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District revamps TLC program to meet its unique circumstances

Monday, January 25, 2021

STORM LAKE – When Superintendent Stacey Cole arrived at the Storm Lake School District three years ago, she wanted to know if the district’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) fit like a leather glove. She found that it was more like a stretched-out cotton mitten.

That’s not to discredit those involved in the creation of the district’s TLC program. Far from it. Just like all districts in the state, it was up to them to implement the program as they saw fit. But when there are no examples to replicate, well, you’re sort of on your own.

But with a few years’ experience with TLC under their belts, many districts are taking a second or even third look at their programs. Storm Lake is no different. Cole saw instructional coaches were working with some teachers, but not all. She also saw an approach that might work well in a predominately white, more affluent district. But Storm Lake is not like those districts. Consider:

  • The district’s student population is 86 percent non-Caucasian (only 14 percent are white).
  • Students are likely to live in poverty – a full 70 percent of them.
  • Among the non-white population, 53 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent Asian, 8 percent are Pacific Islanders, 6 percent Black, and 2 percent identify as more than one minority.
  • And 64 percent of the student population are English learners.

The district’s 2,400 students represent one of the most diverse districts in the state, and Cole said they had to meet that challenge head on.

Jessica Mathistad, an elementary coach, works with Maggie Freking, a third-grade teacher.

Jessica Mathistad, an elementary coach, works with Maggie Freking, a third-grade teacher.

“We’re working on refining the program based on our district’s needs,” she said. “It’s tailor-made to the Storm Lake student population. Other communities may not need our program. We’re just working to meet the needs of everyone.”

So the district started with reassessing its TLC-funded positions. Instructional coaches became academic leads, divided into one of two categories: academics or behavior. These positions are fully funded through TLC. The district also created model teachers, who also are divided into two categories: equity and family engagement. These teachers remain in the classroom full time, but receive stipends for their extra work.

The model teachers, Cole said, are fulfilling unmet needs unique to Storm Lake.

“We needed model teachers in the form of equity,” she said. “They examine what we call the wallpaper effect: looking for the hidden data. There may be wallpaper on the wall that makes everything look nice, but what’s behind that wallpaper? Could it be data that we’re missing? We may learn that we must examine data that has not been traditionally looked at.

“Who are the kids who are in our various areas? If certain demographics are being successful, why are they successful. Are they successful because they are naturally successful, or are we doing something effective with that demographic? And vice versa. With the wallpaper effect, this is new work. An equity model teacher has to be a catalyst for change.”

Family engagement ties into equity: Without support and understanding from the families, educators might be going against the flow of the multitude of families whose native countries had different norms and expectations.

“I use the school lunch as an example of this,” Cole said. “The school lunch mostly looks like what I would have for lunch at home. But for so many kids, that’s not what lunches look like in their homes. To understand that is just a starting point in working with the families.

“We expect families have some working knowledge about how our school system works. Sometimes they didn’t have good relationships with schools. They might not have attended high school. That doesn’t mean the families don’t value high school, it’s just that is what they did in their original country. But here in Iowa, it’s an expectation.”

The model teachers meet one-on-one with the families to get a sense of what the student wants to do after high school, whether it’s learning a trade or going off to college. In so doing, the model teachers are more adept at helping families make the right decisions along the way, such as determining what kinds of coursework the students should take in high school.

The district is also working with families to understand where their children are academically in achieving grade-level standards. They show the parents where their child is in comparison to the average. If a child is behind, model teachers will suggest how the family can help at home.

“Whether the parents are foreign born or not, there’s a big disconnect as to what parents believe in their child’s academic standing,” Cole said. “A study shows that when you ask parents if their students are proficient on standardized tests, 90 percent of parents would say yes.”

The district has adopted the Iowa Professional Development Model with everything it does, which asks three questions:

  1. Did we do what we said we were going to do?
  2. If yes, how well did we do it?
  3. Is anyone better off?

“Asking those questions are crucial in determining what kind of impact you may be having,” Cole said. “We need to use the model for evaluating our TLC system, too. What might work today could be overshadowed by something new in five years. You have to keep a focus on it to ensure needs are being met.”

Members of Storm Lake's first-grade team collaborate with the district's academic leads.

Members of Storm Lake's first-grade team collaborate with the district's academic leads.

Cole said there still needs to be a change in mindsets toward TLC.

“In education, we tend to believe, ‘If I need a coach, I’m not doing my job,’” she said. “But it’s the opposite in sports: We see coaching there helps athletes get better. We need to do that in school, too.

“We had a lot of people not engage in coaching. We have a lot of great people here. But how do we build that super-collaborative support so that everyone wants to be a part of it? How can we flip that narrative and get everyone engaged in coaching?

“We’re also going to be looking at it from a system’s lens: What are we doing that encourages collaboration? What do we do to discourage collaboration?

“I believe collaboration is the best thing we can do. You get that collective efficacy among staff.”

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on December 01, 2021 at 7:06am.