Editor’s note: This is the second installment in an ongoing series focused on the Chehalis School District and the success of its Student Achievement Initiative, which was launched in 2013. Read the previous installment here.
When Duane Baker started working with the Chehalis School District in 2013, he found a district that was lacking in weaknesses and full of ambition.
“They seemed like a learning organization that wanted to see, ‘Where are we now and how can we get better?’” said Baker, the founder of the Baker Evaluation Research Consulting (BERC) Group, an educational consulting firm hired by the Chehalis Foundation to investigate ways to financially support the district in an efficient manner.
Baker was brought on as part of the district’s Student Achievement Initiative, an effort to improve student outcomes in higher education and employment.
“(My next impression was) I started to realize it wasn’t just a school district, but a partnership within the community,” Baker said, referring to the relationship between the school district and the Chehalis Foundation. “It is unusual. They (schools) don’t always have the community of people coming together and working.”
According to Baker, usually when a foundation comes to a school district, it wants to dictate activities rather than working with the district to help achieve the educators’ goals.
“In this case, there’s a pretty special relationship between the foundation and the district … It seemed pretty clear from the beginning the foundation wanted to come along as a partner,” Baker said.
The origins of Chehalis’ relationship with the BERC Group go back to 2012, when Orin Smith, a W.F. West High School graduate and former CEO of Starbucks, and other members of his family became involved in the initiative. The Chehalis Foundation originally reached out to the Smiths as part of an effort to raise funds for the district’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. According to J. Vander Stoep, a member of the Chehalis Foundation who has since been elected to the Chehalis School Board, the Smiths became interested in ways to support the district beyond STEM and wanted to know how money could be effectively spent to help all students.
“They were impressed but started asking about other students,” said Vander Stoep. “At the time Orin was on the University of Washington Board of Regents … (He) asked the dean what the best (educational) consulting firm in the country was.”
The dean told Smith about the BERC Group. After an application process involving two other consulting firms, the BERC Group was selected to work with the district in 2013.
Vander Stoep said the BERC Group came to the district “extremely experienced,” having already worked with more than 100 school districts around the country.
“I think they were kind of pleased to be brought into a district that wasn’t failing,” Vander Stoep said. “I’m positive they themselves had been through a lot of trial and error, so by the time they got here, they knew what they were doing.”
When Baker first arrived at the district, he found a district focused on its students.
“They had really good leadership and people who are visionaries who wanted student achievement to be at the forefront,” Baker said. “Really wanted as many as possible to go to college or jump into a career.”
The foundation and district originally wanted to examine scholarships as a means for improving student outcomes, Baker said. He told the district there was already plenty of money available for scholarships, pointing out more than half of students in Washington state already qualify for the College Bound scholarship. In his experience, Baker said student success in postsecondary education is based on educational support rather than finances.
Instead, Baker emphasized teaching methods as a way to improve student outcomes, referring to what he calls “powerful teaching and learning.”
Originally, Baker said the focus was on college readiness, but that soon expanded into preparing young learners for college and careers alike.
Baker said students needed to be college aware, eligible and prepared, whether that be emotionally, socially or academically, if the district was going to ensure they were ready for higher education and well-paying careers.
“Under that umbrella, we began working on powerful teaching and learning,” Baker said.
The method refers to teaching techniques that utilize modern research to maximize student learning.
“(The BERC Group) talks about powerful teaching and learning and in a nutshell that’s moving away from the old method of learning to a more engaged class, more back and forth with the teacher, more engaged with the class and solving problems,” Vander Stoep said.
The BERC Group determines what teaching methods should be included in powerful teaching and learning by examining what teaching habits are compatible with brain science.
According to Chehalis Middle School Principal Chris Simpson, all staff were trained in what modern brain science said about student learning.
“(Staff) learned about how the brain learns, what things fire neurons,” said Simpson. “(The BERC Group) emphasized the kinesthetic things and the hands-on activities. We learned how important it is for students to talk about what they are learning.”
Simpson says data created by the BERC Group has been valuable in figuring out which areas of teaching need to be worked on to ensure student success.
In examining brain research, the BERC Group identified four essential pieces to student engagement defined as: “ready to learn,” which refers to the classroom environment; “what to learn,” which refers to learning targets; “talk to learn,” where students talk to each other about class what they’re learning; and “model to learn,” referring to modal sensory learning.
“We defined the key habits that are either aligned with how the brain works or not how the brain works,” Baker said.
When the BERC Group examined Chehalis classrooms, they found a system that, while strong, was not utilizing scientifically-backed teaching strategies shown to be effective at helping students learn. Vander Stoep said the group found about 30% of classrooms already displaying the methods while about 70% using more traditional lecture models. The group studied each class in the district for this modeling.
Today, teachers can see the changes in students brought about by the new methods.
“Oh absolutely,” said Leslie Pagel, a first grade teacher at James Lintott Elementary school, when asked if students’ academic success had improved since the BERC Group’s methods were implemented. According to Pagel, teaching methods changed significantly after the district began consulting with the BERC Group.
“We do a lot of turn and talk, partner share, we encourage (the students) to ask and answer questions with each other as opposed to just student-to-teacher interaction. We promote student-to-student interactions,” Pagel said. “Before BERC, I think teachers utilized these strategies to some extent, after the BERC Group we became far more intentional. We wrote them into our lesson plans. We practiced with each other. ”
Pagel said what had once been a very teacher focused education has moved in a more student focused direction.
“There are times where I think of myself far more as a facilitator as opposed to a teacher in the room, and I’ve heard other staff say the same thing,” Pagel said.
The changes to teaching methods can even be found in classrooms that already stray from traditional lecture models, such as P.E., where teachers at elementary schools have begun incorporating activities to keep brains engaged.
“Even in P.E. in elementary school you were engaging in components of the activity and talking about them even if they weren’t actively engaging,” said Rachel Dorsey, principal at Orin Smith Elementary. “It reengages the brian into what you’re learning.”
According to Pagel, the way teachers have interacted with one another has changed as well, as teachers have become more comfortable discussing their teaching.
“In our building, the trust level went up,” Pagel said. “We would teach a lesson to a group of teachers, math, science, language arts. We’d talk about it, we’d share strategies, we’d ask for help.”
Similar feelings shared by teachers at other schools in the district.
“It was all about trying to get us teachers to challenge our thinking on how to reach kids today. Kind of moving from the old style of teaching to one that’s more kid-learning friendly,” said Rob Sande, a social studies teacher at W.F. West High School.
According to Sande, “turn and talk,” which Sande said was the beginning of the powerful teaching and learning changes brought by the BERC Group.
“We were told ‘A student should never leave your class without a turn and talk,’” said Sande, who believes the turn and talk method has been helpful in improving understanding classroom content, including for teachers.
“I think it’s more interesting for them to talk to their neighbors. They’re able to bring out insight that a teacher wouldn't necessarily see,” said Sande. “And kids like to talk.”
According to Sande, teachers have been open to the new ways of thinking brought by the BERC Group and the longer teachers use powerful teaching and learning methods, the more comfortable students become with the practices.
“It started in elementary school, so when they get up here (to the high school) they’re already used to it,” Sande said. “I think the more used to it, the better it’s going to be for them and better for learning together.”
District administrators have also noticed the impact the changes brought by the BERC Group have had.
“When we initially started, there was a saying, ‘looking and finding ways to encourage students to turn and talk to one another ...’ The improvements that we saw were fast and dramatic,” said Trisha Smith, who was principal of R.E. Bennett Elementary at the time of the BERC Group began working with the school district and who now serves as assistant superintendent. “They would come in (to R.E. Bennett) and measure our school. We were fairly average when we first started and then we improved.”
According to Trisha Smith, when the BERC Group came to the school district, they engaged in district wide data collection which it then used to provide feedback on teaching methods.
Trisha Smith remembers staff were initially skeptical of the recommendations made by the BERC Group but eventually opened up to the new teaching style out of a desire to do what was best for students.
Simpson recalled a similar skepticism among teachers at Chehalis Middle School, but said those concerns were allayed when the process was more clearly explained.
“Initially some teachers were concerned because it (feels like) an evaluation,” Simpson said. “But it's not for that purpose, it’s about feedback. It’s not an evaluation, it doesn't affect your job … it just gives us data.”
One way teachers learned to use the powerful teaching and learning techniques the BERC Group advocated for was through learning walks, where teachers would visit other classrooms within and outside the district and then share observations with each other.
Learning walks were a regular occurrence early on as the BERC Group began helping teachers improve their methods, with teachers continuing to use them today.
“We were required to do a learning walk once or twice each semester and new teachers probably did it at least three times a semester,” Sande said.
After learning walks, teachers would often gather and compare their observations. Teachers would often even practice their new skills on each other, holding practice classes where they would teach each other while testing their newly learned methods.
“As a principal it was amazing because you’d have teachers standing up (and helping their peers),” Trisha Smith said. “When teachers lead that work it’s about peers working with one another and it’s collaborative. You’re more willing to share with each other.”
According to Trisha Smith, one administrator who’s played a major role in learning walks has been Dorsey.
In Dorsey’s view, learning walks offer teachers a chance to learn from one another by seeing first hand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teaching students.
“We experience things on the learning walk so we learn that too and build each other’s expertise,” Dorsey said.
According to Dorsey, the new learning methods brought by the BERC Group have been effective at improving teaching quality, citing one experienced former teacher who called their training with the BERC Group “the best professional development I’ve ever had.”
Dorsey, who was a teacher at the Chehalis Middle School at the time the BERC Group first began working with the district, recalled what it was like when district administrators announced their partnership with Baker and his firm.
Building off of learning walks, Dorsey said each building in the district has its own instructional learning team. These teams use a “train the trainer” model, in which a group of teachers is trained to continue training their peers.
The use of instructional learning teams helps shine a light on what is perhaps the key to the successful implementation of the changes to teaching methods brought about by the BERC Group: the teachers.
If not for the willingness of teachers to adapt to new information and change their methods, the success of the Student Achievement Initiative in meeting the district’s goals on graduation rates and attainment in higher education would have been unlikely.
One school district official, W.F. West Principal Bob Walters, summed up the role played by the district’s teachers the best.
“The key ingredient for the SAI has been teachers willing to take risks and try new things,” said Walters. “(As well as) unprecedented community support and district support to do great things for students.”
Achieving Success is the title of a new, ongoing series of stories focused on the Chehalis School District and its Student Achievement Initiative. Look for more installments in upcoming editions of The Chronicle. The series will be compiled at chronline.com. Reporter Matthew Zylstra is a W.F. West High School graduate.