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Professional Opinion

Lessons from Northbridge: What makes a successful district

Massachusetts school system is a 'petri dish full of best practice ideas'
Timothy Purnell is superintendent and Timothy Teehan is academic achievement officer for Somerville Public Schools.
Timothy Purnell is superintendent and Timothy Teehan is academic achievement officer for Somerville Public Schools.

Massachusetts has led the nation with the top National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for the fifth consecutive time on fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics assessments.

While we realize that unknown variables are part of the equation, it was this statistical preeminence that led us to send a team from Somerville Public Schools in New Jersey to the Northbridge School District in Massachusetts to investigate instructional practices.

Data management

Northbridge schools offered numerous lessons to our team, the first of which was a data management system with which we were unfamiliar. The interface is used for informal walk-throughs, formal observations, summative evaluations, peer-to-peer observations, and teacher documentation and communication logs.

The product is customizable and is able to generate numerous reports that are used for analysis and internal and state reporting. It also serves as a central focal point of conversations regarding best instructional practices.

Monitoring student progress

Student progress is monitored through the creation of student data walls, which display each student’s performance data organized in a manner depicting below, at, or above grade-level expectations. The information is altered throughout the year and illustrates student progress—or lack of progress.

The purpose of the centrally located data wall is to be the principal focal point of conversations pertaining to student progress. Northbridge’s elementary and middle schools have also implemented a Response Through Intervention (RTI) block.

Professional development

Northbridge’s schools use model classrooms to highlight best practices in instruction and classroom design. The classrooms provide staff opportunities to observe effective instructional techniques and room arrangements for best student performance outcomes. These spaces are also used to test pilot programs.

Professional development funds are set aside to facilitate the learning opportunities for classroom teachers to visit model classrooms and to receive coaching in the model-classroom approach to instruction, conferencing, and how classrooms can be rearranged to more effectively facilitate learning.

Northbridge teachers observe their peers through the use of Learning Walks, an informal peer-to-peer observation conducted during the school day in an effort to promote and share best teaching practices without administrative presence. Involved members discuss the observation, pose questions and co-plan ways to integrate learned methods into their own lessons and classrooms.

Advanced Placement

Northbridge High School partnered with Mass Math and Science Initiative to complete a community survey regarding advanced placement course offerings and addressed the raised concerns related to the procedures accepting students into the courses and providing additional course offerings. For students enrolled in AP courses, Northbridge mandates that all students take the final exam in May.

Attendance and credit recovery

While many districts in New Jersey already offer credit recovery for students, our team found the Northbridge High School process intriguing. All courses offered are worth 5 credits—1.25 credits each quarter.

When students exceed the absence limit in a marking period, they lose 1.25 credits, but can earn those credits back if they have a 95 percent or better attendance the following quarter. For students who fail classes or lose credits and are not able to earn them back by improving attendance the following quarter, a summer program offered in subject area modules is provided.

Transitional programs

The Northbridge High School Department of Developmental Services formed a partnership with Alternatives of Whitinsville to provide transition opportunities from school to community for 18- to 22-year-old students.

The collaboration shares the objective of creating innovative and genuine opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities to participate fully and meaningfully as valued members in their regions and communities.

For all students, Northbridge has created an advisory program where all instructional and non-instructional staff members are assigned approximately 12 students who they meet with on a regular basis to build student-faculty relationships. They hold discussions focused on transitioning into high school, college, and career along with providing guidance in any area of concern that may be impacting academics or future aspirations.

Lessons applied

Somerville used the 2013-14 school year to plan for the implementation of many of the strategies learned from the visit. We have partnered with the same data management system used in Northbridge and will share our experiences with interested districts.

Somerville’s elementary school leaders plan to form model classrooms and a building-wide data wall—both physical and digital—for 2014-15.

At the district’s elementary school, teacher-driven RTI blocks tailored to meet the identified needs of every student are in place for next year.

In the high school, plans for a summer credit recovery program are being developed with consideration of making the offerings available to other districts on a fee-for-service basis.

Our visit to Massachusetts encouraged us to view education through a different lens. Too often we become blinded by the system and trapped in the box that we, in a sense, have created. Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

In our opinion, Massachusetts is a petri dish full of “best practice” ideas in which we only scratched the surface. Do not work in isolation, or your system will become stale to change.

Timothy Purnell is superintendent and Timothy Teehan is academic achievement officer for Somerville Public Schools.