How Learning Communities Helped Reshape Professional Development in a Seattle-Area District

Chris Sheridan, Professional Development Specialist, Lake Washington School District, and David Lippman, FOSS Project Specialist, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley
March 15, 2007 | Professional Development

In 2003, Lake Washington School District reorganized to better serve the professional development needs of its teachers. This decentralized system resulted in a more responsive professional development structure that could efficiently deliver information and resources to teachers in the district. The new organization has been critically important to the successful implementation of FOSS in the district over the past three years.

The district, which covers 75 square miles on the east side of the Seattle metropolitan area and serves approximately 24,000 students and their families, has divided its schools into four learning communities. Each community is headed by a Director of School Support, and each of the 41 elementary and junior high schools has a leadership team including four teacher leaders, one each in the areas of literacy, science, math, and technology. (High schools, also a part of the learning communities, are organized somewhat differently.) The Directors of School Support work to support the schools within their learning communities, including providing support for principals. The teacher leaders serve as advocates, mentor/coaches, model teachers, resource coordinators, and professional development facilitators.

Before moving to the learning communities model, the district administration, along with the professional development team and principals, planned many of the professional development activities based on data from testing and district goals.

Lake Washington School District - Teaching, Learning, and School Support Division

The district professional development specialists then offered workshops and classes for teachers throughout the district.

Now, individual schools determine the professional development that teachers feel they need to help students learn. Professional development planning starts with conversations around student work; the school leadership teams examine student work to see what students know and can do. Based on the learning data, teams then create goals for each grade. The professional development plan is also informed by what teachers feel they need to help students meet specific school goals. Often the professional development is designed and led by the site teacher leaders, or even grade-level teachers.

As a result, one school may provide different professional development opportunities than another school in the same learning community.


Of course time is always an issue, and in order for learning communities to be effective, teachers need time to work together around their school's student learning goals. In order to improve effective communication in the learning communities, the school schedule was modified to allow time for teacher collaboration. The district now supports five full-day training days (three of which are release days) throughout the year and a two-hour early release each Wednesday. The Wednesday release time can be focused on school, grade level, or individual goals. This schedule not only allows the whole staff to work together during a release, but also allows for important conversations at the team or individual level. Teacher leaders are also provided release time to attend meetings, paid a stipend, and have paid time for evening and weekend meetings.

At a recent Wednesday meeting, an elementary science teacher leader, Jennifer Cruze, facilitated a two-hour FOSS formative assessment training for the staff at her school. This training covered the distinctions between formative and summative assessment, the types of formative assessments used in the FOSS program, and how to use the formative assessment strategies with actual student work. Later, teachers had the opportunity to look at their own students' work using the formative assessments in their specific FOSS modules. Many teachers use this time to collaboratively look at student work to determine specific skills or concepts.

Teacher leaders also communicate with other schools in their learning communities. The leadership teams from each school in the learning community meet once a month for a two to three hour meeting. This meeting allows for communication on any pertinent topics and for planning meetings for all the teachers within a community. On the five full-day professional development days each year, teachers generally meet with their entire learning community. For example, the initial FOSS grade-level training was a learning community day. The rest of the science work—related to topics such as inquiry and assessment—was done at the schools by teacher leaders. In addition, teacher leaders meet together to share their schools' work, determine common goals, increase their own expertise, and plan together. These meetings facilitate the dissemination of information within each learning community and throughout the district.


Now in its third year, the program has successfully moved from a more centrally directed professional development model to a locally distributed model where the professional development is embedded in the daily work of teachers at the school level. The establishment of science teacher leaders with a depth of knowledge in both content and inquiry has allowed the district to further support teachers in the implementation of the FOSS curriculum. Now teachers j-ust need to j-og down the hall to get questions answered by a teacher leader. Teachers appreciate the opportunity to collaborate and influence their own professional development based on their schools' needs. Teachers are more involved in their own professional development and receive training better matched to their specific needs.

Providing time for teachers to work together is clearly impacting student learning. Working collaboratively has allowed teachers to look at data from a variety of assessments and to plan effective lessons to help all students learn. Last year the j-unior high science teachers focused their work on aligning and clarifying standards and teaching inquiry. Students benefited from the extra efforts teachers made to look at their practice. The district's j-unior high science scores improved by 13 points in one year, with positive gains in elementary school WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) scores as well.

The Lake Washington restructuring process involved several profound changes in District operation. First was the reorganization of a fairly large, centralized district into four more-responsive learning communities of about 10 schools and 6,000 students each. The leaner units meant more manageable numbers at planning meetings and more efficient communication among teachers throughout the communities.


Second, Lake Washington made substantial investments in the professional development of its teachers. Time is precious in education, and the district wisely committed a substantial amount of it for teachers to participate in professional development activities. In the case of science, every teacher received initial training on how to use the FOSS modules effectively and subsequently participated in professional development activities to refine and focus their science teaching practice. To ensure the professional development experiences were maximally effective, time was also provided for the leadership team at each school to do extensive planning. Having time to plan, collaborate, and reflect ensures that there is a shared sense of direction and purpose in the district.

Third, the district invested in people. The district has three science specialists in the professional development office who stay connected with science education issues and policies and convey important information and services to the schools. At the site level, each school has a teacher leader in science. The extra services provided to the staff at the school are supported by stipends from the district. This supported time guarantees that there is a person thinking about and promoting science issues at the school at all times.

Finally, Lake Washington has not lost sight of the reason for engaging in this demanding restructuring process: better learning opportunities for students. The site-based professional development activities during the third year of the process concentrated on student work. Teachers learned to trust the evidence presented by students themselves as the best indicators of the effectiveness of the teaching/learning process. This data-based approach to understanding student performance guided the focus of professional development activities at the schools. As a result, teachers are better attuned to the needs of their students, they are better able to make informed judgments about modifying their practice, and the students learn better and perform at a higher level.