As most Mineral Point parents are probably already aware, a change is coming this school year to student schedules.

Every Wednesday, students will be dismissed at 2:00 pm. The remaining hours of the school day for teachers will be devoted to Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).

If the Mineral Point School District has decided to invest this time and these resources, what then are PLCs and why are they important?

The PLC learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught, but to ensure that they learn.

For the last few years, Mineral Point educators have been making site visits to schools who have implemented the PLC program and are achieving great successmainly Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois and the Denver Community School District in Denver, Iowa.

This summer, a group of Mineral Point educators traveled to the PLC Institute in Minneapolis, MN. Those that attended included Brad Brogley, Paige Grimm, Lynn Ross, Livia Doyle, Benita Schmitz, and Carla Rand.

Richard and Rebecca DuFour are recognized as some of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC process in their districts and their teachings on the subject have been instrumental in Mineral Point recognizing the benefits of a PLC program here. Both were key presenters at the conference that had attendees from 30 different states.

As the school implementing a PLC moves forward, every professional in the building must engage with colleagues in the ongoing exploration of crucial questions that drive the work of those within a PLC:

1. What do we want each student to learn?

2. How will we know when each student has learned it?

3. How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?

4. How will we enrich and extend the learning for students who are already proficient?

The answers to these questions are what separate learning communities from traditional schools.

“PLCs are a total shift from the traditional ways of education, said Rand. “No longer are teachers responsible for only the students in their classes. They are responsible for all the students learning. Not only teachers, but also the educational specialists, the Title 1 teacher, speech and language therapists, school counselors, special education assistants, etc. In order to achieve this cohesiveness and common goals, we need time together to discuss student–agree on where they are, where we want them to be, how we are going to get them there, and who is going to assist in the process.”

When students do not learn, the PLC’s response to students who experience difficulty is:

1. Time–the school quickly identifies students who need additional time and support.

2. Based on intervention rather than remediation–the plan provides students with help as soon as they experience difficulty rather than relying on summer school, retention, and remedial courses.

3. Directive–instead of inviting students to seek additional help, the systematic plan requires students to devote extra time and receive additional assistance until they have mastered the necessary concepts.

Educators who are building a PLC recognize they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture.

“PLC time needs to be consistent and sacred because what a student needs this week to be successful, and what they need next week, may be different and different students may now be on our radar where last week they were fine,” says Rand. “There is no way we can all take responsibility for all the students’ achievement if we don’t have common, predictable time to collaborate together.”

Teachers work together to analyze and improve their classroom practice. Teachers work in teams, engaging in an ongoing cycle of questions that promote deep team learning. The process, in turn, leads to higher levels of student achievement.

“The beauty of a PLC is that it brings together collaborative teams of teachers working interdependently to achieve common goals for which all teachers of that team are held accountable for,” said Doyle. “PLCs are a true team effort in that your team is only as strong as your weakest member. With this idea in mind, teachers are not expected, nor should they have to work in isolation anymore. The idea of ‘my kids’ turns into ‘our kids.’ PLC teams are responsible for seeing that all students meet or exceed grade level expectations, not just the students in his/her own classroom.”

According to the DuFours, faculties must stop making excuses for failing to collaborate and must make the time to do so and get fully on board with the idea.

“PLCs not only focus on student learning. They are opportunities for teachers to learn from each other,” said Grimm. “When we analyze student scores on formative assessments, we should also ask the teacher whose students scored well to share how he/she is teaching the topic. We can become better teachers when we learn from each other.”

PLCs judge their effectiveness on the basis of results. Working together to improve student achievement becomes the routine work of everyone in the school.

Schools and teachers typically suffer from the DRIP syndrome–Data Rich/Information Poor. The results-oriented PLC not only welcomes data but also turns data into useful and relevant information for staff.

“To assess the effectiveness of teachers as we help students learn, we must focus on results–evidence of student learning–and use results to inform and improve our professional practice and respond to students who need intervention or enrichment,” said Doyle.

“You could not help but feel the energy in the room,” said Brogley of the institute. “I left with a greater understanding of the PLC process; however, there is still a great deal of work in our future.”

“I found the quality of the speakers at the PLC Institute to be excellent and am inspired to get started on the every Wednesday afternoon PLC time,” said Grimm.

“The institute was a wonderful experience. From this opportunity, I have a much clearer understanding of what a PLC is and is not, and how beneficial they can be for our students, staff, and district,” concluded Doyle.