Collaboration through Professional Learning Communities: Sanger Unified School District

From "Turning Around a High-Poverty School District: Learning from Sanger Unified’s Success," an external evaluation of the district done by Bay Area Research Group

Sanger Unified School District, located in the Central Valley in California, faces many of the challenges associated with educating a high poverty student population. Students come from families who don’t speak much English, or families who haven’t had much experience with education. Seventy six percent of the district is poor, and 82 percent are minority.  Almost a quarter of the students are English Learners.

In 2004, the district was named one of the 98 lowest performing districts in the state, with seven of its schools identified to be in “Program Improvement” (PI) status.  But in just six years, schools in Sanger Unified made staggering progress across the board, with its test scores outpacing average state gains each year since 2004. By 2008-09, all seven schools in PI had moved out of the status, with four schools achieving “State Distinguished Schools” status. Most of the district’s schools are scoring above or close to the state target on the Academic Performance Index (API), which is an annual measure of school performance in California. The district has been featured in Michael Fullan’s All Systems Go as an example of high quality capacity building and systems change. Districts from all across the country have come to visit Sanger, to see if they too could apply some of the strategies that have worked so well in turning the district’s schools around.

On November 17, 2010 Sanger Unified’s Superintendent Marc Johnson led a discussion with U.S. Department of Education officials on the capacity building and systems reform undertaken by the district. Superintendent Johnson shared with the group an overview of the district’s comprehensive turnaround effort, underlining the district’s singular focus on student learning. One of the sustained practices put in place that reinforced this focus was the use of Professional Learning Communities (PLC) to build collaboration. Guided by the work of Rick and Becky Dufour, Steve Zuieback, and others, the district built a “systems-focused” PLC model that emphasizes not only strategy, structure, and operations but also relationships, information, and identity.

Sanger Unified developed PLCs for all levels, including Central Office leadership, Central Office and school leadership, school leaders, and teachers across the district. To ensure that PLCs were sustainable and used to increase both collaboration and capacity of teachers, the Sanger team focused on developing the following:

  • A vision and ownership for PLCs that all teachers would share.
  • Technical capacity, so that teachers would have timely access to assessment data, support in using data, and a well-established communications system to more easily share resources and collaborate with others.
  • Organizational capacity, so teachers would have the time and support necessary to use PLCs effectively. The district created schedules to ensure teachers had time to participate in PLCs, and provided ongoing development to PLC facilitators so that time spent in PLCs would be valuable to teachers.
  • Capacity for cultural change, so teachers are expected to share their data and practices with one another on a more intimate level.

Sanger Unified’s teachers have found PLCs to be helpful in improving student achievement for several reasons. First, PLCs facilitate the use of assessment data to focus improvement efforts. Second, PLCs help teachers create instructional responses to student learning needs. Third, PLCs actually shifted the working culture for teachers, so that they all experienced shared accountability and efficacy. This shift can be seen in a recent survey of teachers done by the Bay Area Research Group: 78 to 87 percent of district teachers report their schools to have “strong collaborative cultures,” while 85 percent of teachers agree that “PLCs are critical” to their school’s success.

PLCs are just one part of a comprehensive improvement effort led by Superintendent Johnson and the leadership at Sanger Unified. But with its potential to build teacher capacity, to change school culture to encourage collaboration and shared accountability, and to emphasize continuous learning, PLCs may serve as a critical strategy for those districts who seek to improve teaching and learning in the classroom.

For more information on PLCs and Sanger Unified School District, please visit http://www.cacollaborative.org/Meetings/Meeting14PLCs.aspx.