tampabay.com

Schools adopt new teaching method

The Learning Focused Strategies system will go districtwide at a cost of $4.5-million.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 25, 2007


WESLEY CHAPEL - Teacher Morrisa Holub grabs a piece of white paper with the words "cause and effect" from a bag and tapes it to Katie Havemann's back.

Classmates shout clues. Katie writes the hints on the board.

"Because of this, this happens," says one girl.

"Give me a sentence," Katie pleads.

"It was raining so the truck driver couldn't see," a boy offers.

Katie smiles. "Cause and effect," she says confidently.

Holub smiles too. The Seven Oaks Elementary School teacher can't help but be pleased that her third-graders have grasped today's key words so well. She ends the game after one more try, assigning the kids to small groups to make diagrams - they call them "graphic organizers" - about the vocabulary. Helpful hints are on the color-coded "word wall."

Holub circles the room, asking open-ended questions aimed at prompting more thoughtful discussion of the words and the underlying lesson - they call it an "essential question" - behind them.

* * *

Small groups, essential questions, word walls. Many teachers have used these teaching methods for years.

What is new to Pasco is the wholehearted adoption of Learning Focused Strategies, or LFS, a different way of using the tools crafted by North Carolina researcher Max Thompson.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino has called the districtwide implementation her top academic priority. She has committed $4.5-million over three years to get it done. About one-third of the amount goes to the consultant for time and materials, and the rest into training and substitute teacher pay.

Many educators, like Holub, have embraced the system, saying it has refocused the way they think about teaching. But LFS is not without its critics.

The teachers at Hudson Elementary jointly filed a grievance relating to LFS. Among their complaints: The program creates an undue burden of work, which in turns diminishes their ability to teach well.

"We had teachers in tears about the impact this is having on their personal and professional lives," United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb said after the grievance hearing last week.

* * *

Pasco's foray into LFS started in early 2005.

Monica Verra, then the school district Title I coordinator, heard Thompson speak and was intrigued by his ideas for the district's poorest schools.

The district's top brass quickly bought in, as did a number of administrators across the county.

"It's best practices," Seven Oaks Elementary principal B.J. Smith explains. "What we're doing is nothing new. LFS and the strategies ... give a focus to the teaching and learning. ... It gives us a framework."

By the end of this year, two-thirds of the district's schools will have completed the four-day training.

Fiorentino's decision to let every school jump into LFS, rather than start with the schools that needed it most, bothers School Board chairwoman Marge Whaley, who has raised doubts about the program.

"Since when do we give everyone everything they want?" Whaley wondered during a recent workshop. "I would have preferred to wait for results."

* * *

Thompson is quick to say the ideas he promotes are "not my stuff" but rather the stuff of research.

But they do yield results, he says, even in the schools with the toughest-to-reach kids.

"The strategies that we've found work in all schools," says Thompson, a bearded, bespectacled man with a Southern drawl.

He and a team look to schools where 90 percent or more students score at or above grade level on a state or national test. They then winnow the pool by focusing on the schools that have 90 percent or more students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, and 90 percent or more children from minority groups.

They then evaluate the methods - not the things that can't be replicated - that succeed at these "90/90/90" schools.

"These schools are doing it, and we spend a lot of time in these schools," Thompson says. "If they can do it there, we can do it anywhere."

* * *

Hudson Elementary is one of the schools that needed to take "corrective action" after failing to meet federal progress standards four years in a row. Principal Linda McCarthy found LFS appealing because it launches off existing practices.

"It's just a way of reminding you, and almost retraining you, to use them in an organized way," she says.

Since putting the system in place, McCarthy says, she has observed more focused lessons in the classrooms, and more thought going into lesson plans.

It also has helped students, says first-grade teacher Laura Hay.

"So far, it's been really great for the children," Hay says. "Sometimes they'll even ask to stay in and lose recess to do these activities."

As a whole, though, the Hudson staff has not been so pleased. Their grievance contends that LFS follow-up activities are "unreasonable in duration and scope" and that the implementation forces teachers to work beyond their contract.

None volunteered to talk to the Times about such concerns, which focus on claims on their time outside of class, not effects on students. But several submitted anonymous testimonials during the hearing. Here are two:

-"I have no social life, as weekends are focused on preparing lesson plans. My husband resents the overtime spent at work and work that is brought home."

-"I've given up exercise and reading. There are days I cry on the way to work because of the impossible job before me."

McCarthy, without acknowledging the grievance, noted that some teachers are taking longer to adapt than others. She said she was trying to slow implementation so everyone might feel more comfortable.

* * *

Fiorentino and her staff remain firmly supportive of the new way of thinking, which has made inroads throughout the country. School districts in Georgia, Pennsylvania and other states have grabbed the method, too, with its promise that fees will be waived for a year if it does not produce adequate gains.

They like that the system offers consistency while also allowing teachers to be creative as they employ its methods.

Still, the administration has heard teachers' concerns and has created a list of issues and solutions. It is hiring four teachers as trainer coaches to provide more consistency in training, for instance, and is developing a plan to clarify the expectations for implementation.

"The superintendent has felt she brought it on a little too quickly. The kinks weren't all ironed out," board vice chairwoman Kathryn Starkey said. "But there was so much excitement. I'm sure they're going to get it all worked out."

* * *

As far as Holub is concerned, it's already working.

She ends her lesson by asking a question you might not have heard in school before: "Why do we do this?"

The kids, who are used to this by now, shoot their hands up. When their answers are shallow, Holub urges them to talk among themselves. Then she asks again.

"I'm learning some things I didn't even think of," one boy answers.

Holub smiles.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.