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The 2012 GE Foundation Grant to Milwaukee Public Schools

Sharing our Journey

There's been something special going on in Milwaukee Public Schools! Since October, 2012, several schools have been identified as GE Foundation Demonstration Schools, through the GE Foundation Developing Futures in Education Grant. The GE Foundation Demonstration Schools were created to assist the district in identifying those practices that work best to bring quality instruction and greater achievement to the students they serve. Through the support of the grant and the opportunity to be innovative in the demonstrations schools, important ideas emerged these schools are eager to share.

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Lesson 1 - In our rapidly changing world, professional development is essential to help teaching and learning evolve.

Great teachers help create successful students. Research shows an inspiring and informed teacher is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement. Ongoing professional development keeps teachers up-to-date with new research on how children learn, emerging technology tools for the classroom, and leading edge curriculum resources.

With support from the GE Foundation Grant, close attention could be paid to the professional development provided to all staff members at the nineteen GE demonstration schools. Each site received an academic coach whose job was to advance classroom practices toward college and career readiness. Training for these coaches was provided by national education leaders at Student Achievement Partners and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. For teachers, each academic coach regularly modeled exemplar lessons, encouraged the use of quality questioning, provided teacher coaching, and embedded engagement strategies to promote student centered learning. For each school, the coach provided ongoing standards-aligned professional staff development. This evidence base approach ensured teachers at all sites were able to put the standards to work quickly and effectively.

Having an instructional coach assimilated into the staff, working daily alongside the teachers has been an influential factor. Staff regularly comment on the services provided by the coach as noted by Amy Mertins, a fifth grade teacher at Hampton School who said, "I have truly enjoyed being a part of the GE Foundation Grant. It's great to have the support of a coach. They help us move from learning new information to guiding us toward its implementation. I have learned new strategies for teaching math and reading that have made me a much better teacher."

Ms. Schultz from Whitman School agrees. "I greatly appreciate the amount of professional development offered to us as part of the GE Grant. The willingness and amount of help the coach provides is invaluable."

Ms. Kaur from Victory School adds, "The GE Grant provided the best professional development for the teachers. Having a coach was one of the most positive things that has happened at Victory School."

For many of our teachers, change is what led them to new beginnings. In addition to advancing the technical side of teaching, the coaches also developed teachers' growth mindsets. The ability to see potential in new practices required rethinking old habits, the permission to fail and try again, and embracing a productive struggle.

Teachers soon discovered making a mistake offers a wonderful opportunity from which amazing learning can occur for everyone. Ms. Johnson from Parkview School acknowledged, "The most important lesson I learned through my work with the GE Grant is about working together, as a team, being open minded, being willing to change and try new things."

Additionally, since 2012, Culturally Responsive Teacher Leaders (CRTLs) have provided focused professional development at all GE sites, including nine-week “residencies” at four schools in 2015-2016. The CRTLs worked to improve cultural competence among GE school staffs by espousing the Six Culturally Responsive Standards-Based Elements (Saifer, Edwards, Ellis, and Stuczynski, 2010):

1) Having student-centered classrooms where instruction is built on the students’ personal and cultural strengths

2) Building relationships with families and surrounding communities

3) Connecting and integrating subject matter to students’ lives

4) Fostering critical thinking and inquiry

5) Emphasizing the power to transform “mono-cultural” curricula

6) Assessing students through multiple authentic means, encouraging goal-setting and reflection along the way.

These principles and their execution helped to build rapport, relationships, and respect among staff, students, neighborhoods, and families.

For the academic coaches, every day was an opportunity to refine and strengthen their own practices. As innovators working toward district improvement, the coaches grew by drawing upon one another's experience and areas of expertise. They also reached out to join colleagues developing the same kind of standards aligned curriculum. Lead professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Math Department prepared several pre-algebra sessions for us. The coaches were involved in the Student Achievement Partner's Basal Alignment, Read Aloud and Vermont Writing Projects. One proud moment for coaches was hosting the Text Set Project at the Milwaukee Public Library where educators from other states joined us. The coaches traveled to conferences, attended workshops, and collaborated endlessly to grow together.

As a result of this consistent & unified instructional work, all nineteen staffs and coaches have evolved into one learning community. Together, they share a common vision for the classroom, possess a toolbox of best practices, and speak the same standards based language by which to collaborate.

Lesson 2 - Education is no longer an isolated endeavor.

Teaching is often characterized as an isolated job. Most teachers are the only adult in a classroom, and the planning and decision making for that classroom often rests on just that one adult. Opportunities to collaborate during the school day are difficult to arrange, yet with the changing landscape of education, teachers need time to collaborate more than ever. Through the GE Foundation Grant, teachers in the demonstration schools were offered substitute teacher coverage so they could be released from their classrooms for an hour or two to collaborate with their colleagues. They could work on planning together and analyzing student work while being supported by the academic coaches in their buildings. With the plethora of information and resources that are available both online and within the school buildings, teams could work together to evaluate resources and collaboratively create units of study, which in turn establishes equity and coherence across grade levels. Teachers found this to be a very valuable and worthwhile use of their time. Ashlee Whitty, a middle school special education teacher at Curtin Leadership Academy, told us,

“They support provided by the grant has allowed me to engage in regular and consistent collaborative planning sessions with my regular education counterparts. In so doing, we have planned units that allow students to make lasting connections across subject areas. I have seen my students grow in so many incredible ways as a result of this support from the GE Foundation Grant.”

Lakisha Willis, from Congress Year-Round School, had this to say, “The most important lesson that I have learned is that everything needs to be ‘on purpose.’ The extra planning time and professional development gave me the tools to thoroughly look at what I want my students to learn and strategies I can use to help them become proficient students.”

Since the beginning of the GE Foundation Developing Futures in Education Grant, our district has been working to create time for teachers to meet during their contracted day. Teachers now have opportunities to collaborate in Professional Learning Communities (PLC) in the time when students have gone home for the day.

School principals also feel the isolation of the education structure. Many times there is only one administrator in a building, which creates a need for networking outside of the school building. Through the grant, our principals were able to meet once a month to learn about the practices and strategies that their teachers are using in the classrooms. The principals could share ideas and ask questions about the changing instruction in their buildings. The were able to conduct walk-throughs of the various schools and provide feedback to the school. Sally Schumacher, principal of Whitman School, was able to invite a number of principals from the schools that were not part of the grant to her school for an information session. She enlisted the help of her academic coach and some of her teachers to share the ideas and practices that they have been using. This information session was very well received and requests to offer this opportunity to other principals is being considered.

Lesson 3 - Sometimes, you have to go slow to go fast.

When teachers began aligning their daily lessons to the standards, they quickly realized many students lacked adequate foundational skills in mathematics and reading. While it seems counter intuitive, we had to slow down to go fast. An investment in explicit instruction, vocabulary, and knowledge building became the bridge to helping students perform higher level tasks. This proved to be true several times.

At the root cause of students' reading difficulties was a lack of phonics skills. For the past two years, K4-Grade 2 teachers in the GE Foundation Schools have implemented the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program (CKLA) to give students a successful and secure start. Ms. Barbee from Hampton School explains "CKLA is one of the best Foundational Reading Programs I've ever taught in my 31 years of teaching!" It's sequence of highly scaffolded lessons give students the practice and repetition they need to be fluent readers. At present, all nineteen GE Foundation Schools have a majority of students scoring proficient or advanced on foundational skills assessments. As a result of this notable success, the district has requested implement of the CKLA program in twelve of its Central Region Schools.

In Grades 3-8, slowing down helped students achieve better reading comprehension. In the past, teachers were expected to adhere to a pacing guide. This often meant one story a week, even if it was a rich text. Now, rather than simply skimming the surface of a passage, teachers guide students through multiple readings looking for evidence to justify their answers. In GE Foundation Schools, it is common practice to see students annotating text, rereading to deepen their understanding of the content, and citing evidence to build arguments and debates.

Jane Neese from Hampton School adds, "I think the most important lesson to benefit students achievement is the GE focus in Close Reads. Rereading passages for deeper meaning and teaching students to go back into the text to cite their references is invaluable. "

To take the close reading process in Grade 5-8 a step further, teachers introduced students to Document Based Questions (DBQ Project) that delve into historical content. Here, students integrate knowledge from several documents (newspapers, quotes, legal documents, etc.), make a claim, supporting their arguments, and addressing counter-claims knowing this will be a high school requirement.

In mathematics, students and teachers alike were relying on linear thinking and set pathways to calculate problems. The student with a speedy response was rewarded, and there was only way to get the answer. Instead, students are now learning new and more efficient strategies of doing math. In GE Foundation Schools, one of those ways is through Number Talks. Ms. Mertens from Hampton Avenue School notes, "This strategy allows my students to share their thinking around a few scaffolded problems and apply several solution strategies to develop computational fluency and number relationships. I enjoy the time we spend learning about the importance of conceptual development in math." Using the Number Talks format, students discuss different ways of seeing the same problem. Both visual and symbolic representations of a problem are valued. For a second year in a row, GE Foundation students will participate in a full "back to school" week of Inspirational Math. This national program presents tasks to help students see math as broad, interesting, and a visual subject.

By securing student's foundational skills in all subjects, they've acquired more knowledge, a greater vocabulary, and strong strategies to do the complex work required by the standards. A great lesson learned through the generous support of the GE Foundation Developing Futures Grant has been to go fast, sometimes it's worth going slow!

Lesson 4 - Academic subjects must be integrated to achieve real world learning and application.

The days when the schools could focus solely on the “three R’s” of Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic are long past. Yes, those subjects and skills are still highly important and form the basis of all learning in school, however, learning today goes way beyond just those three subjects. In order to be well prepared for college and career, students must learn how to apply what they are learning to real world situations and understand how that learning is integrated in other subject areas.

In our GE Foundation Demonstration Schools, teachers are able to create units of study that integrate many areas of the curriculum. Through our work with David Liben, Senior Content Specialist of Literacy and English Language Arts at Student Achievement Partners, our coaches and teachers learned the importance of using multiple complex texts to help build knowledge and vocabulary thus developing rich content understanding in the Sciences and Social Studies. Students are encouraged to read, think, talk, write, and experiment with concepts to develop deep understanding and the ability to apply that knowledge to other concepts. This type of learning does not focus on what students learn, but rather on how students learn and how they apply the strategies for learning when faced with new concepts and ideas.

Students at many of the demonstration schools were also involved in the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) within their classrooms. Middle School students at Victory K-8 School designed prosthetic hands through a unit that required STEM concepts, as well as research and study of the history of prosthetics. Other projects at Victory included designing water filtration systems, designing amusement park rides, and testing kite designs to see which ones fly best. The early childhood classrooms at Cass St. School participated in STEM projects that were inspired by their favorite fairy tales. Some students designed and created prototypes of rafts that could carry the Billy Goats Gruff across the river, so they could avoid the Troll on the bridge. Other students designed systems to help the prince get up to Rapunzel’s tower without having to use her hair. Still others created houses that could withstand the gales from the huffing and puffing Big Bad Wolf. Curtin Leadership Academy has held an annual "Investigations Fair" for three years, in which classrooms research a topic and create a display and presentation of what they have learned. Many of those classrooms use multi-media presentations to highlight their learning.

Many of the teachers at the GE Foundation Demonstration Schools expressed how important this type of instruction and learning is for students. Michael Mane, a kindergarten teacher at Cass St. School, states that “the most important lesson I learned through the (GE Foundation Developing Futures in Education) Grant is to dive deep into each subject rather than covering many different topics in a shallow manner.” Mane’s young students developed strong skills to be able to read, speak and write about various topics because they were able to deeply learn the concepts and apply the knowledge.

Lesson #5 – Educators need support to access resources relevant to 21st Century students.

In the 21st Century, new skills will be required for new jobs. To hold these information-age positions, students will need to think deeply about issues, solve problems creatively, work in teams, communicate clearly in many media, and learn ever-changing technologies.

Kevin Ralston Commander of the USS Milwaukee, along with his team of naval engineers, explained to students at Victory School "technology is always changing, so it's all about the skills of problem solving."

To prepare students, coaches and teachers are investing time in The Hour of Code, a nationwide campaign embraced by President Obama and featuring free tutorials by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft titan Bill Gates designed to get U.S. students interested in computer science. Through its web site, The Hour of Code offers students interactive lessons that teach the basics of JavaScript Programming. This computer scripting program is just one way of building students' informational literacy.

As students progress through grade level standards, they're require to do increasing amounts of research. Students learn to manage the flow of information from a wide variety of sources. Yet, the Informational Literacy Standards explain, "The sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complementary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively." GE students are learning to access information via the web efficiently and evaluate it critically.

In GE Demonstration Schools cohorts of teachers have had the opportunity to experience “Technology Days”. These days provided groups of teachers with workshop time to build lessons that incorporates technologies available in the GE Demonstration Schools, like: engaging SMART Board usage, introduction to Chromebooks, Apps and Extensions with Google which included Google Classroom. Of technologies discussed on those cohort days, Google Classroom has proven to draw the most interest from teachers due to its ease of use, integration into available hardware, flexibility, and ways it provides and collects engaging electronic materials with students. Google Classroom helps teachers organize content delivered to students in a safe and interactive platform that allows for synchronous and asynchronous communication. This affords students the opportunity to work towards demonstration proficiency in and out of school time on projects, papers, and presentations anywhere there is an internet connection, on virtually any device.

Lesson #6 - Essential Skills prepare students for life beyond school.

Essential Skills, or soft skills, are the desirable qualities that apply across a variety of jobs and life situations. They include communication, courtesy, flexibility, empathy, and teamwork. To develop these employment skills, all GE Foundation classroom environments are arranged so students can have collaborative conversations. Accountable talk anchor charts on the wall promote respectful and courteous communication. Multi-step projects offer opportunities to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams. Here, students make necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal, while valuing individual contributions made by each team member.