Creating a student-centered learning environment: A Q&A with Ann Monday and Peter Noonan
By Ann Monday, Superintendent
City of Fairfax Schools
Creating a set of clear and consistent best practices for student learning has long been a priority for Fairfax County Public Schools. Last fall, the Instructional Services team accomplished that goal by identifying a set of research-based Best Practices for Teaching and Learning that have been proven to increase student achievement and help every FCPS child reach their academic potential.
Today we talk with Peter Noonan, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services, about this new approach to teaching and learning.
Ann Monday: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. The School Board was very appreciative and interested in the information that you provided at our February 22 Work Session about your approach to best practices for teaching and learning. Can you tell us more about how you determined the essential elements of the document you described?
Peter Noonan: Certainly. To begin, we knew that each best practice would need to be applicable from Pre K to 12th grade. We also wanted to concretely define the concepts and terms, so that every teacher, principal, staff member and administrator throughout the entire county has a common understanding.
More than a dozen FCPS leaders worked on the project, including principals, specialists from the four core curricular areas, the Special Education and ESOL offices, directors of Cluster V and Cluster I, and representatives from the Department of Professional Learning and Accountability.
The group looked at an array of external research and initiatives that FCPS had focused on for the last two years, as well as training initiatives provided by teachers. The initial outline was reviewed by 992 teachers and 145 FCPS principals, who were asked to evaluate the impact of each best practice on student achievement. The synthesis of the information became the FCPS Best Practices framework.
Ann Monday: I am particularly interested in the section that refers to enhancing intellectual, social and emotional growth. Can you tell us more about that?
Peter Noonan: Our goal in this area is to build collaborative and respectful relationships with students, colleagues, and parents. To do that, we need to consistently encourage, support, and appropriately challenge students to ensure their success. We also need to facilitate development of relationships among students to promote mutual respect and support in the classroom.
The ability of the teacher to develop a purposeful relationship with each student is the cornerstone of student success. When I say purposeful, I mean teachers aren't just being nice to kids, a buddy to them, or are focused on having their classroom be a "fun place" to be. Of course, you want all of that to happen but teachers need to take the relationship much deeper.
Ann Monday: Engaging students in a meaningful way is also critical, isn't it?
Peter Noonan: Absolutely. The ability to actively engage, challenge, and motivate students and provide them with varied and ample opportunities to practice and process new information is essential for teachers to be effective.
To accomplish that, teachers need to have an understanding of student development, and they must believe that every student is able to access and develop capacities at varying levels. They also need to be someone who builds a positive relationship with kids. We learn from people we like and from those who are interested in us.
Ann Monday: In my experience, school counselors and other support staff in the building such as the librarian and resource teachers also play a key role in accomplishing that goal.
The School Board appreciated that as part of your presentation at the February 22 Work Session, we heard from Marcy Miller, the former Director of Student Services at Fairfax High who this year was promoted to the position of Secondary Specialist (7-12) for FCPS. Let's bring her into the conversation.
Marcy Miller: Hello, and thank you for your interest in our essential counseling programs. I did point out that school counseling programs are collaborative efforts benefiting students, parents, teachers, administrators and the overall community.
At FCPS, we feel strongly that counselors should be a part of the students' daily educational environment. Our work uses as a reference that framework for school counseling programs that has been outlined by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).
Ann Monday: Can you share with us the framework for a strong counseling program?
Marcy Miller: The ASCA model consists of four interrelated components:
1. A solid foundation. The program must align with the mission of the school and district.
2. A useful delivery system. The curriculum will consist of structured developmental lessons designed to help the students develop competencies and provide them with the knowledge and skills appropriate for their developmental level.
3. A strong management system. Organizational processes and tools must be incorporated to ensure the program is organized, concrete, and reflects the needs of the school.
4. Accountability. To evaluate the program, counselors must collect and use data that links the program to student achievement.
I think you'll find that most school counselors are tapped in to the needs and abilities of the students with whom they work. Like teachers and administrators, the team is determined to help each child achieve their potential. When the whole staff works together, it makes that goal attainable.
Ann Monday: I couldn't agree more. Many thanks to you both. We look forward to learning more about what you are doing at the county level in upcoming issues of Close-Up Online.
To learn how the Best Practices approach and ASCA National Model are being incorporated into the work being done at our City Schools, scroll down for details from each of our four principals.