LACONIA — Some people probably thought Pleasant Street School Principal Dave Levesque was a little bit off his game when in late 2014 he recommended bringing a group of total stranger teachers into his classrooms to learn why some of students weren't thriving.
But with the support of Academic Coordinator Gail Bourn and Asst. Superintendent Kirk Beitler, that's exactly what Levesque did and the number of students who met growth targets in math jumped from 46.6 percent at the start of 5th grade to 83.6 percent by the end of the school year.
All Levesque needed to do was go to Harvard University and learn about "instructional rounds", which sounds like something that might take place at a hospital.
An instructional round in the education field is nothing more than inviting a group of educators from a different school district to critically observe a classroom and jot down what they see the students doing. A group of six Pleasant Street School educators, including Levesque and Bourn spent two weeks at Harvard learning what kinds of problems could be addressed, what specific behaviors to look for, and what kinds of questions to ask the students. They brought their training back to their teachers who observed other schools.
Laconia joined Manchester, Pembrook and Allenstown as a school with a group of people trained in the Harvard program.
Bourn and Levesque explained that the difference between the instructional rounds model and the traditional model is that the teachers themselves identify the problem and then, with the data collected by teachers from other districts, come up with their own solutions. Levesque said the rounds and their observations are teacher-based and not a top-down effort. Every classroom, including Special Education and Title 1, was evaluated.
At Pleasant Street School, which was the first school in Laconia to get the instructional rounds training, the teachers identified the What I Need (WIN) time, which is time set aside for small group instruction, as something that wasn't being used effectively.
A group of visiting teachers trained in instructional rounds came to Pleasant Street School to observe the WIN times in the fifth grade and they collected unbiased and comprehensive data. They observed the students and asked them questions about what they were learning and if it excited them to be learning it. If not, the outside team asked the students what they thought would make it more interesting.
For example said Bourn, in one math class, WIN time observers noticed that nine children got a drink, a few were doodling, and a few didn't seem to be participating at all.
"They weren't engaged," said Bourn, who said Laconia's teachers needed to figure out why and change it.
What they learned from the data was that the teaches weren't always seeing the distinction between the entire classroom and small groups. She also said the use of WIN time was different in different classrooms and the students wanted more consistency.
"The rounds were grounded in facts," said Bourn. The after-action was that the the teachers built a common language and created a common goal — narrowing the focus of how the 30 minutes of blocks of WIN time would be used.
Bourn said the district offered after-school professional development to its teachers and 90-percent of them participated. She said they worked the problems out collectively and came to a consensus as to how to better use the time help the students who needed a little more attention and how to keep the students who didn't need extra assistance engaged in school work.
As an additional benefit, she said teacher evaluations improved after they had the outside rounds of observers give them the facts that allowed them to better help individual students.
Levesque said that as "nerve-wracking" as it was to have strangers evaluating the classrooms in the beginning, the Pleasant Street School teachers now welcome the second set of eyes. By the end of school year 2015, 13 of the 15 classrooms at the school met their student growth targets.
The next step for the instructional rounds is to expand it to Elm Street School and eventually bring it to Woodland Heights and the Middle School.
Levesque also said that because Laconia was one of the pioneer districts in instructional rounds, other school districts are looking to Laconia for help in establishing WIN times and using Laconia's teachers to get some training for their own instructional rounds programs.