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From Harvard to Hollyburn

Canadian educators find inspiration and new direction at the Closing the Achievement Gap professional education program.

Hollyburn Elementry, a K–7 public school in West Vancouver, British Columbia, has the enviable position of being located in the top-performing school district in Canada. Still, the school faces a unique set of circumstances. Its population — primarily composed of recent Chinese, Korean, and Iranian immigrants — is transient, with 40 to 60 new students a year in a total school population of around 220. Further, the student body includes 53 percent ESL students, with 21 percent of students speaking no English at all. So, how can Hollyburn provide a superior education to all students equally?    

That was the question facing several teachers and staff — including Sandra-Lynn Shortall, district principal of early learning for West Vancouver Schools, and Mary Parackal, learning support teacher at Hollyburn — when they arrived at HGSE in June 2014 to attend Closing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Excellence with Equity (CAG), chaired by Harvard Kennedy School's Ronald Ferguson, a professional education program designed not only to raise achievement levels for all students, but to do so with equity. Participating teachers and school leaders gain an understanding of how their school community can work together across racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines to improve student outcomes. 

After their weeklong session, the Hollyburn team returned to their school and put into practice the skills learned over the summer. Inspired by Lecturer Elizabeth City’s CAG session on using data to identify issues and how to put in place a plan to successfully address those problems, district and school leaders focused their efforts on literacy rates. The broad evaluation of all students’ literacy skills showed that 70 to 80 percent of students were not reading at grade level, says Parackal, so teachers at every grade level got together to examine the data and determine a new course of action. 

“Instruction was not going to be intervention, [unless it was] whole school collaborative instruction,” Parackal says. “Every teacher became a literacy instructor.” 

With this decision in place, Hollyburn turned to Reading Mastery, an American literacy program that gives teachers a script of instruction. “What we were finding was there was quite a bit of ambiguity and free license for teachers to assume what was best for teaching literacy,” says Tara Zielinski, Hollyburn’s principal, who early on in the process faced some pushback from the staff. She found, though, that after a three-day all-staff training to begin the program, the teachers gained enthusiasm. “Since teachers [got] to know the system, they wouldn’t go back now,” she says. 

With teachers trained, the leadership team at Hollyburn implemented a nine-week targeted literacy instruction block that would meet every morning for 75 minutes.

“This was sacred time,” says Shortall. “There was an agreement, part of the school culture, that that time could not be touched.” 

The program began with students in grades K–3, but after the success of the first year, it was decided as a school that all students, including those in grades 4–7, would receive the same kind of literacy instruction for the 2015–2016 school year. 

“Every single child, whether they came in last week or have been with us for eight years, all of these children are reading,” Zielinski says. “All students have been leveled and now every student in our school has been assessed and grouped and discussed individually to determine best groupings. Data is driving these groups.” 

“The first time we finished the nine weeks of instruction last year and saw the results, we were crying,” adds Shortall. “We were amazed that these students who were so vulnerable were doing this, and it was because of the focused instruction of our teachers and the collaborative model.” 

In addition to student growth, there have also been large gains for the teachers. Faculty meetings were reshaped so that time became more about professional development. And with more support, teachers expressed feeling more confidence in their abilities to assess and instruct literacy skills, and a shared sense of responsibility.

“We worked really hard to build relationships with teachers even before putting in this literacy program,” Shortall says.  “We really work hard to establish relationships, and honor teachers as people.”    

It’s a fitting for a school whose motto states that “education is the science and art of teaching and learning” that data drove this reevaluation.

“You have to teach students to read, and we need to know they are reading,” Shortall says. “So we’re going to assess students and collect the data. Data is not a dirty word here. It’s going to drive our instructional practice.” 

The Hollyburn team continues to be fueled by their time spent at HGSE and for the diversity of ideas and conversations they experienced at CAG. 

“One of the perks of the Closing the Achievement Gap was meeting and thinking with so many educators from very different contexts,” Shortall says. “There seemed to always be an element of reflective discomfort, which was a good thing. So often in our district or school roles, we can become comfortable in the current reality of 'what is' and CAG shook up that reality, with important reminders about what matters most in public education.”


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