Highlights of Leland & Gray's Collaborative Peer Review Findings
Over the past two years, L&G’s School Board and administration have regularly updated the community with the alternative evaluation plan since withdrawing from the New England Association of Secondary Schools of Colleges (NEASC). The Collaborative Peer Review (CPR) design was borne out of the need to involve all constituents, with student voice at the center, in school reflection and improvement efforts. With Otter Valley and Mill River Union High Schools and in consultation with Unleashing the Power of Partnerships for Learning, we successfully piloted an innovative design that resulted in evidence-based findings. With the report completed this month, four presentations to various groups featured our CPR team: seniors Madison Cannella, Erica Cutts, and Alexa Litchfield, sophomore Jake Wilkins, community member/parent Beth McDonald, teachers Dr. Ruth Ann Dunn and Ann Landenberger, and myself. In May and June, student leaders will facilitate focus groups to bring a diverse representation of students together in order to grapple with the findings and discuss possibilities for school improvement.
The five areas identified in the report demonstrate that Leland and Gray’s strengths are also our greatest challenges to school improvement. Our eight-person CPR team met often to understand the deeper meaning of the results, dogged by the question, “What can account for the vast differences in students’ and teachers’ perceptions?” We wrestled with opposing ideals, such as trusting teachers’ expertise to select valuable topics and books versus students making their own choices based on readiness and interest.
In the survey, students reported vastly different experiences at school, leading to contradictory conclusions that prevented us from arriving at final “truths” about Leland and Gray. We began our findings report highlighting this dilemma with these words:
In addition, students may have higher expectations of their own school because they want the best education possible. The observers from Otter Valley and Mill River momentarily experienced Leland and Gray, but the students live it every day. This is not to say that students know the “hard truth” about their schools. Each individual student has a diverse perspective and his/her own expectations, which are not possible for any one school to fulfill. With an unseen ideal in mind, when completing the climate survey, each student may have compared his/her own school to that ideal. (2)
Fortunately L&G’s faculty quickly found some solutions. When the CPR team presented a week ago, teachers asked deeper questions. For example, if one-third of students “don’t feel safe at school,” where, when, and why? Since a questionnaire does not provide specific direction to arrive at viable solutions, the faculty suggested creating youth-adult focus groups to improve school climate as well as relationships and communication. After highlighting each finding, I will share additional examples of the immediate impact the CPR process on L&G. Please visit L&G’s homepage to read the seven-page report in its entirety, including critical questions and data-based evidence.
(1) Communication and Relationships: Leland and Gray teachers form positive relationships with students to encourage deep learning. They understand that in order to achieve rigor, students need meaningful relationships. Yet the survey responses of students and teachers yielded some inconsistencies. For example, far fewer students feel that L&G teachers are enthusiastic about their teaching than teachers feel in response to the same question. Fortunately, the majority of students and all teachers support the idea of providing feedback from which teachers can adjust instruction.
(2) Democratic Practices: The visitors described Leland and Gray’s school climate as consisting of a comfortable setting, mutual respect, and open discussion. Observations revealed that the most productive learning took place when students were collaborating and discussing the subject in their classes. The commitment to not track students by ability in most classes appeared to have a positive effect on teacher/student relationships. Despite these observations, the students revealed a more nuanced or divided response to school democracy. For example, only half of students feel that they are active in decision-making at school.
(3) Real-world Education: The observers saw Leland and Gray students challenged to become independent learners and thinkers through complex conversations and open-ended questioning. Relevant and varied learning opportunities prepare students for life beyond high school, yet the survey results revealed a discrepancy between what is taught and learned, i.e., a gap between the perceptions of teachers and students.
(4) Student-centered Learning: At Leland and Gray, the student body has an active voice in the classroom. The students play a “teacher role” either by asking valuable questions or by leading inclusive class discussions.
(5) Equity and Instructional Differentiation: At Leland and Gray, we seek to provide access to rigorous courses for all students, and we have increased the participation of students from disadvantaged situations, particularly students who are eligible for free- or reduced-priced meals or learning plans. Through effort and hard work, all students can succeed in rigorous learning.
Already the impact of the process is being felt school-wide. An L&G class edited our final report to reflect student-centered language. Two youth-adult committees have formed, one to develop the Personalized Learning Plan and Community-based Learning requirements, and the other to create restorative practices as viable alternatives to suspension. Teachers now plan to integrate feedback surveys for all their classes to enhance on their own practice in addition to participating in focus groups to improve school climate. CPR team-member Jakob Wilkins said, “I no longer look at classrooms the same way. Misconceptions have vanished, replaced with knowledge about education.” Our biggest realization is the need for students to play a central role in any school evaluation. With the Vermont Agency of Education developing the “Educational Quality Review” to inspect public schools next fall, we have requested to meet with the Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe to share our experience that can contribute to their plans.
For more information on L&G’s Collaborative Peer Review process, two local sources are available. Reporter Mike Faher’s article in the Brattleboro Reformer can be found at: http://www.reformer.com/news/ci_27708777/leland--gray-completes-first-peerreview-process.The CPR presentation at the March School Board meeting can be viewed on Brattleboro Community Television at http://www.brattleborotv.org/leland-and-gray-school-board/leland-and-gray-sb-mtg-31015.
As principal of Leland and Gray, please allow me to express my deep gratitude to the Leland and Gray School Board and our communities who have joined this adventurous innovation in school evaluation. As a result of your unfailing support, we have become a recognized vanguard of student voice. On April 8th, Dr. Dunn and students will present at the statewide conference in Lake Morey, “Power2: Youth and Adults Shaping Vermont Education Together.” The conference also features L&G’s campus supervisor Jeremiah Burrow and students, presenting on restorative practices as alternatives to traditional discipline.