In March, ECA sat down with the Springfield Public Schools Preschool Expansion Grant (PEG) coaching team in the newly renovated Early Childhood Education Center on Catharine Street.
Laura Mendes, Director of PreK to 3rd Grade, Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, brought together PEG coaches Kate Asher, Audrey Wojczyk, Jennifer LeHouillier, and Kerrie Mancino for a morning interview with ECA for this first installment of “In the Spotlight” for Coaching Conversations. The first thing Laura told us was that, “The best thing (I) ever did was hire these individuals.” Her position was created to support birth through 3rd grade alignment. Thus, the Superintendent asked her to coordinate PEG. Laura brought the public schools and three partners in the expansion grant together as a team. “I love my role because it’s a bridge. We get to address questions like what does it mean to go from birth to third grade? Are we aligned? Are we using best practices?”
The Springfield Public School District is the second largest in the state. It is also the second largest of the five PEG grantees in Massachusetts with 11 PEG classrooms. Springfield’s Preschool Expansion program, also known as the Springfield Cooperative Preschool (SCOOP), is located both in the district’s Early Childhood and Education Center, and in separate buildings throughout the community. There is a common curriculum and joint professional development facilitated by the district that helps ensure effective collaboration among the SCOOP partners. With strong leadership from Laura, along with the resources provided through PEG funds and other funders, Springfield is committed to professional coaching. The Springfield coaches support teachers and teaching assistants in 11 PEG classrooms and in 26 non-PEG partner classrooms, as well as support the public preschool classes.
This team’s commitment to working toward a common goal and to their coaching practice was evident from the beginning of the morning’s discussion. We quickly learned that Laura’s team was a talented reflective, passionate and creative group of individuals working toward the same goal: improving teacher practice to support positive outcomes for the children of Springfield.
A View of the Springfield Coaches
The Springfield program funds four coaches. The coaches have all been working in early education for a long time, although their paths to being coaches is anything but straightforward and traditional.
Jennifer LeHouillier, a former special education teacher, returned to the Springfield Public Schools (SPS) as an AmeriCorps literacy tutor after spending ten years at home with her children. She is now the Internal Literacy Coach for the AmeriCorps/Massachusetts Reading Corps in Springfield. Currently there are 10 Literacy Tutors in the PEG classrooms that Jen coaches on a weekly basis.
Audrey Wojczyk first worked with infants and toddlers before working with preschoolers. She obtained a Director Certification and was a center director for a couple of years. She worked as a Teacher/ Director for a few years at Head Start, and after doing some supervision, which she admits “wasn’t her thing” at the time, returned to the classroom. She got her BA, took the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTELS) and decided to work in the public schools.
Kerrie Mancino has been a special education preschool teacher for the Springfield Public Schools for 10 years. She started as an ABA lab teacher, before becoming an inclusion teacher. Kerrie felt that Springfield Public Schools has provided her with many leadership initiatives which prepared her for this coaching opportunity.
Kate Asher started out at the New North Citizens Council where she did one year with a wraparound program housed in the SPS with PreK. From there, she taught in an inclusion kindergarten classroom for nine years. After taking some time off to stay home with her children, Kate returned to Springfield as a Collaborative Professional Development Teacher. She continued her education in order to become certified as a Reading Specialist. Importantly for PEG, Laura worked for “great administrators who taught her to take care of the people you lead”. According to Laura, these four individuals bring a unique energy to their position as PEG coaches. Not all great classroom teachers make great coaches. The coaches have participated in training in the student-centered coaching approach (McKnight Model). They knew their role would be challenging as they would be working with community-based teachers and public school teachers. They had to grow their expertise.
Historically, there has been a divide between community-based and public school teachers. PEG has made it possible for all teachers to be on equal footing. This shift has happened in part because several community based PEG and public school teachers are working together in the same building, which opened at the same time that the PEG grant began implementation.
A View of Springfield’s PEG program.
There are 6 of the 11 PEG classrooms in the public-school building and the other 5 are at Head Start in Mason Square, Square One on Main Street and at the YMCA on Chestnut Street. There have been purposive structures to create partnerships. The coaches use Facebook, professional learning communities (PLCs), site visits and committees to create partnerships at both the field and leadership levels. “In our role as PEG coaches, we have shared different procedures and coaching models that have achieved success in Springfield. We work with different coaches across the District. We use strategies and tweak them to benefit PEG PreK teachers as well as teachers at the preschool, kindergarten, and first grade levels.”
In regards to coaching in PEG classrooms, the coaches discuss practices, and set SMART goals with corresponding action steps. They frequently model, reflect, and co-teach. However, the coaching “dosage” or amount of coaching that a specific PEG classroom receives, is not necessarily equal to others. It is differentiated to serve the needs of the educators and their students. The coaches maintain that PEG coaching has benefited from the Coaching for Change (C4C) sessions facilitated by ECA this year.
Audrey added that “we told our teachers that Year 1 (of PEG) will look different than Year 2 and you will feel uncomfortable”. Year 1 was about acclimating to the coaching process. The first year was also focused on understanding the Big Day for PreK curriculum, implementing it with fidelity, and bringing it to life. As the classroom teachers have become more comfortable with the curriculum, coaching has evolved from being less focused on implementing the curriculum and more focused on the needs of the specific classrooms (although the coaching focus for non-PEG community classrooms is still more curriculum focused now due to a later implementation start date). Individualizing the coaching has empowered teachers to take risks and put best practices into place. Two of the coaches participated in two days of CLASS training. Now that they are reliable CLASS raters. They can provide feedback in many areas of need – which has been effective in changing practices to impact student growth.
Recently, the coaches introduced teachers to videotaping, and have found it to be a powerful tool. The teachers were apprehensive at first, but after doing it for a while are liking it. “We go with our laptops, videotape, sit with the teacher and watch it at same time. As a coach, I personally do not watch the video until I sit with teacher, so that we see the video at the same time, together. The first person I did it with was so down on herself. She was negative. So, I told her that for everything negative, you must say something positive. You also realize that not everything has to be perfect.” The coaches have created a Reflection Form that asks the teachers what they would change and what was powerful. The coaches are thinking of adding different components of CLASS into the videotaping reflection. Kerrie relies on videotaping and modeling, “We will videotape ourselves doing a lesson and provide it to the offsite classrooms that may not have time to get coaching in person. It’s a whole new experience when you see yourself videotaped. I can’t believe how many times I saw myself saying um.”
In addition to coaching, teachers have an opportunity to share at the monthly PLCs, through Facebook, and weekly meetings. “We have empowered teachers to lead teacher meetings. The teachers create supplemental activities that they bring to the meetings, which the coaches place in binders. The first few minutes of each lead teacher meeting goes toward sharing ideas. Their modeling of their own ideas for the group holds them accountable.”
The coaches have created a Facebook page that they manage for public preschool, PEG, and non-PEG partner teachers to share ideas and post articles related to curriculum and best practices. “We created photo albums with examples of theme related activities being implemented in Springfield classrooms. Staff have posted examples (pictures and videos) of student work. The Facebook postings have become a powerful tool in which teachers are motivated to share the amazing work that is happening in their classrooms.”
The coaches connect with supervisors/directors monthly. For Audrey, it’s an informal conversation. She talks about what is happening in classrooms and what teachers have done, their goals, and what the teachers are doing to move their practices forward. The program supervisors like being aware and being included. Kate adds that directors will provide feedback to her as well, and that information helps her pose more targeted questions to the teachers, and most importantly, better support them.
Fast Forward to Year 3
Next year, there will be a heavy focus on integrating the CLASS tool into their practice with its strong focus on relationships and interactions. In sum, “we are focused on CLASS, inclusion practices, comprehensive services, and personalized growth. We are plotting out our CLASS dimension scores, which then drive instruction for teachers, and help us talk about what an interaction should look like in a classroom. The C4C training has given us a lot of ideas – for example, creating a large visual of the CLASS Instructional Support dimensions: a chart where teacher practices are occurring and then thinking about what can be added.”
The coaches have created goal and data collection forms for teachers. The coaches individualize the data collection sheets for teachers, so that for example, it specifies that the coach is looking for certain instructional support practices such as a certain number of open-ended questions. As, a result of the C4C training, the coaches have discussed incorporating more data into coaching – such as making connections between observations, TSG assessments, and lesson planning. “In one of my teams, teachers will be using two TSG data points. When we start CLASS observations in that classroom, we will connect the TSG data with our teachers’ practices in the Instructional Support Domain, including feedback loops and asking higher order questions.” The coaches have discussed the possibility of having data meetings together with program directors.
Systems are in place to support coaches. The coaches meet with Laura almost weekly. She is always available by phone or email. And the coaches are always available to one another. “We are very fortunate in that our coaching offices are near each other. We can build our professional repertoire and share new information with each other. For example, we have done webinars on our own on STEM, literacy and language and share the information with each other. We look at videos and refer to NAEYC resources.” Kerry adds, “We give critical feedback, bounce a lot of things off each other, and are not afraid to disagree.” All the coaches participate in training at Springfield College in the replication of the Minnesota Reading Corps’ Massachusetts model. This training provides rich training for delivering developmentally appropriate early literacy strategies and interventions though the use of engaging practices including read alouds, songs, and games; and is driven by a data cycle informed by assessments in the form of play and games.
• Be positive. Teachers will feed off that energy. When they did some shuffling with the coaches, the teachers were upset, but the coaches assuaged their fears because “we have helped the teachers see that each of us as coaches are part of one team.”
• Be open to change. Every step of the way they have adjusted practices based on experiences and data. Kerrie stresses the importance of being reflective as a coach. It is important to ask ourselves, “What type of coach are we? Are we balanced in our approach between North (plunging in to get things done), South (using emotion and empathy), East (intuitive) and West (data driven)? We are changing in thoughtful ways.”
• Schedule common planning time with teachers, regularly, and across the duration of the school year. “While we have met with other PEG programs that bring teachers together in concentrated clusters of time, in Springfield, we pace our meetings so that we can reach out on a consistent basis”.
• Really listen, understand and respect where people are coming from. The coaches’ supervisor, Laura, adds that this team is special. There is “no ego, only passion”. They want to get better for the right reasons, which is for the children. “This group of four coaches has gelled from day one.”