Collaboration’s Key When Planning Common Core Implementation

My recent piece for ASCD on Common Core implementation at Lexington School District One near Columbia, SC. You can also read it here.

It is not surprising that school districts are finding that effective Common Core State Standards implementation is all about collaboration—with the state agency; with other districts; with outside partners; and with district stakeholders, from teachers to parents to students. Lexington School District One, just outside of Columbia, S.C., has developed a highly collaborative approach to this work, and Mary Gaskins is leading that effort.

“I transitioned from a middle school literacy coach to curriculum specialist and then to my new position as professional learning facilitator,” said Gaskins, who leads the district team that is developing the implementation plan for the Common Core State Standards.

At first, Gaskins and colleagues from Lexington’s central office sat down to develop the districtwide implementation team, being very strategic about each person on that team. “We asked ourselves, ‘Who is the best person to represent K–2 literacy?’ for example.” Gaskins and her teammates also ensured that there was representation from a variety of schools in the district, which serves some 23,000 students in 16 elementary schools, seven middle schools, and five high schools. Four of the district’s elementary schools run schoolwide Title I programs.

Gaskins’s group started by viewing a series of videos on the Common Core State Standards from South Carolina’s state department of education and then developing a vision of what instruction at Lexington school district would look like with full implementation.

But this district team also realized that they needed to go beyond the state’s boundaries and look nationally for best practices when it came to Common Core State Standards information. In that search, they found online modules developed by the Oregon state department of education and by EngageNY, and Gaskins and her team received permission from both groups to use these modules for their own training and for the training that they were developing for the school-level teams.

“Our virtual training modules would be focused around the instructional shifts that need to happen in math and language arts,” said Gaskins. “We wanted our modules to serve as a support system to schools and establish a consistent knowledge base across the district.” As this district team was creating its training modules for the schools, they collaborated with several other districts in South Carolina’s Midlands area to share their discoveries and work together on tools for Common Core State Standards implementation.

Next, the large district team began to collaborate with individual school buildings throughout the district, initiating school-level teams called Implementation Leadership Teams. “In the past,” Gaskins continued, “one obstacle to school-level implementation of district initiatives has been that learning had not always filtered back to the school. These school-level implementation teams would work with the larger district team and stay a semester ahead in the learning, with four to six trainings a year and a charge to bring this learning back to the school.”

School-level enthusiasm for this work was unbridled. “Just due to space limitations, we had to limit representation to two team members per school,” said Gaskins, “with additional representation in special areas, such as ELL, special education, and gifted and talented. The slots were quite competitive, which leads us to believe that our district is anxious to make this transition.”

Using what had been developed by the Hunt Institute, the team created two Common Core State Standards awareness modules that schools were to study by this spring, and the district team is creating six more to share with school-level teams who will then work with their teachers in their school-level professional learning community groups. Although a clear plan is in place for the Common Core State Standards roll out, as developed by the larger district team, Gaskins also imagines that it will be an iterative process, as new learning emerges at the schools and helps to inform the work of the district team. The discussions that are taking place on the district’s online discussion tool are already making that happen.

Gaskins described the process for rolling out this plan and their work to the larger Lexington School District One community, something that will happen this May when members of the large team meet with the district’s parent advisory council. After collaborating with the district’s communications department, the Common Core State Standards team understood that it needed to be strategic about talking with the community, knowing that there is much different information about the Common Core State Standards bouncing around the community, the state, and even nationally. “But our district is very innovative,” Gaskins said, “and our community knows that and knows that we are working in the best interests of kids.”

In the end, Gaskins said that this Common Core State Standards work has been and will continue to be a team effort. “Our district team has collaborated with a variety of coordinators and directors in Lexington’s instructional services department, as well as with people from the finance and communications offices. District administrators are working with school administrators who are then working with their teachers.” In many ways, Lexington’s implementation efforts closely resemble the collaborative efforts that brought about the Common Core State Standards in the first place. It is important school improvement work that, as Lexington reveals, needs to involve all constituents.

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