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The Importance of Professional Learning Communities

By Janice Miller, chairman
City of Fairfax School Board

In this month's issue of Close-Up Online, we focus on the development of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in the City Schools, and the impact that this program has on student achievement.

At the City School Board's January Work Session, Dr. Terri Breeden, FCPS Assistant Superintendent for Professional Learning and Accountability, explained: "A professional learning community is when people work together collaboratively to continuously improve student and adult learning. The fundamental purpose is to focus on learning rather than teaching".

I found that definition particularly interesting, because it summed up what we've known for years: PLCs help teachers do their jobs better.

A little bit about PLCs

For years, our four City School principals have embraced the concept of PLCs. This decades-old concept was popularized by education experts Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker in their 1998 book, "Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement".

Their theory was that the most promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement is developing the ability of school personnel to function as a community where teachers work together to coach each other and share best practice strategies so that each child in their class, grade level, and in the school, succeeds.

The School Board believes that the tremendous academic gains our students have made in recent years are a reflection of the strength of PLCs in our schools. As Dr. Breeden explained at the Work Session, the time teachers spend in scheduled meetings, staff development sessions, and having ongoing conversations about student learning all serve to provide continuous professional growth for teachers. In turn, this process helps them do a better job of educating our students.

Learning is a lifelong pursuit

Indeed, our School Board is a learning community as well. Through our monthly Work Sessions, such as the one led by Dr. Breeden in January, we seek opportunities to increase our knowledge and skills as educational leaders.

We hope that Fairfax City community members will take the opportunity to join us for an upcoming Work Session. We'll look forward to seeing you there.

February 22: The New Model for School Counseling
Presentation by Peter Noonan, Assistant Superintendent and Marcy Miller, Education Specialist, Fairfax County Public Schools

March 15: School Climate and Student Behavior
Presentation by Cluster VI Superintendent Linda Burke

April 19: Student Panel
A group of students from Lanier Middle School and Fairfax High School will talk about their experiences as students in the City Schools.

May 17: End-Of-Year Reports
City School Board Representatives will update the School Board about their work as members of the FCPS advisory committee from 2009-2010

"None of us is as smart as all of us"

By Ann Monday, Superintendent
City of Fairfax Schools

The comic character Pogo wisely said, "None of us is as smart as all of us". In fact, this universal truth is the basis for Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).

In the last decade, schools across the country have embraced this philosophy and transformed teaching from a profession where teachers worked in isolation, focusing only on their own students, to one that stresses collaboration and shared responsibility for all students.

In my prior position as the Fairfax County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, I had the opportunity to see this concept grow from an interesting idea to a critical factor in positive school cultures and continuous improvement. In recent years, it has become apparent that teacher leadership and collaboration that is focused on student learning is fundamental to school success.

A Leader's Companion

In fact, in 2007 Robert DuFour and Robert Eaker published a companion book to "Professional Learning Communities at Work". Entitled, "A Leader's Companion", it was also co-written by Rebecca DuFour, and features 125 inspirational quotes about the power and importance of PLCs. The following is one of my favorites.

"The true mission of a school is revealed by what people do, not by what they say. Therefore, educators committed to bringing their mission statements to life in their school are relentless in examining every practice, procedure, and decision and in asking, ‘Is this consistent with our mission of high levels of learning for all students?'" – From "A Leader's Companion", by Eaker, DuFour and DuFour

As you scroll down through this issue, you'll find other excerpts from this thought-provoking book.

Also, in this issue of Close-Up Online we offer examples of PLCs in action. We hope you'll see how your children's teachers are working together in new and exciting ways to promote academic success.

Budget Update

I want to update you on the current status of the Fairfax County School Budget, which was adopted by the County School Board on February 4. The County Board passed a $2.3 billion FY2011 budget that requires an increase of transfer of $81.9 million from the County Board of Supervisors. It now needs to be funded by the Supervisors, and you are invited to attend those meetings (see information at right under Dates to Remember).

Note, too, that in the January issue of Close-Up Online, we wrote about the cuts that would need to be made if this funding is not provided. I urge you to advocate so that these cuts are not necessary.

The reason is simple. The ultimate result of budget cuts is that teachers will be expected to do more without the resources they need. One of the most important resources is time – time to work with colleagues in PLCs, time to support individual students, time to attend quality training programs.

With increases in class sizes, fewer support staff, and meager funding for teacher training, it will be difficult to maintain the progress we have made.


We invite you to join us for upcoming School Board Meetings:

FEBRUARY 22, 7:30 p.m.
Work Session #5

Location: Fairfax High School
3501 Rebel Run, Fairfax, VA

  • FCPS Instructional Updates: Peter Noonan and Kim Dockery
  • The New Model for School Counseling: Peter Noonan
  • Review FY2011 City Council Budget Presentation: Ann Monday
  • Budget Review/City Council Information: Chairman Janice Miller

MARCH 1, 7:30 p.m.
Regular Meeting #8

Announcement of Change in the Agenda
Presentation of VSBA Certificates of Appreciation to School Board Members

Student Representative Report: Jonathan Earley
Lanier Middle School: Scott Poole, Principal

ACTION ITEMS, 8:20 p.m.
Approval of Minutes – February 1


BOARD MATTERS, 8:30 p.m.

LOCATION: Fairfax City Hall
10455 Armstrong Street, Fairfax VA

Coming Up in the next issue of Close-Up Online...


In a Q&A with Superintendent Ann Monday, FCPS' Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Peter Noonan, will discuss the best practices for teaching and learning. He will also give information about the changes in school counseling and how they are impacting student achievement. The information will be based on Mr. Noonan's presentation at the School Board's Work Session on Feb. 22.

Stay tuned for commentary from each of our City School principals who will share examples of how a school's professional support staff – from guidance counselors to social workers, librarians, and resource teachers –¬†help students master the curriculum.

Dates to remember:

February 4 FCPS School Board Adopts FY2011 Advertised Budget

February 23 County Executive Releases FY2011 Budget

March 9 County Board of Supervisors Advertises Tax Rate

April 6-8 Board of Supervisors Budget Public Hearings

April 6 FCPS School Board presents Budget to Board of Supervisors

April 27 Board of Supervisors approves County Budget, tax rate resolution and transfer amount to schools

May 11 & 12 FCPS School Board Budget Public Hearings

May 13 FCPS School Board Budget Work Session

May 20 FCPS School Board adopts Approved Budget

Contact Us

City of Fairfax School Board

Janice Miller, Chairman
703 691-1748

Jon Buttram, Vice Chairman
703 385-4643

Julie Knight
703 691-3406

Elisa Lueck
703 385-7911

Toby Sorensen
703 591-5899

Jonathan Earley, Student Representative

City School Board Staff:

Superintendent Ann Monday
703 293-7132

Lynda L. Pierce, Clerk of the Board
703 293-7132

Hope Katz Gibbs, Director of Communications
703 346-6975

Daniels Run Elementary

Daniels Run Elementary School
3705 Old Lee Highway
Fairfax, VA 22030

Doing Whatever It Takes

By Kathy Mullenix, Principal
Daniels Run Elementary School, www.fcps.edu/DanielsRunES

"We contend that a school truly committed to the concept of learning for each student will stop subjecting students to a haphazard, random, de facto educational lottery program when they struggle academically. It will stop leaving the critical question, ‘How will we respond when a student is not learning?' to the discretion of each teacher." – From "A Leader's Companion", by Eaker, DuFour and DuFour

At Daniels Run Elementary School, our teachers work together to carefully review the students' work, analyze assessment data and then use this information to make decisions about instruction.

During regular PLC meetings our teachers monitor the progress of individual students and plan different ways to help those who have learning gaps, while also challenging those who have already mastered skills.

The key is knowing the students

Our focus as educators is to know our students well –¬†their strengths, challenges, and what helps them learn best. That's how our teachers understand how to place students into flexible groups to better meet each child's individual learning needs.

In math class, for instance, students who master required skills can work in groups to learn new concepts and work in greater depth. Our reading teacher also works closely with an entire class or groups of students on a specific skill that they need more time to master. These targeted interventions help students build a strong academic foundation since mastery of essential skills and knowledge is required.

Such hands-on teaching is critical, and enables our teachers to track each student's academic progress from year to year. Working in PLCs is essential to this process, for it enables teachers to be certain that instruction is differentiated based on student performance. There is no "one size fits all" approach at Daniels Run where teachers do whatever it takes to make sure students succeed.

Providence Elementary School

Providence Elementary School
3616 Jermantown Road
Fairfax, VA 22030

Collective Commitments

By Jesse Kraft, Principal
Providence Elementary School, www.fcps.edu/ProvidenceES

"The most effective strategy for influencing and changing an organization's culture is simply to identify, articulate, model, promote, and protect shared values – that is, the collective commitments that will define that organization." – Eaker, DuFour and DuFour

Another PLC practice that you will see at Providence Elementary is teachers working together to be sure that they understand curriculum objectives and that they have clear and common standards for student work.

At PLC meetings at Providence, teachers work together to ensure that the essential skills and knowledge in the curriculum are taught well. They use materials provided by Fairfax County to pace lessons so that students are not only well prepared for standardized tests, but more importantly, are ready for the next grade level.

This work prevents learning gaps where students have not learned what they need to succeed in later grades.

Improving adult learning

Another tenet of PLCs is that teachers work collaboratively to improve their own professional development. This year, teachers are participating in a program called Learning Walks, where they travel around the building to watch their colleagues in action.

These observations provide the teachers with new insights into how students learn in other classrooms. Most teachers also get new ideas that they then incorporate into their own lesson plans.

Lanier Middle School

Lanier Middle School
3801 Jermantown Road
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel: 703.934.2400

Learning by Doing

By Scott Poole, principal
Lanier Middle School, www.fcps.edu/LanierMS

"Systems of intervention work most effectively when they are supported by teams rather than individual teachers." – Eaker, DuFour and DuFour

At the middle school level, PLCs are organized by subject. Time is set aside during the school day for teachers of English, math, social studies, science and foreign languages to work together and decide how best to teach these subjects in 7th and 8th grade.

Like their elementary school colleagues, the focus is on student learning. To that end, teachers develop common assessments using a technology tool provided by FCPS called eCART. The tests give teachers immediate feedback by class and by individual student. They then use these results to determine if a lesson was mastered by the class, or if it needs to be re-taught before moving on to the next topic.

A pyramid of interventions

At Lanier, the staff is committed to giving students the individual attention they need. The faculty has developed a pyramid of interventions that clearly outlines different solutions to help students who are struggling academically.

PLC teams, grade level teams, and school counselors then track student progress and intervene with increasing levels of support based on the degree to which a student is having trouble.

Lanier also provides incentives for students who are achieving. During a regularly scheduled program called Pride Time, students who are excelling have time for enrichment and exploration. In fact, Lanier's Pride Time Singers are a group of budding artists who use the time to develop their musical talents. Meanwhile, struggling students can use the time to get extra help from teachers.

Fairfax High School

Fairfax High School
3501 Rebel Run
Fairfax, VA 22030
Tel: 703.219.2200

On Common Ground

By Dave Goldfarb, principal
Fairfax High School, www.fcps.edu/FairfaxHS

"The PLC model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift – from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning – has profound implications for schools." – Eaker, DuFour and DuFour

The daily bell schedule at Fairfax High School highlights the importance of PLCs in our building because it allows for regular teacher collaboration. Colleagues in the English, math, science, social studies, and world languages departments share a planning period every other day to discuss the teaching and learning happening in their classrooms. The collaboration of PLCs helps establish consistency between different sections of the same course and supports the notion that teachers are stronger together than on their own.

In their planning, teachers of the same course come together and reach critical agreements. One is a shared understanding of the most important concepts, skills, and knowledge that all students should master. A next step is to create common assessments that will reveal whether students have reached proficiency and are ready for continued learning. Along with creating discussions about student learning, data analysis promotes adult learning as teachers reach conclusions about effective instructional methods.

This teamwork provides an opportunity for teachers to learn from each other with the goal of maintaining high expectations for all students. The faculty takes great pride in the achievement gains that students have made over the past few years and credits much of this to the strength of their PLC teams.

Rewards & Remediation

For students who need additional support to reach proficiency levels, teachers develop interventions to ensure that all students have opportunities to succeed.

Fairfax High School's Rewards & Remediation program has become a model for other schools about how to create time during the school day to provide students with needed support. Affectionately referred to as "R&R," it gives students the opportunity to get extra help when needed, make up work, and spend time pursuing special interests.

Students benefit tremendously when teachers work together with shared responsibility for the success of all. As students move through the Fairfax pyramid, they are well served by the work of professionals in strong learning communities.

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Newsletter by Hope Katz Gibbs, editor, Close-Up and City Schools communications specialist
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