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Literacy achievement in an urban middle-level professional development school: a learning community at work.

Literacy achievement among adolescents and young adults has become a priority for more effective preparation of students for post-secondary schooling and work. Teacher preparation and retention in urban schools serves as an additional pressure point in reaching these student outcomes. The Professional Development School (PDS) model is a promising school restructuring effort. A unique PDS partnership is underway at a Southern California middle school, where literacy achievement among its diverse population has increased significantly in the last two years. The early success of this PDS is discussed through the lens of the NCATE PDS standards for a learning community support for multiple learners, inquiry based practices, learning grounded in research and practitioner knowledge, the PDS as an instrument of change, and an extended learning community. This article focuses on the increases in student achievement, as well as the factors associated with those increases, at an urban PDS middle school in San Diego, California.


"Congratulations, and welcome to our community of readers!" were the words principal Fred Patterson used to open the school year at Carpenter Middle School in San Diego. The student population at Carpenter mirrors that of many urban schools: 48% of the students are English language learners; 100% qualify for free and/or reduced lunch; 64% of the students are Latino, 17% are Asian/Filipino, 15% are African/African-American, and 4% are white. Two years ago, this school was one of the lowest performing middle schools in the county and state.

However, over the past two years the students at Carpenter have met the literacy accountability targets established by the state Department of Education--a feat accomplished by only a few of the urban middle schools in the community. In the most recent school year, reading scores increased overall by 31% on the statewide achievement test. The 55% of seventh graders at Carpenter were above grade level in language last year on the SAT-9--an increase from the 41% two years ago. And an astonishing 70% of eighth graders were above grade level on reading portfolios, representing a remarkable gain from the 18% score in 1998-99. This is quite a gain, since historically students at Carpenter and other inner city middle schools improve their reading by a half of a year for every year they are in school. The students at Carpenter more than doubled the performance of their historical peers and their peers in other district middle schools.

Literacy achievement among adolescents and young adults has become a priority (e.g., Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999). Too many young adults enter the work place or college under-prepared for the literacy related tasks required of them (Hull, 1998; Martin, 1998; Pitts, White, & Harrison, 1999). Despite fewer resources directed toward this issue and less research funding for adolescent literacy, the needs are clear--urban youth are not performing as well as they could and should (North Central Regional Educational Lab, 1998). The remainder of this article focuses on the increases in student achievement, as well as the factors associated with those increases, at an urban middle school in San Diego, California.

Teacher Development at an Urban Middle-Level PDS

By other measures, Carpenter Middle should be a school in crisis. Ominous data from urban schools around the country paint a portrait in failure for both teachers and students. 30% of new teachers will leave teaching within five years (Darling-Hammond, 1997). Nationally, African-American and Latino students are three years behind their white peers by eighth grade (Haycock, Jerald, & Huang, 2001). Fewer than 40% of Latino and African-American eighth graders are taught mathematics by a teacher with a math credential ( Yet at Carpenter Middle, teacher turnover has stabilized, the achievement gap is closing, and the mathematics department is fully staffed with credentialed teachers--the only middle school in the district to have accomplished this. Their evolution into a Professional Development School has benefited students and faculty at both institutions. Beginning in 1998, a six-year partnership between San Diego State University, the San Diego Unified School District, the San Diego Education Association and Price Charities was formed to positively impact the student outcomes in a diverse urban community while improving preservice and inservice professional development at an elementary, middle, and high school. At Carpenter Middle, professional development is defined as a continuum that begins with student teachers, extends to those who are new to the profession, and continues with master teachers who possess their own unique growth potential.

Professional Development Schools (PDS) were first designed in the late 1980's to explore innovative practices in teacher preparation and instructional practice (Darling-Hammond, 1989). Laboratory schools, K-12 schools operated by universities, had been in existence for decades to serve as research facilities and venues for teacher preparation programs. However, the changing social and political climate made these self-contained schools increasingly disconnected from the other schools located in the same community (Prince, 1991). PDS partnerships arose out of the mutual need of school districts and universities to improve teacher preparation and student learning.

In the past decade the number of PDS partnerships has grown rapidly to more than 1,000 as universities seek more effective ways of preparing teachers and schools strive to increase student achievement (Schwartz, 2000). However, these distinct goals require differing measures of success for each institution and can lead to divergent practices and resource allocations (Pritchard & Ancess, 1999). One challenge has been to forge these overlapping, though not identical, goals into a valid union of interdependent interests. In an effort to articulate the necessary aspects of successful PDS partnerships, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) recently published standards for Professional Development Schools. These standards cluster around five critical elements:

* Learning community;

* Accountability and quality assurance;

* Collaboration;

* Equity and diversity; and

* Structures, resources, and roles.

(NCATE, 2001, p. 6).

The staff at Carpenter Middle attributes much of their early success to the first NCATE PDS standard, growth as a learning community. NCATE advises that necessary elements of a learning community include: support for multiple learners, inquiry-based practices, learning grounded in research and practitioner knowledge, the PDS as an instrument of change, and an extended learning community (NCATE, 2001, pp. 11-12). Let's examine Carpenter Middle's literacy success through the lens of this standard, the learning community.

A Learning Community Gets to Work

Supporting Multiple Learners.

Room 108 may be the most heavily used classroom at Carpenter Middle. This staff development space is used by nearly every adult in the school through the course of the week. Ms. Sawyer, the on-site supervisor for the thirteen teaching credential candidates, has just finished her daily orientation with the student teachers. "I meet with them each morning to discuss both short term and long term issues," says Ms. Sawyer. "You know, the fact that I'm here every day, all day means that we can be so much more responsive to their needs." Three years ago, Ms. Sawyer was a sixth grade reading teacher at Carpenter with a knack for supporting other teachers in her department, but with little time in a full teaching schedule to be able to do so. In the meantime, university supervisors stopped by once each week for an hour or two to observe student teachers. This traditional model of supervision for credential candidates frequently left everyone involved feeling frustrated. As a response to this common complaint, the Carpenter PDS partnership moved to an on-site supervision model and tapped Ms. Sawyer for the new position. As a respected staff member and teacher-leader, she was a natural choice. Released full time, she now works daily with both student teachers and their master teachers paid for by the university supervision money. "I get to work with my colleagues and the credential students at the same time," she says. "The learning we're doing together is a beautiful thing."

As Ms. Sawyer and the student teachers leave room 108, Dr. Farmer and Mrs. Gregorio begin setting up for a day of staff development. Dr. Farmer is a member of the reading and language arts faculty at the university and Mrs. Gregorio is the literacy peer coach for the school. Today will be offering a workshop on vocabulary development to every member of the teaching staff. The school is on a 4 x 4 block system (Rettig & Canady, 2000), and twice each month teachers participate in a ninety-minute staff development during their prep time. This allows for smaller groups of teachers at each session, and provides the presenters with the opportunity to customize their topic for each department. This morning, Dr. Farmer and Mrs. Gregorio's vocabulary workshop will emphasize technical usage with the math and science teachers; Latin and Greek word derivations with the English and ESL departments.

Dr. Miguel, a university professor specializing in bilingual education, stops by room 108 to say hello. She's joining the ESL department for the first period staff development session. Dr. Miguel has been co-teaching with the ESL teachers for two semesters. "The opportunity to teach regularly with the staff at Carpenter has made my own university teaching more effective. When I teach a concept to either preservice or experienced teachers, I'm able to connect it to real students and current classroom events." Her work has focused on effective literacy interventions for middle school students who are newly arrived to the United States. These students have benefited from specialized instruction from Dr. Miguel that focuses on academic language acquisition for content area learning. The ESL department points proudly to its increase in the number of students being redesignated as English speakers, which has more than doubled in the last two years from 11.3% in 1997-98 to 27% in 1999-2000.

Dr. Forest and Dr. Noland arrive at room 108 with Ms. Rogers and Mrs. Perez, two Carpenter staff members. They'll be joining today's discussion to share the results of a recent two-week writing institute for forty-eight middle school students. Held on the university campus during the winter break, these four professionals co-taught English Language Learners through a creative writing workshop model usually reserved for adult writers. This idea was borne out of a conversation held at a previous writing institute conducted by the university professors. The Carpenter teachers saw the potential for translating the practice into the middle school and suggested they teach it together. Based on the success of the first student institute, it is likely to become an annual event at the school.

This fluid model of professional development means that university faculty and school personnel wear multiple hats in supporting one another. This PDS seeks to continue to blur the long-standing line of demarcation between K-12 and post-secondary through co-teaching in classrooms and the university, and through "boundary spanning" (NCATE, 2001, p. 5)--job assignments that cut across traditional school definitions. The ability to communicate across groups has its roots in ethnographic research (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993) and is viewed as a critical feature to the success of any research project. At Carpenter, students know university professors because they spend time teaching in the middle school classes. After dismissal, university students at the credential and masters level are likely to be taught by classroom teachers from the K-12 schools. Teaching and learning though boundary spanning is an investment on both sides of this educational equation.

Inquiry-based Practices

Outside room 108, four teachers gather to make plans for the upcoming graduation. Not the middle school ceremony, but rather their own. They will be part of the 89 teachers graduating with masters degrees in elementary or secondary curriculum and instruction, resulting in 52% of Carpenter's teachers holding masters degrees, compared to the county average of 43% ("Educators", 2001). An on-site masters degree program was developed two years earlier by the PDS committees of the three schools participating in this partnership. All classes for the degree program were held at the school campuses in order to reduce travel time and expenses associated with traditional campus coursework. Thus, masters classes were scheduled immediately after dismissal and were incorporated into the school calendar to minimize scheduling conflicts.

Beyond the convenience for staff, the masters program was tailored to meet the unique needs of an urban middle school. The PDS committee's work with the university revealed two priorities--raising student achievement through improved literacy, and developing the curricular and instructional analysis skills of staff. Therefore literacy instruction, especially for English language learners, was woven into the university courses. Action research as a model of inquiry served as the other linchpin for the program. Inaction research (Stringer, 1999) practitioners engage in a recursive examination of classroom and school practices and policies to inform future decisions. This form of inquiry is effective for targeting specific problems for rapid and responsive interventions (Patton, 1990). The use of action research is seen as a critical component of successful Professional Development Schools (Smith, 1999). Collaboration in action research is also valued as a means of effecting change and building a community of learners (Stringer, 1999). Many masters candidates at Carpenter worked singly or in pairs to design a research project, collect and analyze data, and report recommendations. For example, a sixth grade teacher and the department's special educator teamed to examine the effects of inclusive practices on their students academic and social achievements (Ings & Mulrooney, 2001). An eighth grade math instructor determined what factors served as predictors of success in algebra (Hayden, 2001). Publication is a possibility as well. Aspects of a seventh grade teacher's research on field-based science instruction will be published in an upcoming book on curriculum (Simon, in press). In each case, results of these projects have been shared with respective departments and grade levels to inform future practices at the school.

While the masters classes served to create a common dialogue among a large number of staff, there were other teachers not currently enrolled and therefore not party to these conversations. In order to extend this discourse, some seminar classes were opened to any interested staff at the school. Teachers were able to choose seminars on topics of interest from those listed in the school's professional development calendar. Thus, teachers curious about topics like anticipatory activities, the link between math and literature, or readers workshop could attend and participate with their enrolled peers. This avoided unnecessary exclusion and further fostered the concept of a learning community.

Although unforeseen at the time of planning the masters program, the courses became an important vehicle for school-wide inquiry as well. Soon after the program began, the school's governance committee recommended that a literacy plan be developed. In courses and on the school's literacy committee, months of work yielded a plan targeting seven strategies useful in all classes at Carpenter. In this way, action research was used "to inform decisions about which approaches to teaching and learning work best" (NCATE, 2001, p. 21). Elements of the resulting plan are discussed below.

Learning Grounded in Research and Practitioner Knowledge

Inside room 108, as well as on curricular documents throughout the school, the "Seven Defensible Strategies" are listed for all stakeholders to see. These literacy strategies were developed through dialogue between university faculty and school staff over the course of several months in the 1998-99 school year. The literacy plan for Carpenter Middle revolves around a set of core instructional methods for promoting literacy acquisition among the student body. These seven strategies include (Fisher, in press):

* Writing to Learn (Andrews, 1997)

* KWL (Ogle, 1986)

* Shared reading (Fountas & Pinnell, (2001)

* Independent reading with conferencing (Allen & Gonzalez, 1998)

* Vocabulary and word study (Anderson & Nagy, 1991)

* Cornell notetaking (Pauk, 1989)

* Reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984)

Staff and faculty collaborated to identify practices that met three criteria: each strategy should be research-based, practical across the curriculum, and effective for students acquiring a second language. A wide range of instructional approaches were identified and the various merits debated in masters classes and the school's departmental meetings. Some proposed strategies were discarded because a strong body of literature did not exist to support their use, while others were dropped because they could not be easily applied to diverse content areas like physical education and family sciences. Because the level of involvement in this school-wide discourse was so high, a consensus literacy plan was created and successfully implemented.

The creation of a literacy plan at Carpenter served as a first step in articulating the supports necessary for student and teacher support, as well as accountability for classroom practices. The Seven Defensible Strategies are used by the PDS committee as a lens for making decisions about professional development activities, and by governance for allocating resources to support these ventures. The literacy peer coach, Mrs. Gregorio, utilizes the plan to establish and extend a common vocabulary with teachers. Furthermore, the administration at the school uses the literacy plan as a component of new teacher orientation, as well as a means for providing formative and evaluative feedback in classroom observations. This vertical integration across the continuum appears to have positively effected student achievement as well. Since the establishment of the literacy plan two years ago, Carpenter's eighth graders have scored 52% growth in the quality, range, and depth of their literacy assessment portfolios, as measured by the school district's standards.

A critical feature of a PDS is the reciprocity between institutions, and Carpenter's Seven Defensible Strategies serves to illustrate this relationship. These strategies are taught in the reading and language arts coursework in the school's two teacher preparation programs, and assignments reflect expectations concerning their application in content area teaching. In this manner, preservice personnel enter middle school classrooms with a working understanding of effective literacy instruction for English Language Learners, combined with the prospect of witnessing theory into practice. The interchange is complete when Carpenter teachers highlight their experiences and field questions about their work in the university courses.

The PDS as an Instrument of Change

Miss Constantino and Mr. Valdez, two student teachers at Carpenter, are trying to solve a puzzle in room 108. Not the jigsaw kind, but rather the challenge that comes from teaching an otherwise bright student who struggles to read. Their supervisor, Mrs. Sawyer, is probing their knowledge of the student in question. When Mr. Valdez expresses concern that the student's motivation may be a factor, she asks them how they might determine if that is the case. The two student teachers recall the "Garfield" reading (McKenna, & Kear, 1990) and writing (Kear, Coffman, McKenna, & Ambrosio, 2000) attitude surveys discussed in a previous class. They make plans to administer the surveys over the next week and then meet again to discuss the results with their guide teacher.

The ownership of student learning at this PDS is being transformed. Traditionally, guide teachers were responsible for student outcomes, while student teachers functioned as guests in the classroom, concerned primarily with honing their developing teaching skills. University supervisors rarely figured into this equation of student achievement (Murrell & Borunda, 1998). Through Carpenter's teacher preparation program, preservice and university personnel are all connected to the learning of individual students. The use of case studies in credential coursework is now expected by the school's experienced teachers, and some choose a learner for study in anticipation of the student teacher's arrival. "That up-close work with an uncertain reader doesn't just benefit the student teacher--we count on it to find out more about our students," reports Mr. Robertson, a seventh grade social studies teacher.

The school operates two teacher credential programs--a multiple subject program in grade six, and a single subject credential in grades seven and eight. Preservice teachers in the single subject program begin school during the preplanning week in August and teach every day from the first day of school. They remain at the school until the end of the university calendar in May. In this way, they are afforded the opportunity to watch learning evolve over an extended period. Students at the middle school also benefit from the more stable relationships that can develop when student teachers are not moved to another school or grade in December. Student teachers also appreciate the advantages of witnessing what actually happens during the first clays of school, and how the curriculum's scope and sequence builds on previously taught concepts.

While fostering stability in the professional lives of student teachers is an important component, this PDS goes a step further by modeling it as well. For the past two years, they have used an on-site supervision model to guide student teachers. Mrs. Sawyer, a sixth grade teacher at the school, supervises all the student teachers, a task that in the past fell to university-based personnel. She attends continuing professional development activities offered by the university to hone her supervision and coaching skills, and meets every other week with the on-site supervisors at the other two professional development schools in the pilot. The amount of contact with the supervisor has risen considerably since this model was instituted. With traditional supervision, appointments had to be scheduled in advance and were usually limited to once a week. On-site supervision means that the student teachers have a higher degree of support because they can meet with their supervisor frequently (Frey, 2001). Under this model, each student teacher averages eleven formal observations per semester, significantly higher than the six required by the university, as well as countless other informal visits and meetings.

The NCATE standards advise that PDS partnerships should serve as an instrument of change for both school and university improvement. Evidence of this collaboration is that "institutions change policies and practices as a results of work done" (NCATE, 2001, p. 22). Changes to the student teaching calendar were made through discussions with staff and university faculty because of mutual concerns about the quality of experiences for middle school learners and preservice personnel. The adoption of the on-site supervision model evolved as traditional K-12 and post-secondary roles dissolved. True to the commitment to shape practice at both institutions, in the fall of this year another university student teaching program unrelated to this pilot will begin a similar supervision practice.

Extended Learning Community

As the learning community at Carpenter has evolved in boundary spanning and connecting research to practice, it is also seeking to extend its commitment to other stakeholders and institutions. This PDS partnership values its connection to the families of the community and is striving to create a school that serves the complex needs of the parents of adolescents. Toward this end the staff, community members, and university faculty have collaborated to secure federal and state grants that support the varied needs of students and caregivers. For instance, recreational programs, tutoring and academic assistance are now available from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM at the school. A parent center has been staffed to serve families and perform outreach to the community. Drop out prevention supports and programs are available for every student in the school and a federal grant follows seventh graders to college with academic support and financial assistance. It is hoped that these and other innovations will create wraparound services for the school community.

A final commitment to the learning community at Carpenter is the goal to extend it into the university at large. Collaboration between the university's teacher education department and the middle school have increased considerably over the past three years, as witnessed in the credential and master's level programs. However, continuing the early success of the PDS depends on its evolution into a "teaching hospital" for K-16 education. The PDS is at work creating partnerships throughout the university beyond the College of Education. For example, students from the College of Engineering serve as mentors to students in science fair competitions. The geography department collaborated last year with the school's science department to conduct an ecological survey of a nearby canyon with eighth graders. Members of the music faculty are working with the music teacher to expand the arts program by establishing a school orchestra and chorus, a practice not commonly seen in the current climate of high stakes accountability and cutbacks in the fine arts. Through innovative partnerships such as these, this PDS can evolve into a learning environment that enhances the development of all stakeholders.


This learning community has made learning by all stakeholders--students, school staff, and university faculty--a priority. In this model, learning is supported through field experiences for credential students, ongoing professional development for staff, and active participation in classrooms by faculty. Furthermore, teaching is frequently practiced by cross-institutional teams from both the school and university. Teaming can be seen in the learning environments of the middle school and the university. But the central focus remains on the students themselves. What can the entire learning community do to expand the opportunities available for every student? An important first step is accelerating the literacy learning for all students through inquiry-based teaching, responsive professional development, and a belief in the power of partnerships. At Carpenter Middle School, this learning community has rolled up its sleeves.


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Author:Frey, Nancy
Publication:Reading Improvement
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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