A couple of weeks before the start of the 2017 school year, school leaders, teachers and counselors from three Philadelphia neighborhood high schools gathered for a Summer Institute.  They were there to launch their partnership with the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) aimed at transforming these schools into rigorous, supportive learning environments, which graduate students ready for post-secondary education, employment, and life.

The Institute was one of many organized by ISA, a division of Educational Testing Service, whose mission is to support underserved and underperforming schools so that students graduate prepared for college and careers. The school teams worked for two days with ISA’s content and leadership coaches to build on existing expertise as well as develop new knowledge and skills that contribute to a robust college and career-readiness culture at each school.

This wasn’t the first time the promise of reform had been heard in Philadelphia, which has 131,000 students in 214 public schools. “School districts are focused on continuous improvement. It is hard work, and when reforms fail or fall short of the target, it can leave educators feeling disappointed and/or discouraged,” said ISA’s new president Stephanie Wood-Garnett, who delivered the keynote address at the event.

But participants in the Philadelphia Summer Institute showed few signs of being discouraged. On the contrary, one could sense strong engagement: questions were raised, opinions expressed and experiences shared. ISA coaches and facilitators listened carefully, and guided the discussions to provide advice and strategic insights when needed.

“Our job is not to denigrate educators who are doing the best they can,” Wood-Garnett said, “but to understand what they have been doing and to help them improve student outcomes, by providing comprehensive professional development based on research and our work with similar schools and districts.”

The Institute was composed of three strands where participants met in Curriculum, Leadership and Student Support sessions, attended Thematic sessions, and worked with their school teams during Team Planning sessions. Following Wood-Garnett’s keynote address, the participants dispersed into the Team Planning sessions where ISA Leadership coaches worked collaboratively with the individual school teams to identify priority outcomes for the 2017-18 school year and engaged in strategic planning to identify a pathway for achieving those outcomes.

Leadership is a key issue in school improvement, and one of the most challenging. “The biggest killer of initiatives in a school is the messaging. If the messaging from school leaders is not clear, you don’t stand a chance to be successful in that endeavor,” said Marvin Pryor, who recently joined ISA as a Leadership Coach after having worked in education for three decades, including eleven years as a school principal in Atlanta, GA.

The Thematic sessions at the Institute were structured to support district priorities such as how to teach in 90-minute long blocks. Block schedules are designed to allow teachers to probe deeper into core concepts than what would be possible in a traditional 40-minute lesson. Other Thematic sessions included strategies for teaching literacy and writing across the curriculum, developing portfolios that help both students and teachers cultivate a big-picture view of student learning that is grounded in content standards, building effective advisories through relationships and personalization, and examining mindset as a driver of teacher and student success.

ISA coach Alison Cohen, who led the growth mindset session, discussed the need for educators to shift from a “fixed mindset” built on preconceived self-limiting notions to a “growth mindset” model, which stimulates curiosity and a deeper understanding of subjects. Reflective, inquiry-based patterns of thought and open-ended approaches ultimately influence how students think, she said. “Every behavior is a manifestation of something,” said Cohen. “Fixed mindsets leave no room for learning growth.” She challenged the participants to identify ways to shift their perspective on how they enter their classroom this fall.

Participants in the Curriculum Sessions designed for teachers and instructional leaders in the core content areas (English Language Arts (ELA), Mathematics, Science, Social Studies) and electives engaged in activities related to planning, organization, and starting the year well. In a mathematics Curriculum Session, participants worked on how one can teach concepts by moving from the concrete to the abstract. As an example, visual representations were used to redesign a “broken” vending machine so that it functioned as desired; in doing so, an understanding of mathematical functions develops.

ISA coach Carlton Jordan, who was a high school English and writing teacher for many years and who led the ELA Curriculum session, emphasized that “Teaching ourselves to rethink what we do and why, is empowering not only for teachers, but ultimately for their students,” he said. “A central focus should be how we make our best practices applicable to students. We get too caught up in the process and sometimes lose sight of the destination.”

Principals, assistant principals and instructional leaders attended specially designed Leadership sessions which provided strategies for creating close, caring student-teacher relationships and tools for implementing effective distributed counseling in their schools.  Pryor stressed the importance of “building trusting relationships and community in the school.”

He reflected on a brainstorm session where the participating teachers had been asked to write down names of students on sticky notes and place them on a wall, and then pick the names they wanted to partner with.

“Once they were done, we looked at the names that were left up there,” said Pryor. “I said that those are the kids that we need to make sure that we have a relationship with. We can’t afford to have them left behind.” Sessions for school counselors, psychologists, social workers and deans of students, (Student Support sessions) also focused on expanding strategies for creating a school community, improving student achievement, and increasing student responsibility.

This comprehensive, down-to-earth, and collaborative approach is a key part of what makes ISA different. ISA’s model has been recognized by the US Department of Education as an approved high school evidence-based whole school reform model and is included in the What Works Clearinghouse.

“We work to build partnerships based on the unique values and needs of our partner schools instead of offering off-the-shelf approaches where schools are told what to do and what not to do,” said Wood-Garnett. “Our goal is to help our schools create a culture of success!”