When Pat Sullivan started teaching at Everett High School 15 years ago, the veteran teachers at his school didn’t bother to learn his name until he’d been there for a few years. “They wanted to see if I’d survive before they took time to get to know me,” he recalls. Today, as principal of Everett High in Everett, Washington, Sullivan is leading a school reform effort built on the premise that strong relationships among teachers are critical to improved student learning. “We’re creating a rich environment for young teachers to feel supported and nurtured,” he says. “There’s an emphasis here on professional growth.” Young teachers at Everett stand on equal footing with the most senior staff on everything from getting the chance to teach AP courses to student teacher assignments to getting a seat on the management council.
Sullivan’s work to transform the culture of teaching extends beyond Everett High School to include several other schools (K–12) in the district. For six years, these schools have worked together with the ATLAS Communities reform model to build teacher collaboration across traditional boundaries like grade level, subject matter, and even school buildings. Bringing elementary, middle, and high schools together is an example of what ATLAS refers to as its “pathway” approach, and it’s a big part of what drew Everett to ATLAS in the first place. “We looked at several comprehensive school reform models,” he says, “and most seemed to have either an elementary or middle school orientation; ATLAS provided an opportunity to do something systemically, K–12. That made a lot of sense to us. There was a lot of community support for the model—frankly, parents were surprised that we weren’t working this way already. Most parents expect that teachers meet regularly K–12 to discuss student learning. Not only weren’t we doing that, we weren’t even meeting building–wide to discuss these things.”
Today teachers from across the Everett pathway meet weekly in faculty study groups to tackle a variety of topics in teaching and learning. The study groups have taken different forms as they’ve evolved over five years, but they are all driven by student and teacher needs and interests. For instance, when new statewide performance standards in social studies were published, faculty at the high school discovered some significant deficiencies in their geography and economics instruction. “In the past we would have said, ‘Oh, the history teachers need to add some classes in geography and economics,’” says Sullivan. Instead, a group of teachers across subject matters formed a study group to look at ways the whole school could support the social studies department in bringing students up to speed in these areas. Explains Sullivan, “They looked at what the math teachers could do to prepare students for work in economics. What the science teachers could do with geography. Even the physical education teachers looked at ways to incorporate the use of charts and tables in their health lessons to reinforce what their students were learning in social studies.”
In another example, the high school decided to convene a group to work on some problems discovered in the school’s mathematics instruction. “When we broke out our math data, we discovered that our students were not doing well with story problems,” Sullivan says. “We thought, ‘Hey, here’s a good topic for a study group—how can we help our students improve in this area?’ So we pulled together a group to look more closely at the data and do some research on strategies for teaching story problems.” As a result, the math department decided to begin each class with group work on story problems, across the grades. Results soon followed: While traditionally the school has finished last among the four high schools in the district in local mathematics assessments, this year it finished first.
Sometimes the study groups are less academic in focus, and instead take on broader cultural topics that teachers may confront. Several years ago, a local tribe of Native Americans wanted to resume whale hunting as part of their tribal custom, triggering anger among the non–native residents because the area’s whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act. “It caused a bit of a furor locally,” explains Sullivan, “so we established a K–12 study group to help all of us better understand why the Native Americans wanted to do this.” The group shared what they had learned about the tribal custom with their colleagues across the pathway, easing some of the tension around the issue in the schools.
Impact on Student Achievement
Amidst his work to enhance teacher learning, Sullivan doesn’t forget that the ultimate goal of the ATLAS reform model is improved student learning. This has become more urgent, as the state of Washington has recently mandated that every student will be required to pass state assessments by 2006 in order to graduate. While apprehensive about how these high–stakes tests will affect his students, Sullivan is also upbeat about his school’s ability to prepare students for these measures. He cites the new science program as one example: “We used to have so many options in the science program that many of our students were not learning the basics, what they needed to know for the new assessments and for college work. So we’ve streamlined the department’s offerings and instituted new requirements. This year for the first time, all students are required to take ninth grade physical science and tenth grade biology. In the past, the biology course was reserved for our top students—it was designed as a college prep class, with very high expectations for regular attendance, nightly homework, class participation, and lab work. This fall we have three teachers teaching biology all day to all of our 400 sophomores. The teachers are bringing that same set of high expectations into every class. Of the 400 students that took that class, 93 percent passed.” Concludes Sullivan, “The assumption used to be that most of our students simply would not be able to complete a course this rigorous. Now the assumption is that they can and they must.”
Originally published on June 1, 2002