Pittsburgh Sunnyside teachers learn from each other

Changing the Classroom/One of an occasional series on teaching in Pittsburgh Public Schools


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When teacher Carla Jackson was transferred to a third-grade classroom at Pittsburgh Sunnyside PreK-8 several weeks into the school year, she was surprised to find her new classroom already decorated.

Her new colleagues at the Stanton Heights school made sure her room was in shape -- alphabet and number line running across the wall, display spaces for literacy and math words, a mini-classroom library and computers ready to go -- so she could focus on her students.

She only had to add personal touches, such as posting classroom expectations and African proverb pictures and rearranging the desks into a U pattern.

"I was surprised," said Ms. Jackson, who is in her seventh building in 11 years with Pittsburgh Public Schools. "I could get right into the curriculum."

Ms. Jackson may have been the only teacher at Sunnyside who was surprised.

Sunnyside is a school where teachers feel welcome to visit their colleagues' classrooms, take a technique they notice back to their own classrooms and ask a colleague to give input on how well they use it.

It wasn't always that way.

"It used to be every man or woman for himself," said first-grade teacher Barbara Sims, who has taught at Sunnyside for 27 years.

Eric Rogalsky, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade math and has been at Sunnyside for 12 years, said there used to be a separation between the elementary and middle school teachers. The school began phasing in grades 6, 7 and 8 in 1999.

He said there was a shift in attitudes after Laura Dadey became principal in 2003.

"We are responsible for all of the kids," he said.

In 2006, teachers and students from the closed Morningside school came to the building.

While some didn't feel welcome at first, after a year of transition, teachers said they became more like a family.

Now the school is using the district's latest evaluation system known as RISE -- Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation -- to foster collaboration.

RISE, which rolled out districtwide in fall 2010, serves not only as an evaluation tool for a teacher's job rating, but is designed to encourage teachers to explore ways to grow.

To let the Sunnyside staff know how RISE works, Ms. Dadey drafted a teacher, Pam Reddick, then teaching fourth-grade communications, to star in a video with her in early 2011.

The video covered Ms. Dadey and Ms. Reddick talking about an upcoming lesson, Ms. Reddick teaching the lesson and then the two of them talking afterwards.

But instead of the video being just an exercise on how RISE would work, teachers began using some of Ms. Reddick's techniques in their own classrooms.

Ms. Sims liked how Ms. Reddick used "turn and talk" in which students divide into groups of four and talk about a lesson.

While she already had used a form of it with her first-graders, Ms. Sims added techniques to enhance participation, including more active listening.

For a professional development session in fall 2011, Ms. Dadey had teachers each bring a strategy they used to share. The outcome, she said, was "teachers asking one another, 'Can I have a copy of that?' 'Can I see this?' "

That was followed by giving teachers opportunities to watch their colleagues in December 2011. Each teacher was matched with two teachers, one of the teacher's choice and one of the principal's choice.

Fifth-grade teacher Chris Warden said he used to visit other teachers' classrooms briefly, such as dropping off a note. But now he feels welcome to sit down longer and learn.

Mr. Warden was particularly interested in a system that middle school social studies teacher Gina Kim used to ensure that all students participate.

Ms. Kim keeps a checklist of students and has strategies aimed at more participation, such as occasionally naming the students who haven't spoken.

Sometimes she has students write to a prompt, and, when she sees a particularly interesting answer, she tells the student, "This is a really good point. I'd love to hear you share that."

Mr. Warden watched her class, tried the system in his own class and then invited Ms. Kim to see him in action and give feedback.

Other ideas have spread from room to room.

Many teachers have copied one another and now are doing "exit slips" on which students write what they learned, sometimes on Post-It notes.

"It spread like wildfire," said teacher Amy James.

One teacher got interested in using clickers, devices with which students can indicate their answers so teachers have instant feedback. The school started with three sets of clickers through a grant and now has eight.

Teachers willingly share worksheets and lesson plans.

"We're a team. We're not in isolation. We think of our school as a we, not an I," said Ms. Reddick.

Some ways teachers work together are more systematic. Like other city schools this fall, Sunnyside has teachers with the ITL2 -- instructional teacher leader -- career ladder positions, including Ms. James and Mr. Rogalsky. They teach fewer classes and work with teachers in the building.

Ms. James, for example, is scheduled about twice a week to teach third-grade writing with Ms. Jackson, whose experience is mostly in middle school social studies. This year's third grade class is the lowest grade she's ever taught.

The students get one-on-one attention, and Ms. Jackson was able to quickly learn the expected level for third-grade writing. "In just the few weeks that I have been here, I have learned so much from her," she said.

Some of the teachers made a video about their experiences.

Mary VanHorn, vice president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said, "I wish all of our schools could be like this. This is what you have when people trust one another." Sheadded, "The principal sets the tone."

Sunnyside, which is a neighborhood school, has 30 teachers and 390 students in PreK-8, about 79 percent of whom are low-income. The enrollment includes two regional support classrooms for special education students -- vision support and multiple disabilities -- from throughout the district. As a single-story school, it sometimes gets students from outside its feeder area who have difficulty with stairs.

The staff was quite disappointed when the state put Sunnyside on the list of lowest-achieving 15 percent of schools in the state, making its students eligible to seek an Opportunity Scholarship to go to a nonpublic or another public school.

That designation flies in the face of its value-added scores, which show how much students grow during the time they are there.

In the 2012 Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System, Sunnyside is rated as showing "moderate evidence that the school exceeded" the state's growth standard in reading and evidence that it met the growth standard in math.

By another measure in 2012, Sunnyside missed making adequate yearly progress, known as AYP, because of its special education scores on state tests. It made its AYP targets in 2010 and 2011.

The special education category counts students in the school's feeder pattern, including those attending other schools.

Otherwise, its reading and math scores in the remaining categories -- overall, black and economically disadvantaged -- are high enough to make those AYP targets on a growth measure.

Of students overall in the AYP tally, 55.7 percent are proficient or advanced in reading and 66 percent in math on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.

education - neigh_city

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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