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District Dialogue

Superintendent Peter Noonan helps launch PLCs in Virginia county

City of Fairfax Schools' leader has been a champion of professional learning communities, and has seen results
City of Fairfax Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan says PLCs take leadership from both teachers and administrators.
City of Fairfax Schools Superintendent Peter Noonan says PLCs take leadership from both teachers and administrators.

Peter Noonan, superintendent of the City of Fairfax Schools in Virginia, first implemented the professional learning communities (PLC) concept a few years ago.

When he was an assistant superintendent in the larger Fairfax County school system, Noonan joined a movement of administrators and principals to create PLCs in the county’s 200 schools. He has continued to champion PLCs with principals, teachers and students since moving to his current leadership position with the city’s four public schools, which are owned by the city but administered by the Fairfax County Public Schools system.

The benefits are clear. From 2008 to 2010, the number of students participating in AP increased by more than 7 percent while math assessment pass rates rose to over 92 percent and reading rates to nearly 94 percent. And, discipline incidents dropped by nearly 4,000 from 2008 to 2013.

What sparked the movement?

In 2002, I was pressed to read the Professional Learning Communities at Work book, which speaks to what it really means to work collaboratively. With several other principals, we started to build new structures in our respective schools using the three big ideas of PLC: learning, collaborative culture and results.

The culture of collaborating in buildings comes from central office. As administrators and superintendents we make sure that all teams have a systemic way of intervening and collaborating with schools.

But, at the school level, we leave the actual structural implementation to our principals and teachers. It turns into both a top-down and bottom-up effort that begins with a shared understanding that being a PLC means a cultural shift in collaboration and communication.

How did you implement it?

We brought leaders together from school and district levels and focused on learning what a PLC was and wasn’t by reading and attending conferences. We asked teachers to clarify which students needed to understand critical content pieces in certain timeframes.

Together, we formed common formative assessments to let us know which kids need intervention or acceleration and to what extent. Assessments also informed teachers where to go with their curriculum.

City of Fairfax Schools, Virginia

  • Superintendent Peter Noonan
  • Schools: 4
  • Students: 5,472, pre-K through 12
  • Staff and faculty: 602
  • Per child expenditure: $13,830
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 24%

We spent a lot of time in 2005-06 working with principals on what PLC meant for them while also working with the Fairfax County district on developing fundamental elements. Trying to scale an implementation of that magnitude from the city’s four schools to the county’s 200 schools was tricky.

It was a big moment for us as we instilled a new culture with a combination of site-based leadership and central vision, advising schools that “how you get to your goals is up to you, but here is where we are going.” We continue to develop new protocols.

How do PLCs work in your district?

We recommend that teachers collaborate at least once a week to understand what students need to know based on a collective understanding of the curriculum; how students will be commonly and formatively assessed; and once the assessment has been administered, how students will receive timely and tailored intervention. Teams comprise four to eight teachers, either by grade level or content teams.

Discussions focus on the essential curriculum that every student must know in a certain timeframe. Then data is produced from the common formative assessment and teams see which students performed well on the assessment and who they can extend and enrich the curriculum for.

They also look at students to determine who needs timely and tailored intervention by name and by need. The team creates a plan to support all students. At the end, we identify the teachers who taught skills and knowledge successfully and learn from them.

The lessons learned?

It’s important to develop the culture first before changing the structure. We asked that teachers provide a half hour to an hour of tailored intervention strategies for students—and principals create that time for them.

Before giving that time, we needed teachers to understand our PLC goals. When teachers work together in an ongoing way that supports interdependence we know instantaneously who is doing well and who needs help.

Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.