Moffat County School District seeks to fine-tune collaborative time in coming year

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Starting last school year, elementary school teachers in the Moffat County School District met for collaborative time, 90 minutes at the end of each Friday to share thoughts and ideas with each other. The program has been in place at Moffat County High School and Craig Middle School for several years.

Joe Petrone, Moffat County School District superintendent, said collaborative time is here to stay in local schools.

“We’re going to have collab time available to teachers because we can’t afford not to,” he said.

It’s been nearly a year since the district implemented collaborative time in elementary schools for the 2010-11 school year.

Collaborative time is the practice of giving teachers a 90-minute period at the end of the school day each Friday to talk shop. On those days, the district runs on a shortened schedule, and students are excused from school earlier than other days of the week.

The makeup of collaborative time participants varies. Sometimes teachers gather according to grade level, sometimes they gather as entire schools, and sometimes they gather as a school district.

Collaborative time is not new to the district as a whole, Petrone said. It had been part of the schedule at Moffat County High School and Craig Middle School for several years. Bringing the practice to elementary school just made sense, he said.

“From my perspective, it was an equity issue,” he said of the decision to broaden the program.

Collaborative time, he said, is a sustained effort to get teachers talking about student work, successes, failures and the teaching techniques that work best. The process ensures that teachers continue to learn and grow.

“We were trying to strengthen what we were envisioning, and that was to become a professional learning community,” he said. “And it’s fairly clear that in order to become a professional learning community, you have to have time set aside to collaborate.”

Sarah Hepworth, principal at East Elementary School, said the program works.

“I think it’s been a great success,” she said. “To be able to wrap more heads around problems in learning is invaluable.”

Heworth recalls the moment she knew collaborative time was working for her teachers.

It was a Friday afternoon last winter when the teachers at East Elementary gathered for a building-wide collaboration. Hepworth asked teachers to break into small groups and focus on school weaknesses, particularly in writing.

As she looked around the room, Hepworth said she saw heads nodding in agreement.

“The great part about collaboration is they all shared similar concerns and frustrations about teaching writing,” Hepworth said. “I don’t think they knew that commonality existed across all the grade levels.

“It was sad because we were all having the same frustrations, but it was also a good feeling because we all shared something in common and we could all start focusing on a solution.

“For me, that was kind of an ‘ah-ha’ moment. I thought, ‘This is what collaboration is all about.’”

Writing scores for East were low, Hepworth said, but the collaboration helped teachers find meaning behind the scores.

“It was clear in the data that we needed help with writing instruction, but that’s just a number,” she said. “The collaboration process allowed us to really dig down and find out what that number represents.

“Lots of good things came out of this one collab meeting focused on this one number in writing.”

Petrone acknowledged that there has been a mixed response to the program from parents, but he’s unsure what the majority reaction has been.

“Absent that information … I would say there are parents that completely understand the importance of it, and there are parents that are yet to understand what it is we’re doing on those days,” he said.

Hepworth said there are two reasons some parents balked at the plan.

First, she said, the shortened Friday schedule can complicate child care arrangements or conflict with work schedules.

Second, parents wonder what instruction might be lost each week.

“People wonder if this is an effective use of time,” she said. “Kids are going to be out of school for an hour or so less every week. Are we losing learning? I would say no. We’re giving teachers time that will make them more effective.”

Hepworth hopes to improve understanding of the program in the coming school year. She plans to involve parents in collab time so they can see the process firsthand.

Petrone said few changes will be made to collab time for 2011-12.

“We’re not tinkering with the time on Fridays … that’s a certainty,” he said. “With respect to the work we’re doing during those Friday afternoons, there will be some tinkering only because we want to get it as close to spot on as we possible can so it becomes as useful for teachers as possible.”

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