HERRIN — Herrin Community Unit District 4 Superintendent Terry Ryker said the district does its best to recruit the brightest, most energetic teachers to its classrooms.
But teacher development, he said, is an ongoing process.
He likened it to a Division 1 football program. After the University of Alabama recruits its top players, the coaches don’t turn them loose and say, "It’s all yours from here on out. We don’t need to coach you."
“The best in the country, even the best teachers in the country, with a little bit of help, they are going to become even better,” Ryker said.
That’s why the Herrin district added a new position to its roster last year: instructional coaches. These are teachers who are designated to help coach other teachers, so that those teachers can, in turn, better coach their own students.
The district named eight instructional coaches in the 2018-2019 academic year, recruiting all of them from within its own ranks. Two serve as full-time coaches, and their classroom positions were replaced. The other six continue to teach part-time.
The coaches observe teachers in their classrooms and meet with them one-on-one to brainstorm ways to improve skills such as lesson planning and delivery, and classroom management. They analyze testing data and help teachers identify students’ learning weak spots. And perhaps just as critical as what they do is what they don’t do: The coaches aren’t there to criticize or evaluate or share information with supervisors about classroom performance.
Instructional coaches aren’t new to Illinois schools. But they are relatively rare among Southern Illinois’ districts, which have long suffered financially compared to their suburban Chicago counterparts. Last year, the Regional Office of Education No. 21 (ROE 21), which serves school districts in Williamson, Franklin, Johnson and Massac counties, offered its first instructional coaching training program for area educators, according to Mandy Horn, ROE 21’s assistant regional superintendent. Several districts participated in addition to Herrin's, and some new ones signed on this year, she said.
When Herrin administrators first decided to give instructional coaches a try, “a lot of people were nervous,” Ryker said. “Because we’re taking some of our best teachers out of the classroom to help them teach the other teachers.”
But something, he said, had to be done.
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Last year, Herrin educators received troubling news from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE): the district’s elementary and junior high schools were labeled “underperforming” based on standardized test scores, poor attendance rates and other factors. According to the ISBE, which oversees the state’s preK-12 school districts, an “underperforming” school is one in which one or more subgroups of students — such as students with disabilities, minorities, or low-income students — perform at or below the worst-rated 5% of schools statewide.
The “underperforming” rating was difficult to stomach, knowing how hard the teachers and support staff work, said Herrin Elementary School Principal Bobbi Bigler. Yet, they were determined to look at it as constructive criticism, and turn the designation — and more importantly, the data behind it — into something positive. “We really just kind of embraced that underperforming category and took a close look at all of the pieces and developed a plan,” Bigler said.
Their plan of action was multifaceted, and included improving school attendance with student incentives, building stronger relationships with parents, and naming grade-level leaders to help implement new policies and initiatives. But of all the changes, adding instructional coaches was the one that generated the most internal buzz.
Before making a final decision, Ryker said he and other administrators reviewed academic studies. They sought to determine the best use for the increased state dollars his district is receiving under the state’s new evidence-based funding model. Passed in 2017, the law directs the bulk of new state funding toward districts that need it most, such as Herrin’s, where about 60% of students live in poverty and the property tax base is limited.
“Instructional coaches, along with professional development, gives you the biggest bang for the buck. That’s what the studies show,” Ryker said. “So we said, ‘We are going to do that. If studies have shown this, we’re going to try it.'”
The first-year results were striking. Herrin Elementary School not only shed its “underperforming” label, but also received an “exemplary” designation. That means the school, where two of every three students comes from a low-income family, ranked in the top 10% of schools statewide. Herrin Junior High also grew from “underperforming” to “commendable” — the passing label assigned to about 80% of Illinois’ schools. North Side Primary and Herrin High School also were labeled "commendable" as they had been the year prior.
Illinois’ designations put a heavy emphasis on year-over-year student growth, and that’s where Herrin Elementary really shined. Among the standouts were students with disabilities, who showed improvements in the 68th percentile. Overall, the district's second-through-fifth graders excelled in mathematics. In 2019, nearly half of the school's 700 students met or exceeded math standards, compared to 32% statewide.
“It’s very important to highlight that everybody was all in,” Bigler said. “It was just phenomenal.”
Jennifer McCabe, a 14-year educator, was one of the teachers tapped to serve as a teacher coach. She splits her time between that role and working as a Title I reading coach. (The Herrin district is a Title I school based on its large population of low-income students that qualifies it for additional federal assistance). McCabe said that raising the school’s performance level was a “big undertaking.” The credit, she said, belongs to the teachers who were willing to try something new.
“If they had not been on board with this, we wouldn’t have been able to go from underperforming to exemplary,” she said. “That’s the biggest piece.”
In addition to those from the Herrin district, educators are also participating in the instructional coaching training sessions offered by ROE 21 from the districts of Ewing, Sesser-Vallier, Zeigler-Royalton, Buncombe, Massac County, Crab Orchard and Project Echo, an alternative school in Johnston City. Additionally, two ROE 21 consultants are participating in the program and assisting teachers at Frankfort Community Unit School District 168 in a cooperative agreement, said Horn, the regional assistant superintendent.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI