Blend of lessons is key to professional development in Texas

 Four years ago, the La Joya (TX) Independent School District was given a direct order from its new Board of Education members: improve the early childhood (pre-K and kindergarten) programs.
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Four years ago, the La Joya (TX) Independent School District was given a direct order from its new Board of Education members: improve the early childhood (pre-K and kindergarten) programs. At the time the district’s 95 pre-K and 110 kindergarten classrooms were overcrowded, pre-K was half-day, and there was no professional development (PD) in place. To make matters more challenging, 97 percent of the students had limited English proficiency.

“We had to come up with a PD solution—fast,” says Isaias Rodriguez, pre-K Early Start grant director. His answer? A blended offering of face-to-face mentoring and online courses. The courses were developed by professional-learning firm Teachscape and the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas, Houston.

Auspicious Beginning

Rodriguez started the training with 19 pre-K teachers. Twice a month, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., they attended classes at one of the district’s computer lab. The mentor projected the online courses and guided the teachers while they worked independently, viewing, conducting research, and writing. Since Teachscape is Web-based, the teachers had access to the courses at school and at home. Mentors were able to look at everyone’s accounts, post personally to each teacher, and check on that teacher’s progress.

The courses, ranging from classroom management to phonological awareness to written expression, included videos of teachers in action. In addition, the mentors visited classrooms and worked with teachers to implement the strategies they’d learned in class. Often the mentors posed questions in class that the teachers then worked on throughout the month. The teachers posted their thoughts online and chatted with each other. “This ongoing collaboration provided a strong foundation for teachers across the district,” says Rodriguez.

“My first year here, I put in about 100 hours of PD,” says Carolina Elizondo, who has taught pre-K at La Joya since 2007. “To see a video of someone doing what you’re doing helps so much. You can watch it and think about how you’ll modify it so it works for your kids.”

Significant Growth Plan

In the second year of the program, as the board continued to emphasize the importance of building a strong foundation through early learning, pre-K was extended to full-day. The extra funding Rodriguez received allowed him to extend the PD to the district’s 95 early-childhood teachers. Last year the 110 kindergarten teachers signed on as well.

“Teachscape came up with appropriate material for kindergarten, focusing on comprehension and phonics,” Rodriguez says. He likes it that the program is research based and correlated to the units the teachers are working on, as well as that he can call the company with suggestions for new topics.

Now in its fourth year of delivering strong early-childhood PD, the district has invited first-grade educators, bringing the total number of instructors to 229. “Basically, we’re responsible for teaching the early-childhood teachers how to teach,” says Rodriguez.

Elizondo would be the first to agree. She says she logs on at home many nights to explore various subjects and see what videos are available. “Whenever I have a question, I can find answers. I love the videos showing the teachers implementing the lessons, especially the ones that show what to do when something doesn’t work. I’ve learned how to redirect children who aren’t paying attention and to give them reasons to join the group.”

She also appreciates the online communication, in particular the time she and her colleagues were discussing the importance of teaching children about routines. “We were all posting online about the charts we use to teach about routine, which is crucial for us and the kids,” she says. The boards also allow her and the other veterans to share their expertise with the newer teachers. “In the chat rooms, all of us can learn what works or how things get modified.”

Success? You Bet!

Rodriguez is thrilled that his district places so much emphasis on PD, and early results indicate that the approach is working. Students’ scores increased dramatically on the 2007–2008 district assessments, and letter and vocabulary recognition have risen. “Students’ skills are much more developed by the time they take their first assessment, in kindergarten,” he says. “We are seeing a lot of growth in these areas.”

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