Saturday, March 4, 2017

Professional Learning Communities at Champlain and Burlington’s Strategic Plan

Every Wednesday afternoon, all six Burlington district elementary schools end an hour early to provide ninety minutes of faculty time devoted to Professional Learning Communities (PLC). Yet those who don’t work in schools may ask, What is a PLC, and why is time set aside for this every week?

Every district chooses one or more best practices that affect the school schedule. Where I previously served as principal, the incoming seventh graders began each school year a day earlier than the upper grades, so they’d have classrooms and halls all to themselves. Another school provided a monthly half-day for professional training. In addition, every Vermont school schedules in-service days at useful times during the school year, such as for a high school transition day or a district calibration day.

In Burlington we have committed to Professional Learning Communities. Researchers attribute PLC’s origins to Peter Senge’s two books, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990) and Schools That Learn (2000). The Annenberg Institute of Bloomington, IN, which provides opportunities for educational research and programs, trained teachers all over the country in Senge’s model. A PLC involves teachers meeting in small groups to reflect, analyze, discuss, and plan to improve student performance. Hundreds of “protocols” have been developed by organizations such as the New School Reform Faculty and the School Reform Initiative to provide processes for teachers to look at student work, lesson plans, and achievement on assessments. Unlike other trends that soon fizzle, PLCs have strengthened over time and spread to schools around the world. Two factors keep PLCs growing: one, evidence shows that teachers improve their teaching as a result of PLCs, and two, teachers themselves find PLCs an excellent use of their precious time. A positive faculty climate also emerges from PLCs, eliminating the barriers that keep teachers isolated due to scarce time and opportunity. Best of all, gone are the days of teacher training distant or disconnected from the realities of the classroom. The purpose of every PLC is to improve student learning.  

Superintendent Yaw Obeng visited BSD schools during January inservice days to provide an update and request feedback on Burlington’s Strategic Plan. Two of the plan’s “Big Rocks” involve PLCs: “Equitable Climate and Culture” and “Inclusive Teaching and Learning.” On the next page is a chart of the rocks and pebbles of each focus area. The BSD’s support of the PLC professional development model increases after-school meetings from once to twice a week. Typically districts require teachers to attend one faculty meeting for an hour. By reducing teaching time by one hour weekly, and contracted to remain an additional thirty minutes, every teacher now participates in a generous weekly PLC time to concentrate entirely on what matters most.

In addition, two BSD instructional coaches, Karyn Vogel and Colleen Cowell, presented student performance data to Champlain teachers at last week’s inservice. They provided a framework for grade-level teachers to intentionally select the same lesson plan and assessment for students to complete within a two-week period. Then in their PLCs, they will analyze students’ work in order to measure students’ understanding and skills, and to reflect on their instructional practices that led to the results. True to Peter Senge’s model, Champlain teachers will engage “in an ongoing cycle of questions that promote deep team learning. This process, in turn, leads to higher levels of student achievement” (Dufour, 2004).

Burlington School District. (2017). Strategic Plan.
Dufour, R. (2004). Schools as learning communities. Educational Leadership, 61 (8), 6-11.

Big Rocks

Sustainable Finance and Facilities

Equitable Climate
and Culture

Inclusive Teaching and Learning

Financial Management

Equity in Education

Prof. Development Innovation

Capital and Renewal Projects

Mental Health

English Learners
Burlington School District
Strategic Plan

School Climate (Students & Staff)

Instructional Technology  

Restorative Practices

Achievement Gap


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