About Washington Discovery Academy
One of the salient aspects of WDA that visitors to the school immediately notice is its bustling but organized environment. Students can be seen actively collaborating on the same projects across grade level classrooms, teachers informally reflecting on a lesson they just implemented, and the principal moving between classroom observations, running a data meeting, and responding to parent questions. The school’s strong student-centered focus belies its many changes over the last few years, including staff turnover, adoption of a new district defined curriculum, and a new principal. Despite the changes, the culture of the school is marked by a staff clearly committed to implementing PBL as a means to realize its mission to “develop the knowledge skills, and attributes to prepare students to be college/career ready.” 1500 Lake Avenue Plymouth, IN 46563 Case Study School Profile (2016)
Building a Collaborative School Culture
Although WDA’s staff culture in prior years could be characterized as fragmented with little collaboration, currently the teachers clearly value the structures they have to collaborate and shape school policies. Teachers feel they are respected and have a voice in key decisions that are made about instruction, interventions, discipline, professional development, and other matters. Principal Jeff Spencer prioritizes shared leadership and routinely provides opportunities for teachers to take on different leadership roles, such as serving on the site’s leadership team, advisory group, or PBL committee. The staff also meet regularly not only in grade level teams, but also for Monday morning PD and data discussions. As one teacher explained, “We’re good at collaborating. We’re open with one another and we’ve done it with intent. If we disagree, we’re flexible in trying to take steps to meet in the middle. We had to make a commitment as a team to get through this year, and to do what’s best for kids since they’ll know it and see it.”
Integrating PBL Across Subject Areas
A clear priority for the principal and teachers this year was to rebuild their focus on PBL as the primary instructional model to develop students’ 21st century skills. They examined prior projects to ensure their alignment to state standards and created new ones that fit with the newly adopted district curriculum maps. PBL is now fully integrated with literacy, social studies, and science across grade levels. This year, teachers also focused on the development of oral communication skills as one of the targeted school- wide outcome areas. For example, teachers facilitated students’ presentation skills, processes for providing peer feedback, and vocabulary development on a daily basis in the context of their grade level projects. One 4th grader noted: “Our whole school is about PBL. I like that we work together, and it will help us later when we go to work. Projects are like real world situations.” Student Feedback “I love the pumpkin drop project! We were learning about motion, how to design things for safety. We did a design process to figure out how to pack our pumpkin with different materials.” – WDA 4th grader
Establishing Data-Driven Improvement Strategies
Data use at WDA is both pervasive and strategic in informing the school’s instructional program. Principal Spencer began this school year by framing for teachers the big picture of how data is used to evaluate the school within the state’s accountability system. He then led the staff in looking at school and classroom level data from standardized state tests to identify gaps in student learning and areas for instructional priority, including writing skills. Teachers administered various summative and formative assessments, and this year, began to systematically look at student work using analytic protocols. Finally, the principal drew upon multiple feedback mechanisms to assess various school policies and programs, including surveys from teachers after every professional development session, meetings with an advisory group of 4th graders, and routine check in meetings with paraprofessional staff members.
Facilitated by the school’s instructional coach, Lauren Cooper, the staff engaged in deep reflection this year around the efficacy of their literacy block. They identified literacy successes across WDA classrooms, such as the improvement in students’ oral communication skills, clearer teacher processes for blending foundational literacy skills in projects, and greater teacher understanding of content standards. The staff also examined areas for growth, including the need for continued focus on developing writing skills, particularly through the adopted 6+1 Traits Writing program. As the school deepens its PBL implementation, there are also key areas to continue to develop, including greater authenticity within projects as well as building rigorous performance-based assessments.