Partners’ Support Helps Bring About Strong Learning Gains in West Contra Costa, CA

The Kennedy family of schools’ long tenure as the lowest-performing feeder pattern in West Contra Costa Unified School District appears to be ending as recently released test score data shows that academic achievement in most Kennedy family schools appears to be improving. Seven of nine schools showed enough improvement to move into a higher band on the state’s accountability matrix in either math, reading, or both.    

The leaders of West Contra Costa USD, which is located 15 miles northeast of San Francisco, decided in the spring of 2017 to work with Partners in School Innovation in an effort to improve achievement at Kennedy High School and its eight feeder middle and elementary schools. This was aligned with the district's strategic plan, which called for more intensive supports to schools furthest from success in literacy. 

“We chose to work with Partners in School Innovation because of the organization’s proven track record of results in public schools serving low-income students of color,” says Superintendent Matt Duffy.  

Partners has created a Transformation Network with the Kennedy family of schools

Partners in School Innovation delivers a research-based approach to school-transformation in order to build educators’ capacity in leadership, systems for professional learning, and instruction, and ultimately produce breakthrough student achievement. WCCUSD and Partners refer to the collaborative effort to significantly improve learning in the Kennedy family a “transformation network.”

The goal of the transformation network is to develop participants’ skills in leadership, adult learning, change management, and educational equity. In this network strategy, each school fields a team of four to six educators (typically the principal, a handful of teachers, and an instructional coach) to become the core change agents at their schools. For two years, teams from all nine schools came together for monthly half-day professional learning sessions and received follow-up support on site from Partners staff between monthly network sessions. Over time, as systemic improvements have been made at each school, local educators have assumed more and more ownership of the school-transformation process so they can sustain progress after the partnership ends. 

Tom Panas, president of the WCCUSD school board, says of the support from Partners, "I have sat in on both Kennedy family professional education sessions and school-site meetings, and I’ve been quite impressed by the focus of the Partners staff and the planning they do with the teams."

Kennedy family schools outpace other WCCUSD schools in student achievement gains

The professional learning that Kennedy family educators have been undergoing for the past two years has translated into gains in student performance. This can be seen in the schools’ color-coded performance levels in California’s accountability system. Between the 2016-17/2017-18 growth cycle and the 2017-18/2018-19 growth cycle, most schools in the Kennedy family moved up one performance level in at least one subject. 

The chart below indicates the percent of schools moving up at least one performance level from spring 2017 to spring 2019. As the chart shows, Kennedy family schools were substantially more likely than other WCCUSD schools to improve from one growth cycle to the next. Specifically, in English language arts, 67% of Kennedy family schools increased their performance level while 37% of non-Kennedy family schools increased theirs. Similarly, in math, 56% of Kennedy family schools moved up in performance levels while only 37% of non-Kennedy family schools moved up. 

Superintendent Duffy is pleased with the results to date, saying “we’re cautiously optimistic about these results -- the fact that they’re present in the majority of the Kennedy feeder pattern schools is significant and the fact that we achieved them by supporting teachers and leaders means that they are likely sustainable.”

Alex MacIver, the District Partnership Director for Partners in School Innovation, also finds the overall results encouraging. "The momentum for results is clearly building," says MacIver. "These scores prove that, but we're not out of the woods yet. The results need to continue to improve, and our secondary school outcomes need to show even more growth. We need to redouble our efforts to support those leaders and continue getting the work on the right track." 

WCCUSD educators value Partners’ high-quality support 

The network sessions have been well received, with 92% of participants rating the design objectives as good or excellent and 87% saying that the objectives of the sessions have been met. Participants have also said that they particularly value the network for the time it gives them to collaborate around continuous improvement efforts and to dive into equity issues and culturally relevant instruction. In addition, 90% of network participants say their Partners coach is approachable and available when they need support.

Partners is helping Nystrom Elementary make systematic improvements

One school that has benefited greatly from Partners’ support is Nystrom Elementary. Substantial gains in student achievement at Nystrom have resulted from a collaborative effort between school leaders and Partners to make systemic changes at the school. 

“In working with Partners we’ve created some systems that allow us to be less reactive and a little more proactive, which allows us to focus on building the capacity of the adults in the building,” says Jamie Allardice, the school’s principal. “That's the fun part of this job -- helping our teachers and staff grow and supporting them in doing their incredibly important work.”

The new systems are effective partly because Nystrom ensures that they work in tandem. Two years ago, administrators and an instructional coach began holding a weekly "systems team" meeting to make sure all of the school’s programs are aligned and to consider how to maximize the effectiveness of upcoming meetings and professional development sessions.

In addition, Nystrom has emphasized teamwork among teachers. Principal Allardice believes that such collaboration is a key lever to increasing student learning -- but only if it is well-organized. 

“If we don't provide structure and support for that collaboration time, it won't create change in our classrooms and in student learning,” says Allardice. 

The school doubled the time for which its instructional leadership team meets each month so that the team could design and continuously improve teacher-collaboration. For example, the ILT supports several professional learning systems for teams of teachers:

  • Grade level teams meet weekly to engage in data-driven instruction cycles so they can plan instruction and interventions.  
  • Every trimester, these grade level teams hold day-long collaboration sessions to engage in strategic planning and reflection.
  • Two teams of teachers (upper grades and lower grades), with the support of the math coach, engage in lesson study, collaboratively design lessons, observe implementation of the lesson together, and reflect on practice.

The positive effects of these systemic changes can be seen in student test scores. Specifically, the portion of Nystrom’s students who met or exceeded the standard on the SBAC ELA test improved by 4.5 percentage points between 2018 and 2019, and the portion who did not meet the standard decreased by 5.7 percentage points. In math, the percentage of students who met/exceeded the standard increased by 4.9 points, and the percentage who did not meet the standard decreased by 7.5 points.

At Nystrom and the other schools in the Kennedy family, educators have displayed determination, an openness to change, and a collaborative spirit. They have been strong partners in the drive toward educational equity, and as a result, student outcomes are improving. Partners looks forward to continuing this work together.