SIG Reflections SEA

By The Indiana Department of Education Office of Early Learning and Intervention / February 18, 2016

There are several nuggets of wisdom our Indiana team has learned over the past few years of SIG, and more recently, with our new planning cohort. This month’s blog focuses on our top takeaways from this year so far.

Start with the right conversation

Indiana has awarded six cohorts of SIG schools.  The last three have been significantly different in their approach to this grant.  Schools have been more focused, requested fewer funds, and the district has been more involved.  These trends may be due, in part, to updated guidance from the SEA.  After watching the first cohort graduate and fail to maintain any of the improvement activities started in SIG, there was a realization of starting with the end in mind.  Sustainability was not saved for the last year of the grant; it was built into the application and evaluated during the review process. Schools – and their districts – who didn’t have an end game did not score well and were not awarded. The next major addition was the interview portion of the application review process.  After a school and district demonstrate their commitment to improvement through the application, a phone interview is conducted.  Who participates in the call, what information they lend to the conversation, and first-hand knowledge of the grant activities shows that a community is invested in the school and will work together to be successful.   

In short, the conversation has changed from “What will you do in the next three years and how will you spend funding?” to “How will you invest in your school in the next three years and what outcomes do you hope to achieve?”

Set the sail for the direction in which you want to travel

The application has been a major force for the planning year. In addition to changes that incite a different conversation, the planning year was specifically addressed.  In addition to scoping out a project plan for the implementation and sustainability of SIG, there is a specific project plan for the planning year, which has been helpful in tracking the progress of schools during this planning year. 

The planning year is broken into four phases.  Schools then focus on this year in smaller, more management chunks. It has helped guide both us and the schools assess where they are at any point in time.  The work for the SEA has become clearer – we can assess where schools are at any point in time.  When schools have had set-backs or changes, we can refer back to the plan, figure out a way to address the current situation, and continue to move forward.  For example, a school recently decided to part ways with a provider who was working as a principal mentor, and training coach to teachers.  The school used their pre-implementation objectives to identify key characteristics of a new principal mentor and utilize other training opportunities to fulfill their plan.  

Learn from the past

While some of the credit for more focused and successful schools may be in the way the SEA is identifying candidates, much of the credit must be given to those schools that were on a positive trajectory to success and have been real examples of transforming education.  The schools selected for Cohorts 4 and 5 are mostly successful because of what they were already doing before they submitted their SIG grants.  In talking and learning more about what activities/opportunities/actions happened to prepare them for SIG, schools reported the following:

  • School leaders were specifically selected for their schools based on their prior experience or proven track record of success in other schools.  In all cases, the principal and/or leadership teams have been carefully cultivated and a great deal of support is available from the district. 
    • Stabilization of professional teaching staff took 2-4 years prior to SIG. 
      • In one case, teacher turnover was low, but changes in administration resulted in lack of vision and cohesion of staff and little commitment from teachers.  As the leadership stabilized and a clear vision emerged, staff was more likely to commit to the changes.
      • In another case, teacher turnover has remained high over the past several years.  The leadership is somewhat stabilized and the district is offering incentives (beyond SIG) to help retain teaching staff.
        • Teacher evaluations have been utilized to focus teacher training and development on specific needs of teachers and students.  Schools are targeting resources to their specific needs and districts are backing off top down  approaches to professional development.  Teacher capacity is increasing within schools which positively impacts teacher retention.
    • The district has been committed to the improvement efforts.  This was evident in all cases both within the application and during phone interviews. 
    • Investments through SIG have been focused on building capacity of leaders, staff, and families and communities. Budgets were modest and targeted to specific needs of schools. Schools employed a gradual release model so that funding decreased over time allowing for capacity within the school and district to compensate. 

It is worth noting that within schools in Cohorts 4 and 5, five of nine schools either improved or held their current state accountability status.  Of those five, two schools moved out of Priority status.  A third school avoided state takeover.

Read wisely

While much of our work is focused on what schools are doing and how we support them, there has been a great deal of learning on our side.  In our earlier cohorts, we relied on USED guidance around SIG grants and federal funds to inform our work. Two years ago, the first documents new SEA staff read were: SIG Non-Regulatory Guidance, ARRA Guidance, and Supplement, Not Supplant.  We relied on those documents to ensure that funds were being spent in allowable ways.  We looked into purchases like logo items, remodeling expenses, uniforms and technology incentives for teachers. The idea of investing versus purchasing has been a huge shift for both our team and our schools.  The conversations we have now are much richer and focused on continuous improvement versus compliance and allowable purchases.

Finding out how investments are making a difference are harder.  In lieu of reading federal guidance, we have started to review work about what school improvement looks like, for instance:

  • The State Role in School Turnaround: Emerging Best Practices (Rhim, Redding)
  • School Leadership that Works (Marzano)
  • Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools (Parrett, Budge)
  • School Improvement Grants: The Amendmended 2015 Rules and Regulation (WestED)
  • The District Role in Turnaround (WestED)

This is an exciting time to be part of school improvement and turnaround with the state being empowered by The Every Student Succeeds Act, (ESSA).  As roles and responsibilities of the SEA become clearer, schools and districts are more prepared to commit to action.  The results are promising so far, with schools showing significant improvement within three years of SIG.

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