Within Polk County Public Schools, a new phrase is being used in reference to Kathleen High: lab school.
It’s a shorthand term for a unique, grant-funded partnership between the school district, the University of South Florida and Learning Sciences International, through which teachers are pursuing advanced degrees at no charge and receiving on-site professional development that they immediately put into practice in their classrooms.
“I’m not aware of any other partnership like this in the country,” said Bill Black, an associate professor at USF and principal investigator for the grant-funded initiative.
“We’re building the capacity of teachers to become leaders and experts. Through this, we can shift the culture of the school. What we’re doing is offering a new story of Kathleen High School.”
In Feb. 2018, PCPS announced that Kathleen High School had received a $4.4 million grant through the state’s Schools of Hope Whole School Transformation program, which provides additional funding to low-performing schools. KHS is now in the second year of a two-year turnaround plan, implemented after it received a grade of D in 2016 and 2017. The school’s grade improved to a C in 2018.
The grant is being used to pay for teachers to earn master’s degrees in education though USF. Learning Sciences International (LSI), a West Palm Beach-based educational training company, is providing coaching to instructional staff members and administrators.
Just a few months into the partnership, 27 KHS staff members are already well into their coursework with USF. The participants are earning degrees such as the Master of Educational Leadership and Master of Curriculum and Instruction.
The degree programs are offered in an accelerated format that is taught at KHS.
On Wednesday evening, during a reception to celebrate the success of the partnership thus far, Black lauded the fact that the 27 staff members have already earned 528 graduate credit hours.
“It’s wonderful to report what we’ve been able to accomplish together in such a short amount of time,” Black said. “What’s key here is the cohort structure; it’s really important. (The KHS staff members pursuing advanced degrees) are taking their courses together. They’re able to learn from each other and rely on each other.”
Allison Heflin, a testing coordinator at KHS, is studying for her master’s in educational leadership. Without the Schools of Hope grant and the partnership it’s funding, she said she would been unable to pursue the advanced degree.
“I would have always wanted to do this, but I wouldn’t have been able to afford it or make the commute (to USF’s Tampa campus),” she said. “Being in this program has really opened my eyes to the things I can do to make changes in education.”
As part of their studies, Heflin and her fellow USF students are conducting research on the educational experiences of KHS students. This allows them to both better understand the students they teach, and develop research-based programs to better serve them.
Three student teams presented their research at Wednesday evening’s gathering.
Heflin is part of a team that is studying the effects of alumni engagement on student success. Research shows that alumni are positive role models for current students. She and her colleagues are now developing a KHS alumni Facebook page, alumni events and a mentoring program that will pair alumni with current students.
“The research we’ve studied shows that connecting with alumni can show our students that it’s possible, that they can get out of this little circle they’re in right now,” Heflin said. “Some of them don’t believe that they’ll pass the test or that they’ll graduate. Research shows that having alumni in their lives — people who have been here and who have gone on to be successful — can have a positive effect on their academic achievement.”
In addition to their studies through USF, Heflin and her colleagues are also receiving on-site professional development through LSI.
A team of LSI coaches is working with administrators on areas such as “instructional priority,” which involves reducing and streamlining meetings and other distractions so that teachers have more time to focus on instruction. Through their work with instructional staff members, LSI coaches are working to break down state standards into “bite-sized” lessons that make it easier for students to master skills and take ownership of their learning, and that allow teachers to more easily monitor progress.
“What you might have seen here a year or two ago is a Florida state standard hanging on the wall in a classroom,” said Stephanie Terrell, a math and science coach working at KHS.
“Now, instead of just having the standard up there, you’ll see that key terms have been circled and clarified for the student. Then you’ll see that there are learning targets broken down for the day. Those learning targets are what the students have to reach to meet the success criteria for the standard. Success criteria are how students know they’ve mastered the content.”
LSI coaches are also assisting KHS staff members in developing more group and performance-based learning opportunities that require students to work together. Such teamwork not only deepens students’ understanding of the material, but also helps them develop soft skills such as conflict resolution, Terrell said.
The LSI coaches not only provide professional development, but because they’re at KHS every day, they’re also able to observe and monitor implementation of administrative and instructional strategies, providing real-time feedback and support.
Another component to the partnership: undergraduate education majors are observing and interning in KHS classrooms. That direct line to aspiring teachers will help PCPS address an ongoing shortage of teachers that school districts nationwide are experiencing. The partnership is expected to also improve teacher retention, as teachers feel more invested in the school and their students.
Heflin for one said she is “100 percent more likely” to stay in education having participated in the Schools of Hope project.
During Wednesday’s event, PCPS Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd lauded the partnership as helping to “build a family” on the campus. KHS Principal Johnnie Jackson agreed, and said that with time, the changes taking place at KHS will be apparent to the wider community.
“We’re taking on the challenge of changing our perception,” Jackson said. “Until you’ve been here, and you’re in it every day, you don’t know Kathleen High School. We’re showing the community you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
In his closing remarks at Wednesday’s event, Chief Academic Officer Michael Akes commended the team that made the KHS project possible and reiterated the ultimate reason for everything the school district does — not just at KHS, but at all of its schools:
“At the end of the day, it’s not about you and me, it’s about the kids that come into this school every day.”