Sheridan High School Graduation Initiative

Sheridan High School graduation coach Curt Mayer speaks with sophomore Austin Jones in 2015. Sheridan schools hope to spread their system for teacher collaboration to other districts around the state.

File, Star-Tribune

One of the highest performing school districts in Wyoming is hoping to spread its model of teacher collaboration — which has drawn praise from educators and the governor — to more areas of the state as the education world here grapples with shrinking budgets.

“It’s a way to improve Wyoming schools,” said Craig Dougherty, the superintendent of Sheridan County School District No. 2. “We think the state should adopt a statewide (professional learning community) framework with a statewide director and regional directors.”

A professional learning community, in the Sheridan 2 context, is when all of a school’s teachers from a grade level meet together to discuss what’s working and what isn’t, which students are struggling and which are excelling.

To increase the presence of the learning communities in Wyoming, Dougherty’s district is offering a PLC Principal Academy in the fall. Three districts — including Natrona County — will send two principals to Sheridan to receive training on how to start a learning community in their schools. Officials from Sheridan 2 will also visit those districts to meet with any interested principals and provide further help.

In a statement, Gov. Matt Mead called the learning community approach innovative and praised the success it brought to Sheridan.

“Through (Sheridan 2’s) PLC Principal Academy, others in Wyoming can now be introduced to this learning model,” he said.

Sheridan 2 needs only to point to its recent results to show the success of its methods: Four of its eight schools were given the highest performance rating last week, and all were at least meeting expectations. Sheridan 2’s juniors had the highest ACT scores in the state, a 21.5 average that’s nearly two points ahead of the statewide average. It also crushed the Wyoming average for percentage of third- through eighth-graders proficient and advanced in math and reading.

Dougherty attributes this success to the district’s use of professional learning communities. He outlined the four questions that teachers deal with in those weekly meetings: What do we want our kids to learn; how do we measure that; what do we do with the kids that struggle; and what do we do with the kids who are “hitting it out of the park”?

“Our job is to meet the needs of those kids,” he said. “Address issues of kids not meeting it. We can only do that by teachers working together versus independently, in isolation.”

The district instituted the learning communities about a decade ago, and each school in Sheridan 2 has its own framework and model. Dougherty said before they were instituted, his district was “very average.”

“Some schools, their results were horrible,” he said. “When we took this on, with integrity, we said we’re not going to do anything else. PLCs are how we’re going to do that.”

The district placed an absolute emphasis on student achievement, and within a year, proficiency levels in math rose to 90 percent — up from around 20, Dougherty said.

He acknowledged that it’s challenging work and that teachers in his district have a high degree of accountability; if an instructor isn’t producing results or working hard enough, he or she may be booted from the district.

There’s a sense of urgency, he said, that comes with instituting learning communities. Teachers can intervene with students quickly if they show they’re lagging behind.

In a statement, Natrona County School District associate superintendent Walt Wilcox said officials here are interested in rolling out learning communities.

Sheridan 2 “is the top district in the state because of its dedication to professional learning communities,” he said. “PLCS work. The Principal Academy will help our leaders and their teams implement an effective PLC approach in Natrona, which will measurably improve student success across our district.”

In a time of budget cuts in Wyoming education — with the potential for more on the horizon — the natural question is if instituting a learning community will cost an already cash-strapped district even more. But Dougherty said it wouldn’t, that schools have professional development money and teachers can meet during school hours.

Plus, he said, it can help lift Wyoming schools’ performance levels. Key legislators — including Sen. President Eli Bebout — have suggested that the state isn’t getting enough return on the more than $16,000 it spends per student annually.

“The proof is us,” Dougherty said. “The proof is our teachers. And we’ve gotta do something. Our state’s in trouble economically. We see a sense of urgency, like this should’ve been done years ago. But we are where we are, so let’s get after it.”

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Star-Tribune reporter Seth Klamann covers local and statewide education issues.

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