Reforms are taking root, and there's more to come

Chad Bell pored over his Algebra II final, carefully penciling in his answer.

With a few short hours left in the school year last Thursday, the sophomore who along with his peers served as a guinea pig for a new teaching model at Del Norte High School, seemed satisfied.

Bell said the "flipped classroom" model his instructor, Dave Bokor, introduced this year made it easier for him to grasp the material. Watching a video lecture at home and doing the bookwork in class also made it easier for Bell to ask for help if he needed it.

"You're motivated," he said. "You watch the video or you don't learn. It helps a lot."

As the first year of the Del Norte Engaged Learning Model (DNELM) drew to a close, school district officials said they are happy with how students responded to the changes.

Feedback from teachers has been positive and officials anticipate increased test scores this year as a result of the reforms, said Steve Godla, assistant superintendent of instruction and educational services.

District administrators will know more when the preliminary results of the California Standardized Test come out in about three weeks, Superintendent Don Olson said last week.

More change this fall

Phase 1 of the DNELM focused on establishing Professional Learning Communities, teams of teachers and administrators focused on greater collaboration.

PLCs will continue when Phase 2 of the model is implemented next year, Godla said, but instructors and administrators will also focus on implementing new teaching strategies.

Teachers will also implement the state's new Common Core standards, he said.

"This emphasizes an increased level of writing proficiency," Godla said, adding that students will find themselves writing more for all subjects. "We realize it's going to be a shift in how we do things. It's an incredible amount of change."

In the DNELM's first year, several teachers, including Bokor and Crescent Elk Middle School teacher Mady Wolsfeld, became data coaches. Wolsfeld, who had taught sixth grade since 1997, said data coaches and data teams provide a support system that allows teachers the time and venue to discuss student learning with each other.

In PLCs, teachers, data coaches and administrators discuss what students should be learning and how to determine if they have actually been doing it, Wolsfeld said. PLCs also address how teachers should respond if students haven't learned the material, as well as how to make sure they retain the knowledge, she said.

"When you analyze the data you are given a wealth of information upon which to react," Wolsfeld said. "The beauty is teachers' skills and education and experience and knowledge come together and respond to that data. This is an exciting time for teachers. We are moving forward and students are the ones who reap all the benefits."

Extra period at Crescent Elk

In response to PLC discussions, Crescent Elk is exploring adding an extra period to the school day next year, Wolsfeld said. It would focus on extra tutoring for students who haven't yet grasped a particular subject, and enrichment for those who have, she said.

"The way the data teams work is different at each site," Wolsfeld said. "At Crescent Elk ... an intervention and enrichment period will be embedded every day (into) the master schedule."

At Del Norte High, because teachers have been working in PLCs, there has been an increased focus on student learning this year, said Principal Coleen Parker. Instructors are discussing teaching strategies - what's effective and what's not - and then they put those strategies into practice, she said.

"Working in a Professional Learning Community and learning the data cycle has been a large shift in how we do business," Parker said. "We have had an increase in grades. More students are performing above a 2.0 (grade point average) this year."

By experimenting with the "flipped classroom" model this year, Bokor has gotten a head start on Phase 2 of the DNELM, Olson said.

"The teacher prepares the lecture via video homework," Olson said. "Students watch the lecture, take the quiz and work on schoolwork in class."

Students approve so far

Bokor said he learned about the flipped classroom model at a Computer Using Educators conference presentation by Aaron Sams, one of two teachers who pioneered the technique. Intrigued, Bokor thought the model would work well for his students and decided to give it a try.

"Everything seems positive so far," he said. "Students are doing better on homework and are doing better on tests. We'll see how they do on the state test."

The new approach creates more work for him, Bokor said, but he will continue using it. He added that his colleagues have expressed interest in the flipped model, but have yet to try it.

High school junior Nicole Hemmingsen, who had Bokor for Algebra I the year before, said the flipped classroom model has helped her. Last year, Hemmingsen would listen to a lecture, take notes and try to apply the concepts to the homework Bokor assigned.

"I don't feel like I learned quite as much," she said. "It was harder to finish without his help. With the flipped lessons this year, if we don't understand something we can go back to the video. Homework is a lot easier to understand."

More and more writing

As for the move to increase students' writing time in conjunction with California's new Common Core State Standards, in math classes this could include having students write out a sequence of steps they're taking to solve a problem, Olson said.

It might also include having students as young as fourth- and fifth-graders answering what Olson called document-based questions, requiring students to analyze journal entries and other sources to formulate an answer.

Developing and implementing the DNELM helps support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, Godla said.

"The DNELM and our data teams give us solid footing to move forward," he said. "Data teams give us a vehicle to look at the instructional strategies that are going to be required with the Common Core. It's very fortuitous of us to have the Common Core coming our way and the DNELM is really going to help us get there."

The Del Norte Engaged Learning Model was developed by the District Educational Leadership Team and Associates with the help of grants from local and statewide foundations. The model was adopted by the School Board in April 2012.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at