Today, the classrooms at YES Prep Gulfton, West, Brays Oaks, Southwest, and White Oak were filled with teachers and leaders learning. Over 600 teachers from across the system united in Content Teams— groups that share subjects and/or grade levels—to engage in content-specific pedagogical professional development. Content Days like the one today provide a designated time and space for collaboration, resource-sharing, normed grading, and development of instructional strategies. Since the inception of Content Days, the structure has driven student achievement— not only across Houston but in Dallas as well.
Director of Academic Support, Katie Norwood, recalled when she was an English teacher at the North Central campus. At the time, Content Teams were informal groups. Teachers from one campus might reach out to another campus and ask for resources. They’d also create their own YES standards. But the collaboration didn’t occur in all subjects or grade levels, and student achievement was inconsistent across campuses. “It wasn’t sustainable,” Norwood said. “Everyone was creating stuff from scratch. There was no continuity. We wanted an actual structure.” So in 2008, YES Prep leaders began to devise a structure. They rebuilt the academic calendar for 2009 so that there were dedicated Content Days to foster collaboration. Each team would be led by a Course Leader with experience teaching that subject and grade level. Together, the team would write the curriculum and common assessments in an effort to align vertically with AP tests. One byproduct of this work was the opportunity for teachers to enter leadership positions. “You don’t have to leave the classroom to be significant or have more influence at YES. There are teacher-leaders now. Our curriculum was and still is created by people within the classroom— not an outside force,” Norwood said.
You don’t have to leave the classroom to be significant or have more influence at YES.
-Katie Norwood, Director of Academic Support
Throughout the years, Content Teams have evolved. Now, the tests are blind, which ensures better test security and validity. The team structure has also changed with the addition of Content Directors and the adoption of Course Facilitators instead of Course Leaders in some subjects. Most importantly, however, has been a shift in the leadership of Content Teams. “In the beginning, we worked on the curriculum, materials, tests, and resources. We want to shift toward the people, action, and support on campuses,” Norwood said. Content Director Mike Buck elaborated on the shift he’s led in the Social Studies Content Team: “In the past, lessons were islands or one-off events. You teach this content and it wasn’t always clear how it was going to connect to the next day or month. Now we’re asking, how can we frame this in such a way that they have to use this content in meaningful ways in the classroom from lesson to lesson or unit to unit… We want to focus on what matters most.”
We want to focus on what matters most.
-Mike Buck, Social Studies Content Director
Since the implementation of Content Teams, YES Prep has seen significant improvement in AP qualifying scores (see chart). Additionally, Content Teams have spread outside Houston. A few years ago, Uplift Education’s Chief Academic Officer, Richard Harrison, came to observe how YES Prep structured Content Days. He later returned with some of Uplift’s Deans and Directors. Uplift then launched their version of a data dashboard, Content Days, and common assessments. “We’ve tweaked and refined it in subsequent years to fit Uplift,” he said. For example, Uplift has elementary schools, so for some grades, they have almost 90 teachers— a much larger team than those at YES. Uplift also began working with YES Prep’s Teaching Excellence. This year, Teaching Excellence at Uplift certified 100 teachers. “The [Content Team] structure plus Teaching Excellence has definitely allowed Uplift to scale from 5,000 students to 14,000. We’re grateful for the partnership,” Harrison stated.
The [Content Team] structure plus Teaching Excellence has definitely allowed Uplift to scale from 5,000 students to 14,000.
-Richard Harrison, Chief Academic Officer of Uplift
At today’s Content Day— the first since school began— teachers engaged in a variety of sessions. On Buck’s Social Studies Content Team, for example, some Course Leaders walked through how they plan on a daily basis, what resources they use, and how they spiral content for the benefit of new teachers. Other teams engaged in data analysis and alignment of unit assessments. Some built team culture and developed systems for disseminating resources. No matter what, teachers developed their understanding of content-specific pedagogy so that all students across all campuses achieve at the highest possible level.
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