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Member Practices

A Rural District Accepts the Change Challenge

How can we align our structures and processes to support 21st Century student outcomes for students in our rural community? One would think that changing the culture of a small, rural school division of 1,400 students would be a relatively easy task. With only three schools and a staff of 125 teachers- how hard could this be?  I have to say that getting the local educators, students, staff, and community to see the urgent need for change in the approach to education was easy. It was actually implementing and “living the talk” that became difficult as the timing of revised state standards and assessments threatened to take us off course.

Our journey began three years ago when we visited a school division in our region that had begun the process of implementing 21st Century learning. We observed and interviewed leaders, teachers, and students regarding the actions taken and the perceived outcomes. From that experience, we took away the following recommendations:  start small and develop a long range plan for implementation.

The first step was ensuring that all stakeholders within the school community were aware of the urgent need for change and defining 21st Century learning in Cumberland, Virginia. A process and professional development were designed to use with civic organizations, parents, students, and staff. All stakeholders were shown information on the changing world and workplace (often hard to see for ourselves in a rural area without businesses or industries) and then groups discussed what skills they wanted the children of Cumberland to possess.  Lists were compiled and posted. Then, each group was referred to sections of Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap. Depending on the stakeholder group, the information on Wagner’s seven survival skills was presented or “jigsawed”. In most cases, stakeholder lists matched the survival skills; therefore, the division went with identifying the seven survival skills as 21st Century learning in Cumberland.  According to a 21st Century learning survey given in the spring of 2014, 99% of teachers in Cumberland County Public Schools (CuCPS) reported that they agreed/strongly agreed that 21st Century learning skills are important to the life-long success of their students.

The administrative team then established a 21st Century Learning Steering Committee that developed a five-year implementation plan; designed and implemented professional development; and supported efforts within the schools.  The five-year plan began with defining what each 21st Century skill meant and “looked like” in student and professional learning with a five year goal of being able to assess 21st Century Learning.  As we moved through the process, the focus on 21st Century learning was maintained through weekly blogs; the design and structures of meetings and professional development; and highlighting examples of 21st Century learning in classrooms on blogs, Facebook, the division website, and during every School Board meeting. There is continuous and consistent focus on teaching the required content (state standards) through 21st Century learning skills and 21st Century learning is a non-negotiable in unit/lesson planning. Each year we conduct 21st Century learning professional development for all new staff and for pre-service teachers participating in university partnerships and/or student teaching.

After a strong 21st Century learning foundation had been established, the 21st Century Learning Steering Committee began work on assisting teachers on how to change from traditional methods of teaching to deeper learning of the required content. The committee designed semester-long modules on designing Project Based Learning (PBL) that consisted of awareness, information on PBL, time for design, critique of projects, mentor assistance, and a showcase of work.  Cohorts of teachers also participated in Math Design Collaborative and the Literacy Design Collaborative professional development through the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).  School administrators with the assistance of teachers from the Steering Committee focused on 21st Century learning within their schools through school-level professional development and book studies. Simultaneously, the administrative team participated in learning how to determine the level of 21st Century learning in the classroom by observing the actions of the teacher and students using a rubric. Professional development was conducted on the use of the 21st Century Learning Rubric and the team participated in “norming” activities to ensure everyone was on the same page.

As we aligned our structures and processes within the division, preparing our students to be 21st Century life-long learners, workers, and citizens became the purpose for which CuCPS exists. During the 2013-2014 school year, a team of doctoral students from a local university conducted a 21st Century Skills Implementation Evaluation in our division. The team conducted classroom observations in every classroom using our 21st Century learning rubrics; conducted a teacher survey; and held focus groups with students. The findings of the study were used to revise and update the division 21st Century Learning Plan, professional development, and other structures and processes such as the school calendar to adjust for more collaborative planning time. Our next work will be in assessment alignment.  By the way -- the results from the study regarding the level of 21st Century implementation by school matched the success of the school based on state standards.

Along every journey, comes bumps in the road. We have been challenged this year in remaining focused on 21st Century learning skills. With changing state standards and assessments, two schools are in academic review. Our staff has had to concentrate on reverting back to unpacking and learning state standards.  At first, one might think that we would have to put 21st Century learning on the back burner. However, we keep pushing forward reminding each other that this is not the case- the new state standards and assessments require students to have a deeper understanding of the standards.  As administrators, teachers, and students unpacked standards, they have found the 21st Century learning skills embedded in the process skills and cognitive levels of the standards.

It is times such as now-- when we have great challenges to overcome at CuCPS, that it is critical that our structures, processes, and reflections align to preparing students for life and work and that we don’t lose sight of our purpose and long-term goals for our students.  While mastery of content standards is important, we as a division must maintain a clear focus on the shared vision of preparing our students to be successful 21st Century life-long learners, workers, and citizens.  If we remain true to this purpose, our students will succeed on the new state assessments, but more importantly- in life!

A version of this blog first appeared in a P21’s Blogazine (March 10, 2015, Volume 2, Issue 4, Number 2)

EdLeader21 is a national network of school and district leaders focused on integrating the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) into 21st Century education. For more information on how to become a member of EdLeader21, contact Sara Mobley at smobley@edleader21.com.