February 2011 Issue
February 08, 2011

Using National Board programs to turn a school around

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United

More than 1,000 New York teachers call the National Board Certification process the best professional development they've ever had.

But can the program help one of Syracuse's neediest schools turn itself around and get off the state's list of persistently lowest achieving schools?

That's what the staff at Hughes Elementary School is hoping to prove this year as the district's turnaround plan calls for every single teacher to enroll in "Take One!" the entry-level component of the National Board Certified Teacher process for professional development and ongoing evaluation.

"I think it's a great way to create a teacher-led, collaborative environment," said Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern. "It's a turnaround plan that is focused on teachers, instructional practice and a self-reflective/supportive culture. In the long run, that's what's going to work."

The stakes are high. Last February, the State Education Department identified 57 persistently lowest-achieving schools in seven school districts around the state.

Hughes Elementary, where 90 percent of the students' families receive public assistance, was cited for poor performance on state assessments in English language arts and math. Fewer than one-quarter of the students met state standards.

The 57 schools were required to choose one of four intervention models prescribed by the federal Education Department. Hughes chose "transformation," which meant replacing the principal, improving the school through comprehensive curriculum reform, professional development and extending the school day and learning time.

The union and staff at Hughes were deeply involved in the design team's planning every step of the way and saw "Take One!" as a perfect professional development tool, said Kevin Mixon, field coordinator for fine arts and facilitator for the district program.

As part of the redesign, all 56 Hughes teachers are enrolled in "Take One!" The standards-based approach lets participants try out the national board process. Under "Take One!" teachers must prepare and submit one video portfolio; analyze their classroom practice; collaborate with peers; and delve into the fundamentals of national certification.

Mixon, one of two Syracuse teachers who are nationally certified, met recently with union leaders, Regent Roger Tilles and State Education Department Senior Deputy Commissioner John King about how national board fits in with state initiatives to improve teaching and learning.

"They're extremely supportive and watching very carefully what happens at Hughes," Mixon said.

Teachers at Syracuse's Fowler High School, another state-designated turnaround school, also are enrolling in "Take One!" but they have three years to do so under their building redesign plan,. So far, about 15 Fowler teachers, mostly social studies and science educators, have started the process.

The "Take One!" activities dove-tail perfectly with the instructional coaching, peer review and collaborative work also under way at Hughes, said Stephanie Pelcher, a peer assistance coach who helped secure funding for three dozen flip cameras for teachers to use for videotaping.

"It's really helped to frame a lot of good conversations about using data and what's going on with students," Pelcher said. "For the staff, there's a lot more ownership and buy-in because they're an integral part of the redesign team. We really hope it's a building block for many things to come."

Annette Romano, a statewide NBCT coordinator working with the Hughes staff, said participants are receiving ongoing candidate support, including technical, emotional, intellectual and logistical help.
The "Take One!" process generally takes about six months, with submissions due by April 15. Activities entail about 16 percent of the full National Board process, or about 30 to 40 percent of the total time involved, Romano said. Take One scores can be transferred into the full process and are eligible for graduate credits.

"The process is intense, but I've learned a ton so far," said second-grade teacher Kristin Mecum, who has decided to apply for full-national board status. "I've already changed so many things in my classroom to make it more interesting and motivate the kids. The process really inspires you to dig into your curriculum and figure out best practices."

Mixon noted there are many financial incentives to encourage teachers to apply. Through the Albert Shanker grants, the state offers funding that will cover the application cost. Syracuse is one of many districts in the state that provide annual stipends for those who achieve NBCT status. On top of that, for high-need districts like Syracuse, the state's Teachers of Tomorrow funds have been used to provide a $10,000 stipend each year for three years to teachers completing NBC.

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who serves on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said Hughes is one of a growing number of school districts nationally that are using the National Board Certification framework to support and improve teaching and learning.

"The national board model can be a powerful lever for change, " Neira said. "With staff buy-in and trust, we hope this will broaden the discussion of how best practices of the national board fit into successful school-wide reform efforts. It empowers educators to take the lead in transforming our schools."