Tight-Knit Teams: Fostering Student Achievement and Professional Growth

The Slice – November 2012: In Our High Schools | In Our Middle Schools | In Our Elementary Schools

With Palo Alto middle school class sizes growing, how can teachers give students the individual feedback they need to improve future performance and adapt their own teaching style to help? Ask any middle school principal in the PAUSD this question and they will give the same answer:
the “team approach.”

The “team approach” is a nationally-recognized best practice of dividing up big, public middle school grade-levels into smaller, tight-knit groups headed up by a partnership of teachers, counselors and administrators, who work collaboratively over the course of an academic year to deliver the best possible educational experience. Through the team approach, students are more connected to faculty, staff and each other, the staff benefit from support of their colleagues, and everyone gains a sense of team identity.
All three Palo Alto middle schools employ the team approach. PiE funds counselor time at each school, ensuring that every grade has a designated counselor who ‘travels’ with that class from day one to eighth grade promotion and gets to know the kids well. By including counselors in all the behind-the-scenes educational planning, the team approach facilitates a group of caring adults to pay attention to every individual student throughout the year. This student-by-student approach helps meet the needs of the whole child, including social/emotional and academic growth.

Effective Teams Help Narrow the Achievement Gap, Improve Test Scores

“If students are receiving good counseling and academic support, higher academic achievement will follow,” contends Jane Lathrop Stanford (JLS) Principal Sharon Ofek. Adds Katherine Baker, principal at Terman Middle School, “It is critical that students feel a strong sense of belonging within smaller sub-communities.” She points to improved test scores at Terman, and a narrowing of the achievement gap overall, as a result of a coordinated approach to teaching and learning. Baker believes that good teaching “bubbles up from what the students need.” Given the wide array of abilities, differentiation (teaching to a variety of strengths) in the middle school classroom involves an increasingly complex “whole child,” with the constantly shifting challenges of a diverse class. By sharing information about how to best engage, support and challenge individual students and groups in their teams, teachers minimize the trial and error, and help maximize student achievement. Ofek describes three levels of teamwork: cooperation, coordination and collaboration. “Some people think (erroneously) that these terms are interchangeable. But if you have a high-functioning, healthy team, cooperation and coordination naturally make way for more collaboration.” Faculty teams meet weekly to share child-specific, curricular or purely practical planning matters (such as keeping homework balanced across subjects). California Standards, which every child must meet to be promoted to the next grade, are notoriously wide and broad. The team approach allows for more coordinated instruction, as team leadership comes up with creative ways to incorporate like standards into their respective lesson plans.

Jordan Teachers Designing Paly “Feeder” Courses with PiE Funds

At Jordan, Principal Greg Barnes has taken collaboration to a new level. Leveraging PiE funds earmarked for electives, teachers are designing courses that would ideally feed into course offerings and clubs at Palo Alto High School (Paly). “I have always used PiE dollars to impact the maximum number of students at Jordan. To me, that is best achieved through the diverse electives we offer. But we want to take it a step further. If, for example, we can develop electives that flow into the strong journalism program at Paly, students with an interest in media arts will be better served in both the short and long-term,” he said. As Terman Principal Baker puts it, “PiE funding of our team approach at Terman ensures that we invest in the whole child, from start to finish.”