SUSAN Pike had no idea what she was getting herself into three years ago when she came out of retirement to teach math at U.S. Grant High School.
Pike was suspicious of training being implemented at Grant, where 64 teachers lost their jobs — including 11 of 14 math teachers — when the school hit academic rock bottom.
Today, the 60-year-old is part of a quirky group of math teachers at Grant whose students are thriving as a result of professional learning communities planned for nearly 20 other schools in the Oklahoma City district.
The math group and other groups meet daily to compare data from regular assessments and share ideas for success. They share a passion for teaching and interacting with students that Pike had not witnessed in more than three decades of teaching.
“Twenty-five years ago, you would hear teachers say ‘I can teach it, and if they don't get it, too bad,'” Pike said. “You just don't hear that here. There's an energy here.”
Grant, which scored a C grade on its state report card two years ago, missed an A by one point on its 2012-2013 grade card. Nearly 90 percent of the school's 851 students tested proficient in algebra, algebra 1 and geometry.
Tamie Sanders, the former Grant principal now in charge of secondary schools for the district, credits professional learning communities for the rapid improvement.
“They are about ‘what do the kids need to learn, not what do I like to teach,'” Sanders said. “I assess whether or not they understand or have mastered what it is I'm trying to teach, because I am only teaching them those things that they will be held accountable for.”
The turnaround at Grant has been so impressive that the Oklahoma City school district is going to spend $1 million in federal funds to implement similar training at 18 poorly performing secondary schools beginning with the 2014-2015 school year. The money will go to Solution Tree, an Indiana-based company that provides teacher training, allowing the teachers themselves to collaborate on best practices as they undergo training.
Board members unanimously approved the plan last week in hopes it will have a similar effect on the district's struggling middle schools, high schools and mid-high schools.
“I think there will be some results that are almost immediate from a standpoint of collaboration among teachers and the team-building that provides,” said interim Superintendent Dave Lopez, adding that he expects to see marked academic improvement in the first year.
Teacher Kourtney Chambers, 23, joined the Grant math team in January.
Chambers, who also coaches at the school, credits her colleagues with “helping me tremendously.”
“The PLC gave me that drive to better, as a teacher, as an individual, as a coach,” she said. “I can't expect my kids to change and learn if I'm not willing to do the same thing.”
Pike and other members of the math group at Grant agreed that professional learning communities will go a long way in turning around academic achievement provided teachers and administrators at other schools buy in to the concept.
“They're going to have to weed out some of the negativity,” said Nicole Amzycki, 26, a second-year geometry teacher. “You're going to have a lot of teachers ... who say I don't want to change. I like what I'm doing. I'm stuck in my ways.”
Sanders, the district's executive director of secondary education and reform, said she expects to encounter some resistance from school principals and teachers.
“My expectation is that children learn,” Sanders said, “and if what you're doing as a teacher is not benefiting children, then you are going to do something different or you can't teach here.”
Sanders said professional learning communities like the one at Grant have a proven track record for success and will attract other teachers who are willing to put in the work.
“They focus on what real teachers get into teaching for and that is kids' lives, kids' successes,” she said. “Just the joy that comes when watching a kid have that moment where they say, ‘Hmm, I am going to go to college.' You can't buy that ... once you get a taste of that you want more.”
Once known more for fighting and quitting school, Grant students now seek out their teachers for help and are willing to come by the school on weekends for extra help.
They wear their pride on T-shirts that recognize their academic success, the teachers said.
“If you ask any of our kids, they will say ‘I learned way more in your classroom than I ever learned before,” said Cristina Moershel, 31, a second-year algebra teacher. “They not afraid to say they scored advanced on their (end of instruction exams). They take ownership of their scores.”