Long Beach Unified School District has charged all of its schools with a ‘moral imperative’ – to close achievement gaps between their students by at least half every year.
But a district mandate alone is not enough to change the reality for students. Realizing such a lofty vision requires strong collaboration among educators working closely with students. The principal and teachers at Signal Hill Elementary School are taking this charge head on, guided by the ethic of collective efficacy: a strong belief that by working together they can help students achieve their full potential, regardless of socioeconomic barriers or other challenges.
Signal Hill Elementary serves over 80% low-income students. Six out of 10 low-income African American students are on grade level in English, compared to three out of 10 across Los Angeles County. Five out of 10 are on grade level in math, compared to two out of 10 across Los Angeles County. For their low-income Latino students, six out of 10 are on grade level in English, compared to four out of 10 across Los Angeles County; and five out of 10 are on grade level in math, compared to three out of 10 across Los Angeles County.
The school leaders and teachers at Signal Hill believe that collective efficacy has been the secret to their success in closing the achievement gap. Collective efficacy has become “the foundation of the school’s culture and climate,” says Principal Scott Tardibuono. This culture is not dependent on one person, but is embedded in day-to-day practices at every level of the school, which allowed their momentum to continue through the transition to a new principal this year.
Setting up a foundational culture of trust
To build collective efficacy, the school had to first foster a culture of trust and transparency. This work started six years ago under the leadership of former principal Tammy Lavelle, who stepped into the school as a brand new administrator with an ambitious vision for collaboration between teachers.
At first hesitant, each teacher agreed first to work with one colleague to observe each other’s classrooms and share feedback. Teachers quickly recognized the value of the feedback they were getting from one another, and began observing classrooms in larger groups, both within and across grade levels. After five years, this practice is now embedded into the way the school works.
“There’s nothing more powerful than when teachers get to see each other in action and learn from each other,” It adds to the culture of the school, it brings us together, it brings cohesion,” says Tardibuono. But as the technology Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) Ann Erskine explains, “It really requires a high level of trust in each other, and with your site leadership, to know that it’s not an evaluation and it’s not a judgment.”
Signal Hill principals have helped cultivate this trust through side-by-side leadership, sitting “knee-to-knee” with teachers on a quarterly basis to talk about what they need to help their students reach their goals. Viewing their leadership as being “in service to teachers” has been critical to building a culture of trust and support among the whole team.
Developing strong systems of collaboration
Teachers take pride in their professional development learning cycles as a key piece of building a strong team. The school brings in substitute teachers on early release days every semester, which give teachers an opportunity to collectively observe their colleagues in action.
On these days, teachers each take a turn teaching a lesson in their classroom, while the rest of their grade-level teachers observe. After the lesson, the group debriefs the lesson together, gives the teacher feedback, and discusses ways the lesson could be improved. By the time students are released for the afternoon, every teacher has practiced teaching a lesson in front of their colleagues.
On top of their professional learning cycles, Tardibuono meets quarterly with each teacher, along with the school counselor and two teachers on special assignment, to discuss solutions for students who are having challenges in meeting standards. Having this discussion with a group increases transparency in the process, and builds a shared sense of accountability for each student.
Using data together as a team to monitor progress
Because the school has built high levels of trust among their team, they have been able to use data as an empowering, not punitive, tool to monitor progress and close the achievement gap. This trust was critical when learning how to talk openly about the disparities they were seeing in their data for Black and Latino students.
While Lavelle identifies as Latina, she felt uncomfortable with the idea singling out any particular group of students in their data. “Something that was hard for me was the fear of being seen as racist when calling attention to the fact that our African American students were the lowest performing students in our school,” shared former Principal Lavelle. “I’ll never forget going to one of my teachers with this moral dilemma, and she said, ‘What are you afraid of? That’s the problem. Just say what it is. We need to talk about that data like we do everything else’”.
Learning to move beyond uncomfortable conversations to collective ownership of students’ progress was a critical step in working to serve African American students more effectively. “We’re here as educators to meet the needs of all of our students,” says Kendra Dacquisto, a second-grade literacy teacher who has been with the school for over twenty years. “We called it out – we needed to improve in [serving our African American students]. And so we buckled down and made action plans. It was something that didn’t happen overnight, we had to revisit it.”
The school shared this data with their teachers and parents to discuss how the school could improve. “Our parents appreciated it. They knew the gap was there,” remembers Ann Erskine. Asking for ideas and suggestions for how to improve was powerful because parents were engaged as co-educators allowing them to also feel ownership over students’ growth and progress.
Because the whole team is invested in data as a tool for improvement, teachers can use data proactively to better serve students. Teachers sit down together to review last year’s data for their incoming students with teachers from the grade level below. This enables teachers to place students in strategic learning groups, based on recommendations from their former teachers.
Teachers have also empowered students to use data when establishing their own individual learning goals and building a growth mindset around their learning. “[That’s] the cool part out about it,” says Rio George, a 5th grade language teacher. “Our data is not hidden from the kids.”
Dacquisto describes collective efficacy as a culture of trust, community, and high expectations for teachers as well as students. “I know that every single person here at Signal Hill truly believes that every child is capable of learning and doing their best,” she says. “We are constantly supporting each other, and I believe that is why I have been at Signal Hill as long as I have.”
What Counts — Quick tips from the Signal Hill team:
- Start small to build a culture of collaboration. For example, Signal Hill teachers first chose a person they were already comfortable with to observe their classroom during a lesson of their choosing. As Tardibuono would say, you might also embrace the power of “yet”: “If there’s something you find difficult, don’t tell yourselves you can’t do it. Tell yourselves you can’t do it ”
- Build collaboration into your school schedule. The school uses the district’s early release days as professional development days, in order to conduct peer observations of the lesson plans they have developed together. Hiring substitute teachers on these days allows teachers to participate in a full professional development cycle.
- Get into each other’s classrooms. As Dacquisto says, “I know that’s scary at times, and we might just go into our classrooms and shut the door. But your classroom is a wealth of information. Collaboration between teachers is amazing.”
- Celebrate successes as a team. George believes that celebration is a big deal, because encouragement is the way that we grow. Her class, for example, loves to take a collective victory lap to the theme song of Rocky to celebrate when a classmate reaches an individual goal. “We all cheer and give high fives, because it’s an accomplishment that deserves individual praise.”
Special thanks to Scott Tardibuono, Kendra Dacquisto, Ann Erskine, Rio George, Tammy Lavelle, and the rest of the Signal Hill team for inviting us into your school.
Key Documents from Signal Hill Elementary and Long Beach Unified
Long Beach Unified Understandings Continuum 2018. Since the transition to the Common Core Standards, the LBUSD Understandings have been used to describe effective classroom practices and elements of pedagogy desired across all LBUSD classrooms. The Understandings Continuum is a tool that helps further define these Understandings.
Baker, J., and Bloom, G. (April 2017). Growing Support for Principals: Principal supervisors collaborate and problem solve in learning communities. IDEAS; The Learning Professional, Vol, 38, No. 2.
Micheaux, D., and Parvin, J. (April 2018). Principal Evaluation as a Tool for Growth: How to help principals lead and learn. IDEAS; The Learning Professional, Vol, 39, No. 2.