when the budget was reduced by an additional $340,000 by our town council, there were hard choices to make. Truly we have been in “dismantle” mode—and there have been no sacred cows. There is little need to describe our situation further; this has been the climate in NJ and in many other areas of the country. With the “aftermath” the challenge has been to look at ways to scale back and still try to make it work.

For example, the high school schedule—that was to be a rotating block with a unit lunch and time for PLCs, as well as intervention supports for students—has been delayed. How could we find time for PLCs to meet? The principal and his staff proposed a delayed opening that would allow seniors (who drive to school) to arrive 50 minutes later. Students (mostly underclassmen) who report to school at the regular time (we share buses with the middle school and could not afford a second bus run) will be part of supervised study hall or—if we can pull it off—an advisory period that will be overseen by half of the staff. The other half of the staff will use the time for PLC meetings. This structure will rotate. When we proposed the concept to the board of education, our idea was to begin the adjusted schedule in November and to schedule 16 “PLC delay” days throughout the school year. These will be announced in advance so that students and their parents will know when a “PLC delay” will take place. Additional time for PLC meetings will come from faculty meetings, department meetings, and in-service days.

It isn’t perfect, but it is a start and it is, in my mind, a commitment to continue PLC work even under trying circumstances. If you’re faced with similar hard choices I encourage you to seek alternatives rather than abandoning PLCs—the very tool that will increase student achievement in the long run.

Thanks Kathy…Its not perfect but it is a commitment…I think that’s an important message.

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