[Editor’s Note: This post is the second of a series examining best practices in professional development at Christian schools. The first post looked at general principles for effective PD, and this post outlines one promising approach for putting those principles into action].
At Delmarva Christian Schools (DCS) in Delaware, we recently set what seemed to be an impossible goal for our PK–8 campus, which is located roughly 30 minutes from our high school campus. The goal:
“We want consistent, intentional, professionally led, team-oriented, growth-focused, longitudinal, and measurable professional development for our teachers—and we want it each week—every week—for an hour in the morning—with 100 percent of teaching staff present every time.” And, “We need this to happen in a way that does not impact parents financially, or change their morning family schedule.” And, “We want our students to be engaged in productive activities during the hour, while incurring NO additional cost to the school. Oh, and none of their teachers will be available to supervise.” And, “Even though we’ve already started the school year, we want to launch this in eight weeks.” Ready… set… go!
Impossible! Unless … (Pray humbly, proceed boldly!)
Okay… we had one thing going for us that you may not… we had done this before. At the high school, “Late-Start Thursdays” have been in place roughly five years—and on a high school campus this is a much easier conversation. A large portion of the population drive themselves to school, and those that must arrive “early” or be dropped off (at what would be considered the normal start time) either work quietly in the student union or form small groups in which to study or manage themselves until school starts. But, elementary students can’t drive themselves. And, elementary students rarely work quietly in small groups and manage themselves (at least not ours!) So, back to our conundrum. We had seen the fruit of several years of consistent, intentional, “pouring into” our teaching staff at the high school, and we knew that late starts could alter the trajectory of a school, but we only had experience at the high school level. And we had eight weeks to go from “How do we even start?” to “Dear parents … ”
Setting the Foundation for Change
Large-scale change at DCS typically passes through these filters: 1) Does it fit with our mission, which is “to proclaim the gospel by preparing students spiritually, academically, and physically to know and do God’s will in their lives” and does it serve our core value statement, “Excellent Christian Education”? And, 2) Can we discover (internally) or seek out evidence (externally) to help provide data-driven proof before we proceed?
Regarding the first filter, we strive always to create a culture of trust between administration and families—that any changes we make fit with our mission and values as a school. By being slow to change, and open in our communication, our families have come to trust us to be: 1) prayerful, 2) thoughtful, 3) imperfect, and 4) leaders. This order of operations is critical: pray, consider, be willing to admit error, and then lead. Over the three years since we acquired the elementary campus we have been slow to change, while simultaneously unafraid to move away from “what was” and lean into “what works.” Thankfully, God has blessed so much of the “new” we have implemented, and so softened the hearts of our families toward our “misses,” that we believed the time was ripe to share our plan.
In terms of the second filter, we had data-based evidence from several years of late starts on the high school campus. We knew that, as a direct result of late-start PD, our scope and sequence had been both revised and refined to better map out each course. We knew our curriculum was tighter and more accurately reflected the purpose of each course’s core goals. We knew our teachers were better able to differentiate their instruction by virtue of week-after-week of PD where they were the students (which cannot be stressed enough as a key component of excellent PD). Finally, we knew our teachers had grown stronger as educators and closer as peers.
Since we had evidence that the late-start model was successful in the long term, we knew we could begin the conversation with parents by letting them know we had reason to believe this model was critical to the growth of school. So here’s what we told them:
For more than four years now, DCS has operated a “late-start Thursday” at our high school campus to allow for a continuum of instruction for the teaching staff on a weekly basis. The fruits of this labor have been many, and the resulting professional development of the staff as individuals—and as a team—has been truly remarkable. A glimpse at what happens during that hour includes:
- ongoing curriculum analysis, development, and revision
- collaborative learning communities sharing best practices
- sharing of data-driven instructional techniques to effectively analyze student progress
- instruction of innovative classroom management and teaching strategies
The bottom line is that this weekly time of intentional, strategically-planned teacher instruction makes for a better learning environment for all—and that leads to a campus where Excellent Christian Education thrives!”
Getting to Logistics
Although our foundation for change was in place, we had to work through the mind-numbing process of figuring out how to implement this radical (for an elementary campus) idea. Thankfully, we had a couple of things going for us as we started to think about logistics. First, we had an engaged, enthusiastic team of teachers who trusted that we would protect their time, provide something meaningful, and “give them back their students” ready to learn on late-start days. And second, we had the right people to lead PD who had built trust with the teachers already (individually and as a whole) such that they arrived expecting to learn and gain insights and strategies they could implement immediately.
So with the foundation set, here’s what we went on to tell our parents:
“How would that work here at DCMC? That’s a great question! How do we create a supervised, structured environment from 7:40 to 8:40 for a student population that can fluctuate on a weekly basis and be any grade from K–8? And how can we provide that at no additional cost to families? We believe we have the answer!
So… what’s the plan? School will start exactly one hour later than usual; that means classes will start at 9:00 rather than 8:00. If you normally drop off “right before” school (sometime between 7:40 and 7:55), AND your schedule allows you to be flexible on Thursdays, then you would drop off between 8:40 and 8:55. It’s that easy! We want to encourage you to enjoy the extra hour in the morning if you are able. We believe that for those with a flexible morning schedule, this is a wonderful opportunity to spend a little extra quality time over breakfast, or to simply provide a short “breather” of an extra hour once per week. Feel free to enjoy the hour off campus!
What if your schedule is not flexible? If your schedule does not allow flexibility, and you need to continue to drop off at your normal time, that’s fine! We will provide club-like activities for your child(ren). There are no fees for any of the clubs, and they will be led by non-teaching staff and a supervised group of our own middle schoolers.”
Now, I can hear you, as the reader of this post, asking a bunch of questions (that our parents did too!) like, “Where are you going to put all the kids?” “What will the children be doing, and who will be with them?” “How do you even PLAN for this without any idea if you’ll have 25 kids, or 100 kids or the entire 200 kids?” Keep reading to find out…
Internally, we were confident: late starts change everything. Externally (in this case, what we “couldn’t control”) things were less settled. Our single greatest barrier remained not knowing the number of children we would have to cover while all the teaching staff (and a few key administrators) were in PD. So, to help get a sense of numbers, we created a Google survey to ask our families how many children they’d be dropping off at approximately what time. It was an elegantly simple solution, and three things happened almost immediately: 1) we got some great news about the numbers; 2) our families felt like partners in the thoughtful development of the plan; and 3) we discovered that our families DO read school emails! We had a 75% response rate in under 24 hours, and 95% by 48 hours. (You can take a look at the survey here.) The greatest news from the results of the survey—and something we had hoped would be true—was that over half our parents were thrilled to have the extra hour each week, and they would not be bringing us their kids early.
Now we could look at our schedule and start plugging in numbers. On a regular-start day a teacher’s morning duty runs 7:40 to 8:00. On late-start days a teacher’s morning duty runs 8:40 to 9:00. That means that on late-start days we would “only” need to provide activities for the hour from 7:40 to 8:40.
The numbers showed us that, of approximately 200 students:
- 13 would arrive between 7:00 and 7:30 (sent to typical “quiet-care” time in cafeteria)
- 24 more would arrive between 7:30 and 7:45 (activities would begin at 7:40 to start moving students to “activity zones”)
- 31 more were expected from 7:45 to 8:00 (they would be sent directly to an activity)
- 22 more would arrive from 8:00 to 8:30 (they would be sent directly to an activity)
This meant that approximately 100 students would be in activities for the hour, with the numbers being very manageable due to the spread of arrival times.
In terms of impact to the rest of the day’s schedule, at the high school (which is on a four-class block schedule), we had just shortened each class by 15 minutes and moved lunch back 30 minutes. Now at the PK–8 campus, to accommodate the late start we shortened specific parts of the day and moved lunch back slightly.
Putting Together the Plan
Next, we called in a handful of our middle schoolers whom we knew enjoyed working with our younger students—and whom we knew (from the survey) would be getting dropped off early—and asked them if they would be interested in helping run activity groups. Their willingness to be actively engaged and work with the younger students (while also receiving service hours), paired with the help of a handful of high school students who also offered to run activities, allowed us to proceed to the next step of dividing up the campus into zones, as follows:
- Cafeteria, or the centralized launching point. All students enter through cafeteria door or are directed from the lobby to the cafeteria to choose their activity group. Several activity groups are located here as well, such as arts and crafts, Lego club, board games, reading club, and culinary club. Our facilities manager is posted in the cafeteria to control the flow of students and ensure our group leaders are at their posts.
- Gymnasium, which is split in half, thereby allowing for up to 20 middle schoolers on one side and 20 2nd to 5th graders on the other. Middle schoolers play knock-out and enjoy a light shoot-around. Younger students work with (assigned) middle schoolers and/or a high schooler to practice skills. The soccer club uses the large gym hallway for “pug goals” (this is great for K–3). Our para-teacher serves as the adult-in-charge of the gymnasium area.
- Tutoring, held in designated areas of the building, where small groups form up with (assigned) middle and/or high schoolers to work on math and reading. Typically these will be K–3 students looking for some extra help. A reading group facilitated by a high school student is usually held in the cafeteria, with small reading circles for PK–2 held in the outside hallway. Math tutoring is also held in the cafeteria.
Each zone has a walkie-talkie, because as each student is signed in and chooses their activity for that day, we call ahead so that we have “positive handoffs” for every child. By calling ahead with each name, the students are clearly aware of where they’re expected to be, thus putting an end to students wandering the halls aimlessly.
Is Late Start Right For Your School?
By far the biggest barrier to implementing late-start PD was the “mental” one—thinking it would be “impossible” to figure out. In reality, though, after doing some good planning, we tried it (pray humbly, proceed boldly!) and it worked—and continues to work! There have been a couple hiccups—sometimes a high schooler doesn’t make it over, or a middle-school helper or two may be out sick—but in each case, and likely because the students so quickly acclimated, each late start has been a success even when we have a minor change to the plan.
If your school does not yet have late-start PD in place, there are a few beginning steps you can take.
- Articulate how it fits with your school mission and would enable you to enrich and deepen both faculty and student learning at your school. This will be important for all school constituents—faculty, students, and yes, parents.
- Examine the resources that are available to you (in terms of facility, staff, volunteers, students, and so forth). If you have a school in your area or in your circle of influence that does late-start PD, consider a visit or another means of connecting with them.
- Draw up the list of barriers to implementing late-start PD, and classify them in terms of the degree to which they are real versus imagined. In other words, parents are sure to have questions and concerns. But have you really gauged their openness to a well-articulated late-start PD plan, or are you imagining the worst-case scenario in which they balk entirely? Yes, you’ll have to come up with a plan for supervising students and engaging them in meaningful activities. But does that mean that all of your students will actually come early, and when they do, they will fail to acclimate to the new routine?
Part of figuring out whether and to what degree a barrier is real should involve gathering data. As we found, surveys were tremendously helpful in this process. In addition, a committee with diverse constituents represented can help to review draft plans, schedules, maps, etc., and allow for parent, student, and teacher involvement. Continuing to gather feedback after implementation can help you to make adjustments and tweaks, not only improving the late-start experience but also communicating to parents and students that their input is valuable.
As mentioned earlier, we have data to show that late-start PD has truly made a difference in the instructional culture and student learning at DCS. Although not without bumps—and certainly not without a great deal of prayer and planning—we have found the effort to plan and implement late-start PD has been tremendously worth it.
About the Author
John Sadler is in his tenth year with Delmarva Christian Schools. After seven years in the classroom he was named principal at the Milton Campus, which serves early education through eighth grade. If you see either John or his wife, Pam, be prepared to see pictures of their twin one-year-old granddaughters (you have been warned). John can be reached at email@example.com.