Guest Post: Small Learning Communities Revisited: Is Yours a Powerhouse?

October 26, 2017 no comments Signe Swenson

Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her insights on small learning communities!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

 

Small Learning Communities Revisited:  Is Yours a Powerhouse?

 

Students come to school motivated and ready to learn every day, but only in class projects where they find purpose, when they have choice, and when they feel a sense of belonging.  If these things are absent, it is hard to engage them in meaningful academic study.  How do educators foster the kind of classroom environment that inspires students to take real and lasting ownership of their learning in a way that prepares them for a future filled with promise and opportunity?

One way is through creating small learning communities (SLCs).  In an SLC, students learn in small groups.  Teachers work closely with their students, ideally over a period of years.  SLCs may be known as houses, academies, or a school-within-a-school.  Sometimes an entire school may be classified as an SLC, such as in a charter or magnet school.  An overarching theme may or may not be part of an SLC, but real-world application towards some stated focus is often present.

No matter what type of school environment you may be in, strong evidence points to higher achievement levels and increased graduation rates when schools are organized into SLCs.  Students are more likely to take rigorous, advanced courses, and they are more likely to engage in co-curricular activities.  Perhaps most importantly of all, students report having more positive feelings about school when they learn in an SLC (Jimerson, 2006).

But structure alone is not enough.  SLCs must be viewed as a means to a better set of outcomes for students, not the desired end (Fouts, et al, 2006).  Sadly, SLCs can be found in many school settings, but when subject to close scrutiny, they often are in name only.  Working with a small group of students is merely an entry point to being an SLC.  A nontraditional set of beliefs and core values around the role of the student and the teacher are central elements that substantially change the conditions for learning.  Without those firmly in place, chairs will have shifted, but hearts and minds will have not.  Well-intentioned staff will mistakenly spend the majority of their time developing protocols for managing the details around who does what, when, and where but forget to be clear on why an SLC is a powerful tool for learning.  

What distinguishes an SLC is its “focus on the learner/learning, and in particular, the active and collaborative nature of teachers’ and students’ work” (Oxley, 2008).  This characterization of an SLC honors the personal role and responsibility that must be afforded each student if teachers expect them to embrace learning and see relevance in their school experience.  Teachers must view students as full partners who bring a wealth of knowledge and skills with them to school.  When this shift in mindset occurs, teachers are as profoundly affected as students.  Researchers have found that teachers in high-performing SLCs commit deeply to a shared set of beliefs about teaching and learning, have higher expectations for students, and collaborate more frequently (AIR and SRI, 2006).

Even when the right mindset about teaching and learning is balanced with an emphasis on the operational details, creating a high-performing SLC can be challenging.  Newly-formed schools struggle with the logistics of starting a new school, and planning and implementation around SLCs can be overwhelming.  Promoting enrollment, branding efforts, and starting everything from ground zero is no small undertaking.  Teachers may not have enough expertise with a design model so vastly different than what they may have experienced in previous assignments.  And let’s face it; they, too, are forming and norming as an instructional team.    

Traditional schools wanting to embed SLCs into the existing environment face even greater barriers.  Any school struggles with organizational change, and because SLCs require dramatically new thinking about teaching and learning, the work of change seekers is likely to collide with the traditional notion of students as passive participants and teachers as the center of the classroom experience (AIR and SRI, 2006).  This often spells disaster for a budding SLC.  Time, tradition, and rigid structures can act like a storm surge that follows a hurricane and wash away well-intentioned plans in a matter of days, even seconds.  We are, after all, causing a change in atmospheric conditions in schools when we try to implement new ways of doing business; days of high and low pressure are inevitable.  

Despite the challenges, the rewards for learning are many when schools make SLCs a central component of their program.  According to Barbara Wornson, Executive Director at Arcadia Charter School, located in Northfield, Minnesota, the small aspect of their learning community is what enables relationships to flourish.  Arcadia enrolls approximately 120 students in grades 6-12 and has been open since 2004.  Staff get to know each child on an individual basis.  Students also get to know each other well.  As a result, a true community is formed.  

Arcadia uses “lots of restorative practices, lots of circles, and lots of talking through things,” says Wornson (B. Wornson, personal communication, October 13, 2017).  Students have a voice, and there is a measure of accountability that is part and parcel of being a member of the Arcadia community.  Their SLC works best in the mix of classes and project-driven work they have developed.  Because of the small learning community, students know the rigor expected in their projects, for which there is a well-designed process for approving, supporting, and presenting a proposal for individual study.  “Students don’t fear failure or ridicule.  The advisory model helps them shape their projects and the expectations around them.  Still,” Wornson cautions, “size is not a panacea.”  Some students have special needs that require supportive attention.  And while it is exciting that students can work at their own pace, finding enough mentors has been challenging for Arcadia.  Mentors from the community provide a significant level expertise to students when studying their topic of choice.  To meet the demand for the number of mentors needed, they leverage volunteers and partner with an array of community entities.  Wornson encourages others utilizing SLCs to be sure to “put legs under their mission and vision.”  Resources will be slim, she says, and you have to be creative.  

If you want to succeed in creating a high-performing SLC that takes teaching and learning to a new level, it is wise to take the long view.  Whether you are in a start-up school or a traditional setting seeking to create an SLC, the model must be allowed to evolve over time.  If your SLC has been in place for a while, it may be time for a deep look at how well it is meeting your desired expectations.  

An SLC is not a structural element, as the name would suggest.  As stated earlier, shared beliefs and actions grounded in those beliefs are what activate the power of an SLC, not the size of the group alone.  The people at the center of your SLC – students, teachers, and parents – need frequent opportunities to explore and articulate their beliefs.  This will enable them to move from individual understandings to framing a collective set of shared ideals that are highly tangible through school practices.  Only then does an SLC become a compelling way of being.  

Nor is an SLC is a methodology to master.  An SLC matures over time; therefore you can and should expect multiple iterations.  Change will be constant, and it will require attention that will need to be sustained over a span of years.  An ongoing focus on the health and vitality of your SLC should always be part of your continuous improvement process.  A robust set of guiding questions, strategies, and tools to position your SLC for success no matter where you place yourself on the development continuum will help make this possible.  

An excellent guide for practitioners wanting to maximize the potential of their SLC is Diana Oxley’s From High School to Learning Community:  Five Domains of Best Practice (2008).  Oxley highlights five domains of best practice in an SLC:

  1. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning teams
  2. Rigorous, relevant curriculum and instruction
  3. Inclusive program and instructional practices
  4. SLC-based continuous program improvement
  5. Building and district support for SLCs

From High School to Learning Community is comprehensive and written in a succinct and reader-friendly way.  It includes a look at the research supporting each domain, a rationale for why it is an essential element, and specific, actionable things you can do to take your SLC to the next level.  There is a working checklist for each domain and well-designed tools for practitioners, including things like suggestions for team composition, sample schedules, tip sheets, advisory models, strategies for working with parents, and how to individualize professional development.  There is even a team-led inquiry model. If used with intentionality, this guide will help to ensure precious time is focused on meaningful dialogue and purposeful action.

Another smart way to invest in your SLC is to enlist the help of people who can guide and support your vision for what you want your SLC to become.  EdVisions offers several means by which they can assist you with a personalized approach, tailored specifically for you and your school.  

What sets EdVisions apart from similar development organizations is their emphasis on a holistic approach.  According to Doug Thomas, Director of Development at EdVisions, transforming schools is hard work that takes time.  The size of schools alone is a big part of what needs to change.  Smaller is simply better; schools can be much more personal for students – and staff as well.  But, he points out, “Small schools by themselves are not the answer.  To redesign, you need to reallocate.” (D. Thomas, personal communication, October 22, 2017).

As an evangelist for innovative practices since EdVisions began in 2000, Thomas knows the challenges in creating small learning communities and cites the typical barriers to transforming schools, including school culture, leadership – even our own time spent in the classroom as a student.  Unfortunately, much of what works best for students is counter to what many of us have personally experienced.  

Not to be deterred, Thomas is passionate when speaking about a new way of thinking about education in America.  “We have to fundamentally change the model for schools.  EdVisions fosters a real and provocative conversation with schools.  We ask them to do something that is very difficult to do.  It demands an immediate explanation of how this works with kids, and we’ve figured that out.  We deeply immerse teachers and planning groups in the design process.”  

The Ed°Essentials outlines the four major components of the work EdVisions focuses on with schools.  To talk with EdVisions about how they can support your small learning community and make it a powerhouse for learning, contact Doug Thomas at 612-290-1708 (cell) or 612-601-1603 (office).  You may also email him at dougthomas@edvisions.org.  (For more from Thomas on what is needed to ensure a successful initiative, see his article in EdVisions’ October newsletter entitled What It Takes to Successfully Launch an Innovation (p. 5).

 

 

References

American Institutes for Research and SRI International. (2006). Evolution of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grants Initiative:  2001-2005 Final Report.  Menlo Park, CA.  Prepared by the National Evaluation of High School Transformation, Washington, DC.

Fouts, Jeffrey T., Duane B. Baker, Carol J. Brown, and Shirley C. Riley. (2006). Leading the Conversion Process:  Lessons Learned and Recommendations for Converting to Small Learning Communities.  Fouts & Associates, Tucson, AZ.

Jimerson, Lorna. (2006). The Hobbit Effort:  Why Small Works in Public Schools.  The Rural School & Community Trust, p. 5, cited in Pubs.cde.ca.gov/tcsii/ch5/smllrngcmunities.aspx.

Oxley, Diana. (2008). From High School to Learning Community:  Five Domains of Best Practice.  Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland.