Gulf Shores Elementary Transformation (Part 2): Some Leadership Lessons Learned

In Part 1 of our story about the transformation at Gulf Shores Elementary into a project-based learning school, principal Julie Pierce recalled her own early resistance, based on concerns about maintaining a strong reading program, and how teacher leaders in her school convinced her both things were possible. In Part 2, Pierce reflects on the journey so far and offers some insights gained from the experience.

This spring, when a group of educators visited Baldwin County’s Gulf Shores Elementary for an “instructional round” organized by the Alabama Best Practices Center, they compared the PK-6 school’s one-page instructional target document with what they saw during their observations.

The target laid out the GSES educators’ vision of “what we want to be doing and what we want the kids to be doing” in two years, says principal Julie Pierce.

The visitors, all participants in ABPC’s school and district networks,  told the GSES leadership team that “you are living and breathing your one-page target. You are totally on track. You understand where you are headed and you are of a common mind about it.”

ABPC director Cathy Gassenheimer, who participated in the instructional round, agrees. “The school is amazing. In my opinion, it is an exemplar of a technology-infused school where students are using the tools most of the time to do project learning in very powerful ways.”

Taking the principal by the hand

When we asked Julie Pierce (r.) to identify some of the reasons for the rapid progress at GSES, she focused on several key factors:

Develop your teacher leaders. “I think the first thing is finding the teachers on the faculty who are passionate about curriculum – the people who really want to learn and have the sense that we could teach these children so much better – the teachers who other teachers really look up to – and then investing a lot of professional development in those people. As they become more and more knowledgeable, they become a powerful force for change.”

Create a leadership team. GSES has nearly 1100 students in grades K-6, with up to eight sections per grade. “I try to stay on top of things,” Pierce says, but wearing all the hats a school leader must wear and remaining on the cutting edge of instructional practice will always be a struggle for principals. “Finding and putting together an instructional leadership team that you can trust is essential,” she believes.

At GSES, the team consists of the assistant principal (“I try to choose an AP straight from the classroom who knows what it’s like to teach today”); the eMints-trained technology coach Staci Robinson (“who is dearly loved and respected and reminds us all IT’S FUN!”); the reading coach/instructional partner (the “analytical” eMints teacher Nicole Godbold), and librarian Michele Bennett, who with Pierce’s encouragement has reinvented her role and become “the non-digital native” who is able to coach other teachers in her age group to a place where they realize that “they can learn to use and integrate technology and be successful with project learning.”

Empower your leadership team. Pierce’s team is constantly in classrooms, working with teachers, thinking about the change process. “I have big chart paper all over my wall, covered with stickies. They come in whenever they need to and write on the wall, creating a continuous record of what’s going on and what we need to do.” The team gathers weekly for a “head honcho” meeting where the guiding question is always: Where is our professional development headed?

“Having these powerful people, these instructional leaders, by my side has made the transformation of our school possible,” says Pierce. “I don’t see how a principal can really make something like this happen without such a team to take them by the hand and lead the principal as the principal leads the school.”

Provide lots of planning and PD time. Becoming a school committed to project learning requires more individual and collaborative planning time to tailor lessons and units and integrate state standards. By tapping into icurio, Discovery Education and other resources, the planning demands are somewhat streamlined, but Pierce says teachers still have generous amounts of planning time, including grade-level collaborative planning for 90 minutes every Tuesday.

And, of course, dramatic changes in instructional practice don’t come about without significant and continuous professional development. In addition to cross-grade book studies (this year included Lucy Calkins’ Pathways to the Common Core), GSES has four all-day professional development experiences during the year, by grade level, focused on identified needs.

Pierce will also stage PD “interventions” as necessary. If, for example, “third grade is really struggling with the concept of literacy across the curriculum, we’ll hold a two-day workshop just for that grade. Or we might pull out our new teachers for three or four days to work with ARI specialists on various reading issues.”

Call on expert help. Last fall, GSES joined the Alabama Instructional Partners Network, supported by the Alabama State Department of Education under the leadership of Superintendent Tommy Bice and Deputy Superintendent Sherrill Parrish, and facilitated by the Alabama Best Practices Center.

Pierce and reading coach Nicole Godbold (the equivalent of an “instructional partner” at GSES) have attended the Instructional Partners Network training throughout the year.

The training includes a close study of Jim Knight’s seminal book Unmistakable Impact, describing a teacher coaching and professional growth model embedded in principles of an authentic partnership among teachers, coaches and administrators. The training in the partnership model “has been a perfect fit for us,” says Pierce. Here’s how she explained it:

We knew that our continuous improvement plan required by the state of Alabama was basically our one-page target that Knight describes. We had buy-in for project-based learning in a broad sense, but the piece that was missing was the morale. Everything was in place, but it had been done by us, the leadership team, and I had said “we are going to do it.” The teachers were beginning to have fun, but it still felt a little too top-down. Our teacher leaders were trying to spread the enthusiasm around, and it was sticking here and there, but it was not like we were completely on fire yet.

At the Instructional Partner Pilot training, the ABPC trainers talked about community building and about the partnership principles of equality and choice and voice – the big idea that really lasting and meaningful school improvement has to grow out of a partnership among the people in the school. Those partnership principles of equality and choice and voice scared me to death at first. We had some loud resistors – they were doing what we asked but they were not doing it really really well. We didn’t yet have collaborative planning, and some teachers were going off on a lot of tangents of their own.

But over time, as I began to consider the partnership ideas, I came to understand that choice and voice lead to reflection and dialogue and ultimately to praxis. The dialogue reveals how much we agree on the important things. A once-resistant teacher might think, “Wow, I see that other teachers think project-based learning is really good, and they want me to take it to a higher level, in sync with the College and Career Ready Standards.” It’s really about rigor and high standards, and those resistant teachers don’t want to be found opposing rigor.

A shared vision has emerged in our school because of the partnership principles – because of the open dialogue and our pursuit of understanding and collaboration. Everyone now has a voice and the freedom to say what they believe in. And what you discover is that teachers believe, fundamentally, in the same things. They want their students to be able to meet high standards, they want them to collaborate, and think deeply and have academic conversations, and be responsible for their own learning. By adopting and practicing the partnership principles, it’s no longer me, the principal, telling them what to do – it’s them, telling each other what they believe and committing that to our school philosophy.

This Instructional Partnership Network  – what I learned there – helped me build on what we were already working on by convincing me I needed to let go even more. Nicole was able to come back and use the partnership protocols with our faculty, and our teachers were saying things like “I feel heard – for the first time in years I feel like my opinion matters.”

And what’s crazy about it is that their opinions were what I hoped to see in the first place. It wasn’t so much about differences of opinion as it was about the need to be true partners – to have that particular sense of the relationship between us.

Pierce adds that the IP Network training and GSES’s participation in ABPC’s Powerful Conversations and Key Leaders networks have also revealed new aspects of high quality professional development to her and her leadership team.

The protocols that they do at the ABPC workshops are wonderful. Usually you go to a workshop and it’s mostly sit and get. Instead, this is a PD partnership. At every workshop, they use tools and strategies to promote our thinking and  conversation and to provide ways to give evidence for what we’re reading. It has really elevated me to a higher level in terms of my expectations for professional learning and how to implement it effectively.

We’ve used several of the protocols we’ve learned through the IP Network training, and the teachers love them because they leave our sessions with such deeper knowledge — and it’s knowledge that comes from them, from their experience and understanding, framed in the context of research on effective practice.

Pat Johnson is a retired principal who works with us through the Best Practices Center. She told us that one of the things they do for busy principals who never have enough time to read through all the good books and research is go through these things and find the “diamond pages” and share them with us. That has helped me so much, because I don’t have time to search like that. And they are very surgical in the way that they say, ‘we are going to turn to this page and this paragraph,’ and that one paragraph can trigger a lifetime of learning. I appreciate their professional development so much.

What’s next

After three years, Julie Pierce says 70% of instruction in the intermediate and upper grades is project-based. At the primary level, the pace of change has been slower, in part to insure that early reading instruction remains as effective as it has been in the past – but also because primary teachers were, on average, more resistant to the PBL concept.

A year ago, Pierce says, when Superintendent Alan Lee “came in and told us we would be the model elementary school” in Baldwin County’s Digital Renaissance initiative, the primary teachers found themselves “riding a very sharp razor edge as they began to learn how to explicitly teach children how to read and think critically at the same time.” After a year of serious focus, Pierce estimates, 40 to 50% of primary instruction is project based, with more to come.

As Gulf Shores Elementary continues to transform, Pierce acknowledges, new issues are emerging that need to be addressed.

For one, “We are now so deep into project-based learning that we are at risk of leaving our parents behind,” she says. “We don’t have a (PBL-oriented) report card that fits what we’re doing. We have got some big steps to take to help parents understand how their children are learning now and what progress looks like in a PBL school and why this kind of learning is so valuable to students.”

The other pressing issue, Pierce believes, “is that we have got to somehow pull our feeder pattern on board, because our children are leaving us in sixth and going on to seventh grade and not finding the same kind of learning experience.”

This is beginning to happen, Pierce notes. “The high school has visited our Tuesday collaborative plannings in an effort to better understand the process. The feeder pattern principals have also met as a professional learning team to discuss project-based learning.”

Another step, she says, will be an effort to build interest among her principal colleagues in the state’s Instructional Partners Network and the partnership principles that can be “used with teachers in any school to help focus on what they want their students and themselves to become.”

Truly, Pierce concludes, “the power behind all of this positive change is the teacher. Yes, there are some malingerers in our schools, but there are a LOT of teachers out there who know what they are doing. You just have to find them, rally them and get them in the right professional development.

“And then,” says Pierce, “they will start to fly and take the principal’s hand and lead us where we need to go – bringing the faculty together in a real partnership and turning the whole school upside down.”

Habitat researchers: Aaron Warner’s 4th grade class at Gulf Shores Elementary School is researching Habitats and Adaptations. Seen here (clockwise from bottom left), Garrett Garner and Ethan Zook (Adaptation Experts), and Kaylee Brown and Carson Willis (Habitat Experts) are collaborating to place animals in their correct habitats.


John Croft Norton is the senior communications consultant for the Alabama Best Practices Center.