GREENSBORO — After 10 years teaching English at Dudley High School, Ashley Ekwem-Thorpe had plenty of “Panther” pride, but also a desire for a new adventure.
So this school year she applied for a new position advertised at Hairston Middle School, a feeder school to Dudley.
As a multi-classroom leader working with nine English teachers, Ekwem-Thorpe is part of a new experiment for Guilford County Schools — one that rearranges some school staffing roles in an attempt to boost student achievement.
The idea involves recruiting teachers with a track record of high student achievement to help a larger number of students than they normally would. That could be through leading and coaching other teachers, like Ekwem-Thorpe is doing, or through taking on more students directly, like her colleague and team member, Sharrone Honor.
Nine Guilford elementary or middle schools began trying out the “Opportunity Culture” models this school year as part of a strategy to turn around test scores. Six more are expected to begin in the fall.
For Hairston educators, adventure — and some challenges — have mixed as staff have worked together in a new way to put these new models in play, their hopes pinned on better helping students.
District leaders are betting that by paying extra to recruit effective teachers to lead and coach their peers, or take on additional students, they can make progress on recruiting and retaining great educators in the face of what they say is a shortage of experienced, well-trained teachers.
The idea for Opportunity Culture comes from Public Impact, a Chapel-Hill based company whose leaders designed and created “Opportunity Culture” in 2009 and which continues to promote its models and training to school districts.
Public Impact says the “cornerstone” of Opportunity Culture is the multi-classroom leader position.
Ekwem-Thorpe, for example, is one of four new multi-classroom leaders at Hairston. She works with the English teachers; there’s also one over the science teachers and two leaders for math. In all, the school has about 55 classroom teachers.
Multi-classroom leaders coach, lead, and take accountability for results for teachers under them. They also do some direct teaching, either with their own class, by pulling small groups, or doing model lessons in other teachers’ classrooms. It’s similar to team leader positions common in business and industry.
Schools also have the option to add “expanded-impact” teachers, like Honor, who agree to teach a larger number of students. Hairston has three of those, as well as two “reach associates.” Those are like an extra-qualified, extra-responsible teacher assistant meant to help the expanded-impact teachers with their larger student load.
Like other teachers, the expanded-impact teachers and the reach associates become part of the teams under the multi-classroom leaders.
Ekwem-Thorpe, for example, visits Honor’s classroom when she is teaching to take notes and later give her tips.
Honor said Ekwem-Thorpe, or “Ms. E.T.” for short, has insight into the skills her students will need in high school. She’s also got ideas about a wide variety of ways to do something as simple as having students answer questions in class.
Paying for it
Part of the appeal of this model for some district leaders is that schools pay to implement the model directly, by shifting around various pots of money they have at their discretion. That could include federal Title I funding, for example.
Participating schools applied for and received something called “restart status” from the state.
It’s an option specifically for recently low-performing schools. If the state grants the status, schools get flexibility from the state on some rules, including how they spend their money, and whether they follow the state’s new, stricter kindergarten-third grade class size requirements, for example. This charter-school-like flexibility can help them if they want to try something out of the norm, like Opportunity Culture.
At Hairston, Principal Calvin Freeman eliminated some teaching positions that were open after retirements or resignations and used that money to create positions for Opportunity Culture. And expanded-impact teachers were taking on more students, so fewer teachers were needed.
What does research say?
A first study of Opportunity Culture showed notable gains for schools, though there are some important asterisks.
Ben Backes and Michael Hanson, of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, reviewed reading and math results from 44 schools using Opportunity Culture and shared their findings in a 2018 working paper. Most of the schools included in the study came from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. All three school districts that participated had been using Opportunity Culture for at least a couple of years.
The researchers found that for math, multi-classroom leaders appeared to have a large positive impact on student test results of teachers working with them.
The student gains, researchers wrote, were equal to what would be expected by replacing an average teacher with one considered to be in the top 25 percent.
That’s in line, they wrote, with prior studies demonstrating the effectiveness of intensive, personalized coaching of teachers.
While they also saw gains in reading with the multi-classroom leaders, the cause and effect was murkier.
Using Opportunity Culture was associated with improved math and reading performance, but the researchers said they couldn’t confidently say if the increase in reading was caused by the Opportunity Culture initiative itself. School-wide gains could be a spillover effect — perhaps it could be “Opportunity Culture” improving the culture of the whole school, but it might be something else driving the improvement, the researchers said.
They also found some negative results for a “blended learning” model Opportunity Culture had also been promoting.
“The blended learning model helps effective teachers find time to reach more kids through the use of learning stations and online instruction overseen by paraprofessionals,” the researchers wrote. “Though this strategy had a lower uptake in the three pilot districts we studied, the estimates we report here are discouraging because a known effective teacher was utilized in a different role that turned out to be less effective for all students than what we would have otherwise expected.”
A principal’s perspective
Freeman, Hairston’s principal, believes real school reform is a slow process. His main interest in Opportunity Culture is its impact on the school years down the road.
The great thing, he said, is having a larger, strengthened instructional leadership team in school.
Major challenges, like helping teachers be effective with the new reading and math curriculum the district is rolling out, aren’t just left to the school’s curriculum facilitator to handle.
Even if test results don’t come out like they hoped, he said, having put more thought and effort into the instructional leadership team won’t be a mistake and the teachers involved will still have grown as leaders, whether the school sticks with Opportunity Culture or moves on to something else, he said.
“I don’t think it’ll be a time that I will say, ‘Oops I don’t think we should have done this,’” he said. “It becomes how do we restructure it to get the results we expect from it.”
The con, if there is a con, he said, is that more people in leadership means more leaders to manage, and that’s a challenge.
“Too many people, you can mismanage and not get the results you need from those people,” he said.
The teachers’ take
For Hairston’s multi-classroom leaders and expanded-impact teachers, the adoption of the new models has meant both new opportunities and increased responsibilities.
Ekwem-Thorpe, the English/language arts multi-classroom leader, and Kimberly Simmons, the science multi-classroom leader, talked about how their new jobs are a “best of both worlds” scenario for them. They get to impact more children than they ever had as just classroom teachers, and try out something new in their careers, while also still having more direct connection to the classrooms than a school-wide administrative or instructional role would allow them.
“I’m not stuck in an office looking at paper all day, I’m working with children and my impact gets to be greater, literally because I am with every ELA teacher,” Ekwem-Thorpe said.
Honor and Deitrah Watts, a math expanded-impact teacher, are both also happy to be helping more students, knowing that they have proven results that show they can make a difference. Of course, taking on more students is also a double-edged sword, given the challenges for the teacher that comes with.
Neither is a stranger to increased responsibilities — even before Opportunity Culture, they were the sort of teachers called on to take on larger classes and to work with students who could use the help.
All that increases for an expanded-impact teacher.
Honor has about 140 students this year, up from about 90. Her largest class has 41 students, maybe 10 or so more than her largest classes before. That’s meant an increased need for advance planning, as well as somewhat less ability for her to work directly with each student each day.
“You do have to be able to do a little bit more for relationship building because you are not being able to get that one-on-one time with them daily,” she said.
Watts talked about how the assistance of her reach associate and the math multi-classroom leader have helped mitigate the challenges she’s facing. She and her reach associate plan together, work together and understand each other.
“It’s just a perfect match,” she said.
Honor faces a less-perfect situation: her reach associate quit midway through the school year, leaving her without one until the school hires a replacement. That’s left her in a tough spot, but no less determined.
“It’s a lot, I think it’s going to be a lot for any person to manage up to 40 kids in one class,” she said. “But, I think, I know the profession that I’m in. And I’m a Christian — that’s where I go to when I get stressed out. So I know I’m not going to be in a situation I can’t handle.”