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Pro learning communities make educating effective at Clairton

| Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 7:15 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Clairton's director of curriculum and federal programs Debra Maurizio talks with teachers about planning classroom lessons around concepts that students follow from year to year.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
English teachers Jodie Harriman and Francis Picciotto share ideas on teaching the concept of characterization to students in middle and high schools.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Clairton science teacher William J. Barch reviews biology concepts with freshmen Devin Parsons and Anthony Rice.

Clairton City School District has developed professional learning communities to improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

Inspired by a handbook of educational theory, “On Common Ground,” Clairton's professional development has been focused on teamwork. Teachers are sharing classroom resources and best practices by taking part in quarterly in-service programs and working in small groups weekly.

The standardized Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests for elementary and Keystone Exams for high school will hold students to more rigorous standards under the new state Common Core, Superintendent Ginny Hunt said. That comes in the same year that the state overhauled its systems for rating schools and evaluating teachers.

“You can't say all of this doesn't add stress to teachers' lives, because it does,” Hunt said. “What we're trying to do is ease some of that stress by developing a positive learning culture, where the students are learning and the teachers are learning. Everyone is learning together.”

Clairton teachers are using the professional learning communities to develop a clear transition for students as they climb grade levels.

“Every year, these subjects build upon each other,” director of curriculum and federal programs Debra Maurizio said. “If we can come together once or twice a week to discuss what's happening in each other's classrooms and how students are responding to the lessons, it can make a difference in how we move forward.”

Teachers share what's working and what isn't. They collaborate on lessons that they can take into class and bring back for evaluation at their next meeting.

“Every single member of the team has strengths and weaknesses,” Maurizio said. “Everybody is going to bring something different to the table.”

Giving teachers a forum to discuss the pros and cons of what they experience in their classrooms facilitates growth, administrators said.

“There is abundant research linking higher levels of student achievement to educators who work in the collaborative culture of a professional learning community,” Richard DuFour, the editor of “On Common Ground,” wrote.

That quote is in a brochure the district uses to promote professional learning communities. The handout says the district strives to empower its school community to boost achievement so that each child can become a lifelong learner who can compete in the global marketplace.

School board president Richard Livingston said he's already noticed a change.

“It's nice to go through the halls at any given time and see that students are quiet and learning,” he said. “Teachers are actively engaging their students. They start them off as soon as they come in the door.”

With each session of the professional learning communities, teachers are asking themselves what they expect students to know, how to track what students are learning, what action they will take if students aren't learning, and how they will respond if students already know the basic information. They are setting goals and expectations while developing tools for assessment, intervention and enrichment.

Professional learning communities encourage teachers to be fluid in their planning and allow opportunities for students to get the help or extra work they need.

“There needs to be a period in the day where students can have intervention or enrichment,” Hunt said.

Clairton's staff includes three intervention teachers who specialize in literature, algebra and biology. Their efforts are geared toward assisting students who need extra guidance as they prepare for Keystone Exams in the three subjects.

Because Clairton is a small district with approximately 810 kindergarten through 12th-grade students attending school under one roof, it doesn't require heavy staffing with formal departments based on subjects. Professional learning community practices allow, for example, English teachers from each middle and high school grade level to engage on topics that affect their instruction.

“Having some sort of communication open throughout the grade levels has always been important for us,” said Clairton Education Association president Jodie Harriman, a high school English teacher. “We've been looking for a way to accomplish that, and this has been ideal. It's given us the opportunity to get together, structure things and work out solutions together.”

New educational standards are pushing classroom trends away from the old-school setup, which left secondary educators to fend for themselves when developing lesson plans.

“Isolation has been an issue for many teachers,” Harriman said. “Giving them the opportunity to collaborate is priceless.”

Maurizio described Clairton's professional learning communities as a work in progress, with teachers striving each year to make themselves more effective in meeting students' unique needs.

“Every year is a layer,” she said. “It won't happen overnight. We are always going to be trying to make it better.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or

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