How One Innovative District Created a Culture Shift for Positive Change

Shaped: Can you describe how last year’s Model School Conference inspired you and how big a part it played in your current efforts to build a culture that supports change and growth in the Cherokee County School District?

Cherokee County SD: During the 2016–17 school year, our district began work with Dr. Lissa Pijanowski, Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education, on the processes of Rigorous Curriculum Design and Data Teams for Learning. As we went through these processes, I wanted to know more about how to lead these initiatives, which required a culture shift. The opportunity to attend the Model Schools Conference was just what I needed to get the bigger picture of what we were trying to achieve in our district.

The conference was inspiring and the various speakers and breakout sessions were informative. However, the conference was also transformational as it provided me with greater insight in to the “why,” and not just the “what,” surrounding the changes we needed to make in our district. I realized that we had to be more forward thinking about our curriculum choices and teaching practices to meet the needs of our students. 

Shaped: What was the process you followed for creating that culture shift?

CCSD: Our initial step to shifting the culture within our district was to develop an instructional framework, which clearly defines the district’s expectation for quality teaching across all grade levels and subject areas. Having first developed the framework allowed for the building of other curriculum needs and processes—Rigorous Curriculum Designed Units of Study, the instructional resource adoption process, digital learning implementation, and more. Complementing the instructional framework, we also instituted a clear professional development plan that includes Data Teams for Learning embedded in Professional Learning Communities and training on standards-based instruction.

One of the most important decisions in our cultural transition was to involve all stakeholders. The instructional framework went through extensive review and feedback session with administrators, teachers, students, and parents. Likewise, curriculum development and resource selection were led by classroom teachers and the Data Teams training was delivered by trained teacher leaders. Our goal with implementing our initiatives and shifting the culture was to get all stakeholders involved, which would result in more buy in.

Shaped: How has the development of data teams and Professional Learning Communities contributed to this process?

CCSD: We have made data teams and Professional Learning Communities synonymous with one another. We determined early in the data teams implementation that it would serve as the work of the PLCs.

In building the data teams/PLCs, we wanted to build expertise in the process in each building. To achieve this goal, we used the train-the-trainer model, training one teacher leader in each building to redeliver the training and to provide assistance and guidance in the data team process. We also wanted all school-level leaders to understand the process, so we trained them on the “look fors” and “listen fors” of the data team process. Lastly, we wanted our entire district to have a common language regarding the data team process. In an effort to make this happen, we have conducted ongoing trainings with non-classroom teachers and other support staff in the Data Teams for Learning process.

Shaped: Can you share details of how you are rolling out a systemic curriculum resource built on rigor and relevance?

CCSD: Since the units and resources were built by teachers, we thought it was important for the teachers who developed the units and resources to serve as the initial trainers.

The first group to be trained by the teacher-developers included the school-based principals and the Instructional Lead Strategist, who are teacher leaders assigned to each building to provide instructional coaching and training to teachers. By training this group first, we were able to create training teams within each building to help launch the units with all teachers.

Also, to build consistency with the training and messaging shared at each school, a blended training video package was created. The video explained each component of the units from a district perspective with intermittent breaks in the video for the face-to-face training team to lead teachers through each component and to answer questions. Each school-based training was self-directed by each training team, allowing them to meet the learning needs of the educators within each building.

Subsequent training and support have been provided through the Instructional Lead Strategist. Moreover, feedback is regularly provided to the district by the school-based staff, and this feedback loop assists district administrators in determining next steps related to training and implementation of the units of study.

Shaped: How have faculty throughout the district responded to these efforts?

CCSD: The initial response was positivity and excitement. However, during the implementation of the first unit of study, we received feedback from teachers and school-based administrators that they were struggling with the implementation due to the major shift in how they had been previously providing instruction. Some of this discomfort was related to a change in practice required of the teachers, but more significantly, much of the uneasiness with the implementation resulted from the culture shift that was also required of the teachers. The Division of Curriculum and Instruction had to respond to the levels of anxiety being experienced in the schools by providing more intense professional development for senior-level staff, principals, and teachers.

Shaped: You have noted the successes resulting from your district’s focus on Special Education and English learner populations. Can you share some highlights?

CCSD: We are working closely with both our Special Education and English language learner populations. In fact, our most positive results have been the increased graduation rate of our students with disabilities. A key strategy that has contributed to the significant gains for this population’s student achievement is the Cherokee CHOICE Program, which focuses on building mentor relationships with struggling students who need to make up credit for graduation requirements. The designated teacher assists the student in developing a plan of action, provides one-on-one tutoring, and holds regular meetings to address other life stressors that may be preventing that student from meeting his/her goals. The CHOICE Program has had a remarkable success rate and has created an environment in which students graduate on time with their peers.

Shaped: Are there specific success stories that you’d like to spotlight in your journey to creating change and growth?

CCSD: We have seen great results produced through the performance tasks built into the Rigorous Curriculum Designed ELA Units of Study. The products have been impressive, but more important, the process has truly been impactful on student learning. Teachers, principals, and parents are celebrating when they see students engaged in meaningful learning that is at a deeper level of understanding than previously experienced in their classrooms.

Join the team from Cherokee County, a 2018 Innovative District, along with ICLE thought leaders at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24–27 in Orlando. Each year, over 5,000 participants are inspired by innovative strategies for strengthening their teaching and leadership practices and take away an action plan for positive change.