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District Case Story - St. Vrain Valley RE-1

St. Vrain Valley RE-1 school district enrolls 27,379 students throughout 54 schools.

District Contacts:

  • Regina Renaldi - Executive Director, Priority Programs
  • Connie Syferd - Assistant Superintendent, Student Achievement
  • Tori Teague - Executive Director, Assessment, Curriculum and Instruction

What has been the benefit of Unified Improvement Planning (UIP) for the district?

The UIP process has changed how we do business related to the school improvement planning and implementation process. It gave us a tight process to follow for doing school improvement. It brought us all together. We knew that the plans would be published and we wanted to have strong plans. We now have a common vocabulary and a common understanding of the process. The UIP work improved collaboration at the school level so that the whole staff owned the data and the root cause(s). Principals and staff were able to see that getting to a real, rich, root causes was what was going to lead to effective action plans.

We had the best results in student achievement that we have had in a number of years. Looking at our data and how our schools have improved, it is clear that consistency, a common language, and targeted training for our Principals and our teachers have all made a difference. Our data went up in every area, whether it is CELA, CSAP, or academic growth. It has been really powerful.

What did UIP add to our existing improvement planning efforts?

St. Vrain did a lot of work with Data Driven Dialogue the year before UIPs were required. This was done in preparation for changes in improvement planning that were coming, i.e., as the legislation and CDE guidelines for the process were in progress. We kept the Board of Education, district leadership and principals informed as the legislation and guidelines evolved. We gave the Board periodic updates and also had a Board work session during which we talked about the impending changes in the improvement planning process. The District Accountability Committee (DAC) members were also kept informed. We really kept ahead of coming changes by making sure that everyone was prepared and informed.

The Data Driven Dialogue was a huge focus for us. This provided staff with direction regarding what to look for in their data and how to plan as a result of their data analysis. This work engaged many of our stakeholders in the data and improvement discussion and they were really ready and asking for more information as the UIP evolved and became clearer for everyone.

School and district performance scorecards and performance frameworks that were developed, along with the discussions related to them, helped drive our improvement work and fit well with our UIP plan when it was developed.

How do we find the time for UIP? What was our timeline for engaging in UIP?

It took an inordinate amount of time the first year, but we believed if we did it well the first year it would pay off for years to come in terms of improvements in student achievement. It was worth the effort to front load the training and it has to be done early in the year, beginning with the data, root cause, and action planning. This year, people are ready.

You really have to front load the process with principals early. You have to begin at the beginning of the year with your data because to do this well, schools need about 3 solid staff meetings to review the data, identify the root cause and then develop the action plan, if you are going to do it collaboratively.

Another thing that was helpful was doing the Data Driven Dialogue training in the spring before we began the UIP process in the fall. People knew this was coming because we had built the readiness the year before. We all went to state meetings and took some principals, particularly those from struggling schools. Having our Title I facilitator there was also helpful so they could answer questions related to those plans.

How did we build staff capacity to engage in UP?

As a district, we did intensive training.

The year before the UIP, we communicated with stakeholder groups and kept them informed of what was coming in school improvement planning. Then in June, we brought in Bruce Wellman to do Data Driven Dialogue training in addition to providing Data Driven Dialogue training before that. We also did the root cause training as well as performance score card and performance framework conversations. This training was done for all major leadership and stakeholder groups. In addition, we kicked off monthly training for Leadership Council and Principals as a part of their agenda at their monthly meetings to prepare them to take the planning processes back to their buildings and facilitate the training with their staff. The district staff front-loaded this work by providing the principals with a PowerPoint, materials and all of the activities for them to use with staff at the school level. So, in the fall, principals were expected and supported to do the Data Driven Dialogue process, get to the root cause, refine that root cause, and develop their strategies and action plans.

In addition to these trainings, for the Title I schools, we had extra sessions and also provided small school group work sessions for all schools (for 4-5 schools at a time) as well as one-on-one sessions to help them choose goal areas, and facilitate other parts of the planning process. We also provided voluntary sessions that principals could attend and, for about 3 months, every Title I school had extra sessions as well. There was a lot of small group and one-on-one assistance provided by the Department of Assessment and Curriculum and other District administrators, e.g., Title I, ELL, etc. (People who had been trained by the Executive Director of Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction, in support of building the school plans.)

We did some training with our DAC team as well as providing training for parents as part of the School Accountability Committee (SAC) teams. In June, before we implemented the UIPs, the DAC did an all-District training for SACs and principals. In the fall, we did parent update meetings in every school that talked about accreditation, plan types, and about the plan, what it was going to look like and how they would be accredited when the scores came out.

The Assessment, Curriculum and Instruction office has a blog on the district website where the director posts all of the UIP training tools including some that were locally developed, some selected CDE tools, and PowerPoint presentations for principals to access.

District staff created a more user-friendly format for the UIP criteria in the form of a checklist for the DAC based on the criteria that is in the UIP Handbook. Some principals used this as well. Others used the criteria from the UIP Handbook from CDE. The data derived from the Alpine achievement is really helpful as well.

How did we implement UIP at the district level? At the school level?

Principals provided the Data Driven Dialogue process experience for the staff in their schools including reviewing and analyzing the data, getting to the root cause, and then moving to strategies and the action plan. They had the materials and activities from the district office to help them do this. District staff assisted schools with those processes and facilitation. For example, at Skyline High School, we did the Data Driven Dialogue process with 6-7 people from the district office including staff from the Department of Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction and Professional Development helping to facilitate that process along with the school’s administrative team. This happened multiple times. For every step in the process, the district office staff was able to provide a team to support school leadership teams. Very few schools did not take advantage of the assistance. We created some sample UIPs at every level and sent them to CDE for their critique. Then we used them as models for schools to follow.

How do we address root cause analysis?

Once we found out that root cause was going to be an important part of the UIP process, along with Data Driven Dialogue, we talked about root cause a lot because we knew that part would involve difficult conversation for schools. We provided the training and support conversations at principal meetings and district-wide leadership meetings. We pushed the concept that root cause identification is the part of the process that can really make a difference for student achievement. Root cause analysis can empower you to collaboratively create an effective action plan that will make a difference. I think our plans were much, much better because we spent time on Data Driven Dialogue and root cause. Staff were prepared to get to good root causes which then lead to much better action planning. People are in agreement that when everyone owns that root cause and it is collaboratively selected or identified, the results are much better.

It is really important to get the trends and root causes right. The deputy superintendent wrote examples of a root cause and the “5 whys” as a model for principals to use as they worked with their staff. The key is to talk with staff about root causes being the things that they can change. It is not about student attributes. It is about how we make changes related to what happens in the classroom. Once staff realize that they have identified their root causes and they have done this collaboratively, they really own it. Now, in our second year, staff are really ready to identify their root causes. Last year, the conversations may have been really hard but this year, staff are saying, “We know how to get to that root cause. We know how to go through the Data Driven Dialogue process. And we appreciate how our administration takes what we say and puts it into the school improvement plan.”

How do we monitor the progress of the implementation of our UIP?

We are only going to get better at the action planning and progress monitoring in finding the right practices to make improvements in student learning.

We will also improve our progress monitoring by developing a common understanding of the interim targets and benchmarks language, and where we put that information in the UIP template. Providing good examples, we have outstanding plans to share which will help us.

This year, we have already reviewed the template changes with the principals along with the outcomes of their plans from last year. The reflection piece that is in the template for this year was a really good section to add to the process.

It would be nice to have a form to make sure we always look at interim targets and benchmarks and that we are accomplishing them. We have a lot of monitoring going on, e.g., monthly meetings with Turnaround schools, adjustments of plans as a result of the dramatic improvement in turnaround schools and their change of status, other monthly meetings, classroom walkthroughs and instructional rounds, etc.

One of the things we did for the first time this year is related to our use of PLC time. We have developed a calendar of priority topics, much like a matrix, for scheduling the work and discussions related to UIPs, chunking time, aligning curriculum with the new standards, and other critical time consuming priorities, so that all of the many tasks on a school’s plate throughout the year can be done. This was developed with our design team of principals, who meet regularly in response to a request from their colleagues re: guidance for how to schedule tasks and use staff meeting time effectively. The Design Team developed the document and presented it to their colleagues for input and approval, which led to their buy-in for it. The principals really liked the schedule and the process used to develop it.

How did we work with our local school board? District accountability committee? School accountability committees?

We split up the DAC teams and paired them with a principal, a district person and parents to review plans, making sure that the people on the teams did not review their own school’s plan. These teams reviewed only Title I, turnaround and priority improvement schools’ plans - those required by law.

The SAC teams reviewed the plans at the school level. While the SAC and DAC teams reviewed and may have provided some feedback on the plans, the best feedback was that provided by the district staff review.

How do we make the school and district plans fit together?

The plans evolved simultaneously and each impacted the other. Part of what drives the UIP development in St. Vrain is the data we get from our schools. What we learn from the data about how schools are performing impacts district planning and priorities. We may continue to develop our district and schools’ plans simultaneously but, long term, how our schools are performing and the support the schools need to support their plans will have a strong impact on the development of the district plan.

How did we work with our turnaround and priority improvement schools?

How do we engage in improvement planning when we are already high performing?

What advice would we give to other districts? What are our next steps?

We learned a lot along the way. The process worked for us. There is not much that the district would change about it. We wanted to do it right, the first time because we knew it would pay off in the future. It is exciting that we don’t have to provide as much support this year. We still plan to review things with the principals each month, making sure that everyone is on top of the process and getting the work done. We want to make sure we provide the right support. We will be getting new principals together so that they understand the St. Vrain process and have access to the support they need.