Over the past several years, Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada, has created a unique role designed to influence student learning outcomes and participate in the leadership of the school’s academic culture. Learning strategists, who are teachers on special assignment, are in some ways similar to instructional coaches, a role very commonly seen in today’s K–12 school systems, in that they may be asked to provide direct coaching to teachers and support the overall instructional frameworks in classrooms. But their work doesn’t end there: Learning strategists may be involved in analyzing student data to inform instruction, providing professional learning to teachers, or offering intervention support for students.
At Whitney Elementary School, our leadership team has intentionally worked to put the “strategy” in cultivating their learning strategists’ role to significantly contribute to the overall schoolwide improvement goals. Our leadership team saw a opportunity in this area when faced with tremendous challenges such as over 40 percent chronic absenteeism, high teacher turnover, and low student achievement data.
We decided to specifically focus on strategic scheduling of strategists’ time, involving these individuals in strategic planning for the school, and leveraging their unique skill sets across diverse areas for maximum impact on student learning.
We strive to put the “strategy” in the learning strategists’ role by including them in our leadership meetings and trainings. This ensures the alignment of their work to the school’s vision, mission, and strategic plan. Our learning strategists are also able to more intentionally focus their work with teachers because they have been a part of creating the school’s performance plan and are involved in ongoing progress monitoring. For example, strategists gather data through classroom observations and teacher surveys to determine professional learning needs.
Leverage the Strategist’s Skill Set
Although each of our strategists has a unique background and, naturally, areas of specialization based on their degrees or classroom experience, it was important to us not to isolate the learning strategists to one content area. We have committed to providing strategists with explicit opportunities to learn about all content areas and stretch their skills across grade levels. They distribute their support across subjects and classrooms and periodically shift focus areas to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the work.
Therefore, we have committed to providing strategists with time and funding for their own research and professional learning related to the school’s strategic growth areas. For example, our strategists have devoted time to becoming experts in the schoolwide, long-term initiative of Writing Across the Curriculum. Several years ago, the team of strategists derived a need from classroom and professional learning community (PLC) observations to focus on consistent, cohesive writing expectations across the school.
Subsequently, with our leadership team’s support, they created and delivered a series of professional learning workshops in Writing Across the Curriculum. Over time, they have trained our teachers in the teaching of the writing process, writing conferences with students, and incorporating writing opportunities in math and science classes. As the strategists became experts in writing instruction through this multiyear process, they have been empowered to ensure that the classroom teachers were well supported to reach the schoolwide goals for this initiative.
Strategic Scheduling for Strategists
It may be tempting to assign a learning strategist noninstructional duties such as campus area supervision or substituting—after all, there never seems to be enough staff to accomplish all the things a school must do in a school day. As building and system leaders, we are both acutely aware of the stressful, anxiety-inducing decisions for administrators around most effectively utilizing every individual in a school for maximum impact on student learning. Principals may find themselves consumed with ongoing demands of leading a school and be uncertain about how to make the most of this highly trained team member.
In an effort to put the “strategy” in the learning strategist role in our school, we created time for the strategists to support the school’s performance plan goals. For example, our administrative team and strategists work together to gather and analyze ongoing data to cocreate the school improvement goals each year. This year, we determined two major goals: to decrease the total number of students below the 40th percentile in reading and math, and to help professional learning communities unwrap Nevada Academic Content Standards and ensure the alignment of assessments to the standards.
We collaboratively designed a daily schedule for the strategists that enabled them to deeply support both our student groups needing academic intervention support and our teachers’ work in PLCs. Time was allocated for a few highly focused areas, including daily time for the following:
- Direct instruction in literacy and math for students who needed extra support
- Gathering and analyzing grade-level data (from classroom common summative or formative assessments, progress-monitoring tools, benchmark assessments, etc.) and determining specific student groups for upcoming instruction
- Working directly alongside classroom teachers in their PLC meetings to provide context with data, support administrator expectations of meeting protocols, or assist teachers in effective decision-making
- Reviewing curricular assessments used in classrooms against standards and ensuring alignment of assessment questions
- Conducting nonevaluative classroom observations to gather evidence of impact for professional learning, determine areas of coaching support needed, and inform leadership of needs for future professional learning
- Collaborating with teachers during planning periods to provide coaching around deep understanding of the standards
- And, as team members, sharing in the lunch supervision roles equally with teachers
Supporting strategists has meant making careful decisions and insisting on the sanctity of their time: Every staff member is aware of the various ways that strategists do their work. We also created opportunities for strategists to interact with instructional leadership teams from other schools.
As the “how” and “why” around scheduling became embedded in our team’s way of working together, we realized new opportunities to refine and push the limits of how these dynamic individuals could catalyze the school’s progress toward high growth for all teachers and students. The premise is simple, yet has a big impact: We endeavor every day to put the “strategy” in the learning strategist’s work.