Refining and Revising the Improvement Plan JOURNEYS

By Heather Mattson / September 14, 2015

Students of Amargosa jumping up in the air


Challenges with Fit and Implementation

After its first School Improvement Grant (SIG) application was denied by the Nevada Department of Education (NDE, or the department) in 2012, Nye County School District (NCSD, or the district) was hoping for better results with its sec- ond application for the Amargosa Valley School (AVS, or the school).

The Journeys Project

Most school improvement efforts are described after the turnaround occurred. In the Journeys Project, the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd (CST) chronicles schools throughout the turnaround process.

Episode 1 introduces the school improvement journey of Amargosa Valley School, an extremely remote K-8 in rural Nevada with a large migrant, English-learner, and socioeconomically disadvantaged population. Episode 2 details how the school and district try to handle the challenges of recruiting and staffing in a remote rural setting.

This episode discusses how the staff handles aspects of the School Improvement Grant plan that required modification, along with how they are building on successful plan components.

Check out the School Turnaround Learning Community’s Turnaround in Action blog for more on the Journeys Project.

Recognizing the potential value of drawing on proven practices, both the district and the department thought it would be helpful to consider successful improvement strategies from other districts, in this case, those from another Nevada district, Carson City. Carson City’s SIG schools had shown tremendous growth and its district Race to the Top application had received one of the highest scores in the nation from the United States Department of Education.

One prominent feature of Carson City’s improvement work that was incorporated into Amargosa’s second SIG application was the use of professional learning communities (PLCs) that focused on creating assessments and units of study aligned to the Common Core State Standards. While developing highly effective PLCs can be challenging in any circumstance, Carson City had increased the complexity by asking its PLCs to do difficult work related to the standards. In Amargosa this challenge was further magnified by the school’s rural setting and related issues, including its small size, for example. Because the school has only one teacher at each grade level, to have gradelevel PLCs required that it be paired with another elementary school in the district. And because that second school was in a distant corner of the 18,000-square-mile district, participating PLC teachers at the two schools needed to connect through technology rather than at in-person meetings — and it was the technology that threw the first wrench into the works.

Amargosa staff began the 2013/14 school year with high hopes for their ambitious PLC plan, but quickly encountered some technology glitches. Although they had purchased an online communication software program, they had trouble getting it running. Once they did, they discovered that there was simply not enough bandwidth — literally — to connect the partner schools; any attempt to run the program either crashed or froze their computers. Although the district stepped in quickly to resolve that particular issue, technology turned out not to be the school’s biggest challenge in implementing the plan.

An earlier form of district support discussed in Episode 1 was adding the position of school intervention director. NCSD had written funding for this position into the SIG and filled it with a principal who had been working at another school in the district and who had a strong track record in curriculum and instruction, Evangelyn Visser. In the first year of SIG implementation, Visser was on campus almost full time focusing on professional learning, especially the PLCs; analyzing student and teacher data; and mentoring the principal. Once the technology was finally working, Visser and Amargosa principal Robert Williams realized that technology and other logistics were going to be the least of their concerns. More complex obstacles lay ahead, chief among them that Amargosa teachers had neither the culture nor the necessary structures for working together, let alone for collaborating with teachers from another school to whom they were connected only by technology.

Early on, Williams and Visser had realized that teacher practice would need to be their primary focus because it has the biggest influence on student outcomes. With that in mind, Williams decided to make teacher observation, feedback, and evaluation the centerpiece of his own work. But as the year progressed, he and Visser realized that the issue of instructional capacity was bigger than they had expected: the level of instructional expertise at Amargosa did not match the complex demands inherent in the SIG plan. Some teachers were struggling with planning and delivering Tier 1/general instruction. Several did not know how to use assessment data to differentiate instruction, or how to make content accessible to learners performing below grade level.

While the district had conducted a needs assessment at Amargosa that had identified teaching practice as an area for improvement, Williams and Visser observed that the needs assessment hadn’t adequately captured the depth or scope of the issues. The challenge was such that Visser and Williams determined that, instead of having the teachers continue with the PLC work, Amargosa students would be better served by having the school’s reading specialist and the district’s Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs) meet with the teachers one on one to focus on their instruction. While the notion of instituting PLCs had looked good on paper, in reality this major component of the SIG plan did not fit the context, culture, or capacity of Amargosa. Trying to implement it was like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

Fortunately, Amargosa leadership was closely focused on implementation and committed to responding to any signals that something was not working as planned. Visser and Williams’s vital partnership was supported by daily conversations about the issues they were encountering. In addition to meeting on campus, they commuted together an hour each day to and from school, with much of their conversation during that time focused on how to improve outcomes for Amargosa students, including what changes might need to be made to the SIG plan moving forward. Additionally, the School Governance Committee (SGC), which had been established as part of the SIG application, provided a vehicle for Williams and Visser to share issues with and get feedback from the superintendent, other district staff, and even the state.

A number of important changes were made in the plan for year two of the grant, but they boil down to three areas: Build on existing efforts to increase instructional capacity through classroom observations and professional development; implement individual learning plans for students; and modify its method for extending learning time during the summer. Most importantly, the revisions called for Amargosa to end its original commitment to using PLCs to develop standards-aligned units of study based on the Carson City model, along with any goals related to that initiative.

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Amargosa staff in a professional learning meeting.

Build on existing efforts to increase instructional capacity

"We got a little bit too aggressive I think. [But] that’s what a plan is for – you plan, and if it’s not working out, you readjust and go back to see what can be done differently."

Dale Norton, Superintendent, Nye County School District

The new plan targets major resources toward improving Tier 1 instruction throughout Amargosa by establishing a whole-school professional learning program based on online Learning-Focused modules, which focus on the building blocks of good instruction: planning lessons, creating clear objectives, and aligning those objectives to the lessons. Because Amargosa has added several days to the school year to extend learning time, the district and board supported the addition of a second early-release day for teacher professional learning. Monday afternoons are now devoted to working with the entire teaching staff on the Learning-Focused modules. Teachers use their preparation periods to collaborate with one another, and instructional observations will focus on teachers’ application of Learning-Focused strategies, with support provided as needed. Meanwhile, Wednesday afternoons remain focused on districtwide activities, such as scoring writing assessments and better understanding testing.

Implement individual learning plans for students

Another area of focus in the revised plan is the implementation of a Student Success Plan (SSP) for each student. The purpose of the SSP is to record current data, interventions, and enrichment for every student with the goal of helping teachers stay focused on the needs of the students in their classes and continually analyze student progress. The revised plan outlines teachers using SSPs to communicate students’ current level and set goals with students and parents prior to testing and during parent/teacher conferences. Based on data from the Student Success Plan, teachers will plan and deliver instruction that accelerates growth to achieve proficiency.

Modify method for extending learning time in the summer

In addition to adding several days to the school calendar, the revised school plan included a completely redesigned summer school format. Summer school in 2013 was marked by low student attendance, a lack of high-quality instruction, and no improvement in test scores. Amargosa’s remote rural setting provided yet another challenge with regard to summer school — most notably a lack of teachers available who want to teach summer school. Many teachers are already commuting long distances during the school year and choose not to do so during the summer.

The new summer school plan called for setting up structures that would allow middle school students to attend the district’s Century 21 Summer School Middle school students taking the bus to the district’s largest town, Pahrump, for summer school program by taking an hourlong bus ride to a school in the district’s largest town, Pahrump. Students learned through traditional reading and math instruction, as well as through STEM activities like building robots and rockets — high-quality enrichment activities that students attending a school as small and isolated as Amargosa can’t access during the regular school year. For younger students, the school provided summer take-home kits that included workbooks and games designed for parents to assist with home-based education during the summer months. This approach to summer learning enabled participation by families that return home to Mexico for extended periods over the summer. For English learner students who remained in the area during the break, bilingual aides conducted three home visits for each student to keep them on track.

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Middle school students taking the bus to the district’s largest town, Pahrump, for summer school.

Building on Strengths

"We had a lot of materials put together for the School Governance Committee meeting. Having the state there made things a little more clear for them and gave them an idea about what we’re doing without having to grill us so much."

— Rob Williams, Principal, Amargosa

While many elements of the original plan required modification, Principal Williams is quick to point out that many aspects of the plan have worked very well, as evidenced by increased community engagement strategies, improved school culture, high-quality teacher feedback, and the productive partnership between the principal and the school intervention director. Williams also points to the well functioning SGC.

"The SGC is a well-run machine, I can tell you. There’s a lot of involvement. It’s fabulous. We’re really pleased with that piece of it."

— Marcia Calloway, Former Office of Educational Opportunities Director, Nevada Department of Education

The SGC’s first meeting took place at the district office and did not include Williams, but everyone involved quickly realized that meetings would be more productive with the principal involved. The location was switched to Amargosa and Williams began facilitating the meetings. The SGC has since become an effective governance system that funnels input from a range of stakeholders. Today, the SGC includes an Amargosa parent, student, and teacher, along with the principal, the school intervention director, the district superintendent and its grant coordinator, the principal from the high school that Amargosa feeds into, and a local business representative. To help ensure that the group stays focused on the improvement plan and how it aligns to all work at the school, Williams begins each meeting with a written update on the SIG.

"Having the state at our SGC meetings meant they can live and breathe it with us. It strengthened our connection to them. We got some perspective from the state level down to the district and vice versa."

— Dale Norton, Superintendent, Nye County School District

An early SGC meeting that coincided with a state SIG monitoring visit paid big dividends by allowing the state to get a firm grasp of Amargosa’s challenges. State personnel, who sat at the table and listened to a number of Amargosa perspectives, found it so valuable that they decided to coordinate the rest of their visits for the year with an SGC meeting. The state’s presence during a late spring SGC meeting when proposed changes to the plan were discussed meant that plan revisions were more readily approved because state staff had a better understanding of the issues.

Looking Ahead

Williams and Visser have established a process of continuous improvement. They begin by analyzing qualitative and quantitative data, that they discuss with each other and then share with teachers and the SGC, which includes the district and the state. After discussing possible improvements, they make adjustments to the plan and proceed. Local student achievement data is showing slow, but steady, growth, especially in moving students out of the lowest quintiles. Follow the Journey to see the impact of the revised plan at Amargosa.

Questions to Consider from this Episode:

  • When supporting districts’ improvement plans, how can state education agencies (SEAs) encourage districts to consider effective strategies from other schools/districts while also reminding them that, when selecting strategies, school context matters?
  • How can districts ensure that a thorough needs assessment is conducted to accurately identify a school’s needs and drive the ensuing improvement plan?
  • Would it be useful for SEAs to coordinate monitoring visits with School Governance Council or other school or community meetings? What would SEAs look for in those meetings? How might the information they gather at the meetings inform their monitoring?
  • How can schools and districts maximize the effectiveness of SGC meetings and other forms of communication to keep the district and state informed?


Download the PDF of the Episode


Debra Jackson

September 29, 2015 - 4:40 pm

In supporting a district's improvement plan, I have found what is most important is what we ask from our stakeholders; feedback.  Too often the intitial direction teams take lacks urgency, or the communication to stakeholders is lacking, or the team- well intentioned - is ahead of the school.  Helping the team members continue to examine their status with a root-cause analysis can keep them on a continual improvement course of action. This also helps them figure out what in their culture makes them unique from similar schools.  I really believe it is about continual dialogue.  We heard this in the episode, but adding root-cause analysis can ground the planning and keep everyone understandings connected.

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About the author

Heather Mattson

Heather Mattson is a Senior Research Associate at WestEd and a staff member of the Center on School Turnaround. In addition to coordinating the Journeys content team, she is a Journeys school facilitator and a blog contributor.

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