Excellence By Design

  • Written by: Caroline Grundy
  • Photos by: Aaron Ford and Caroline Grundy

Photo: Madisan Drake, Thunder Valley K-8 teacher, participates in a Frederick feeder professional development course.

Walk into an afternoon professional development session at Thunder Valley K-8 and you will see over 60 teachers sitting in small groups discussing the afternoon’s theme of Collective Teacher Efficacy. Teachers analyze their interpretations of the term’s meaning and their experiences around how the school’s staff and educators’ shared belief in their ability to positively impact students has and will improve student achievement.

The Frederick feeder represents an area of rapid growth; the system has evolved from two schools to seven schools over the last 15 years. Managing growth and student achievement can be challenging, and Frederick High Principal Brian Young points to time built into the school calendar for professional development as crucial to achieving next levels of success. Monthly late starts, split days, and after-school time allow for professional development, which increases colleagueship within each school and across the feeder system.

In Frederick, a new professional development theme is chosen each year based on achieving the next level of success. According to Young, “we choose a new theme because we are always working on continuous improvement. Creating common expectations and practices that align with our district priorities is key to creating a seamless experience for students in St. Vrain.” This year’s professional development theme is around student empowerment with John Spencer and A.J. Juliani’s Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning as the guiding text.

“In the long run, we only hit what we aim for,” shares Ben Kalb, instructional technology coordinator for the Frederick feeder system. He refers to Henry David Thoreau’s famous quote when asked what Excellence by Design in St. Vrain means to him. Kalb insists, “no one is going to accidentally stumble on anything worth doing.” St. Vrain is a place where professional development, collaboration, and reaching for the next level of success is constant. Within the Frederick feeder and across St. Vrain Valley Schools, our students, teachers, staff, and community are intentionally setting goals to push the boundaries of excellence in public education.

Kalb guides the content, pace, and choice element to the professional development theme and models each session to match the vision of how students should be learning. According to Kalb, “when you give both teachers and students voice and choice – there is a lot more ownership around their learning, which leads to increased engagement.” Teachers in St. Vrain follow the Blended Learning Model, which combines research-supported practices and quality online content. The Blended Approach puts the students at the center of their learning by giving them more control of the content, path, place, pace, and time of learning. Kalb states that when teachers are also given these opportunities, “there is a pollination of learning happening within the buildings and outside of the buildings – asynchronously online and in person.” Social media is another beneficial tool used to connect teachers across the Frederick feeder with the hashtag, #FrederickLearns, highlighting the learning happening across teachers’ classrooms.

St. Vrain’s priority around professional development fosters strong teacher relationships and teacher collaboration. Through the Office of Professional Development, peer study teams of mixed grade levels and schools are created. In Frederick, Algebra 1 and Geometry math teachers plan their curriculum together. While the teachers are responsible for the same content at different schools and grade levels, they align the curriculum and expectations so all students are receiving the knowledge they need to be successful at the next grade level.

“It’s about creating a shared vision and shared strategies amongst teachers, staff, and community members to mobilize the entire system towards shared goals. It’s about people being lined up and feeling that sense of unity and empowerment.”

Andrew Moore, Principal, Lyons Elementary

From preschoolers to seniors, students in St. Vrain have a shared vision for their future.

At the opposite corner of St. Vrain Valley Schools is the smallest feeder in the district, Lyons. Made up are just over 700 students, the feeder has taken on the mantra Small And Mighty. As principal of Lyons Middle Senior High, Dr. Andrea Smith shares, “there is no other school community as small as ours that has such incredible resources at our fingertips because we are part of the strong St. Vrain system.”

While each feeder will have its own interpretation of St. Vrain’s Excellence By Design, there are common themes that arise. Smith says Excellence by Design is about, “intentionality and putting academic rigor at the forefront and being thoughtful about all of the experiences we want for our students.” Her co-leader, principal of Lyons Elementary, Andrew Moore, continues, “it’s about creating a shared vision and shared strategies amongst teachers, staff, and community members to mobilize the entire system towards shared goals. It’s about people being lined up and feeling that sense of unity and empowerment.”

Principal Moore points to student role models and grade level experiences as key to engaging students as they advance through the system. Lyons Elementary has created annual grade level learning rights of passages for students, such as the fourth grade students teaching their “Kinder Buddies” about the phases of the moon, the third graders leading the school “Macroinvertebrate Bio Blitz” to determine the health of the river system, and the fifth grade students raising and releasing trout from the school’s hatchery. Students look up to and look forward to having the same experiences as their older peers.

The strong Lyons community extends beyond the school walls. Students at the high school meet with students at the elementary school once a month to facilitate leadership activities and scientific data collection. Elementary students support their older peers when the high schoolers regularly present data they have collected at the river to the local Town Ecology Board through a partnership to evaluate the health of the watershed and the effectiveness of the adaptive management plan. Smith shares that after one of the presentations, an elementary student said, “I can’t wait until I’m in high school and I get to be a leader and a mentor for the elementary students,” to which Moore responds, “the magic is working.”

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ST. VRAINNOVATION was produced in-house by the St. Vrain Department of Communications.
ST. VRAINNOVATION and other district initiatives are generously supported by these and many other community sponsors.

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