Changing Culture: Janesville School District works to perfect its Journey to Excellence

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Nick Crow
Sunday, August 31, 2014

JANESVILLE — The Journey to Excellence has helped Janesville get ready for state requirements in measuring teacher effectiveness, local school officials said.

Superintendent Karen Schulte said teacher effectiveness metrics will be required statewide beginning this school year. In some ways, Janesville has a head start, she said.

The district in December 2007 adopted the ideas and accepted the resources of former Janesville resident Quint Studer and embarked on what school officials call the Journey to Excellence.

Studer, known nationwide in the health-care field, participated in the district's project for more than two years.

The district adopted a message of evidence-based leadership that shifted to a focus on student achievement based on data and measurable improvement for staff. The philosophy measures student success by achievement on state tests as well as truancy numbers and the satisfaction of staff and parents as measured by surveys.

Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, teachers, principals and assistant principals will be required to use the state Educator Effectiveness System being implemented by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Educators will be required to complete an effectiveness cycle at least once every three years.

The program will judge a teacher's or principal's effectiveness based on evidence of their practices and student outcomes.

In Janesville, principals and administrators have been evaluated using an evidence-based plan. The evaluation of teachers will be a new wrinkle for the district.

The district will use the teacher effectiveness results to give staff feedback concerning the quality of their instruction and raise student achievement.

"It's not easy to move towards excellence," Schulte said. "But there were things we were doing that we shouldn't have been doing. Our goals are cascading down throughout the district. We have a clear and focused vision for what we're going to do as a school district."

Now, officials feel they have begun to create a culture of performance that is represented by high scores on state report cards, six schools named as Wisconsin Schools of Recognition and a school cited as a national blue ribbon school, among other awards.

"It's not about getting awards, but they have given us lots of opportunities," Superintendent Karen Schulte said. "As a result, what the awards tell us is that we are raising student achievement. That's what we're all about."

Sean Gremminger is one teacher who said he has seen student achievement improve since the Journey to Excellence began.

"It's always working to get better and to be the best," Gremminger said. "There was a certain comfort level that teachers had, and now the mindset is a constant revamping, a constant changing to make things better."

Gremminger, now in his 13th year with the district, teaches sixth grade reading and social studies at Franklin Middle School.

He said he has seen a shift toward looking at student outcomes and more collaboration with other teachers.

"We constantly look at the outcomes of what we do and what the kids get out of it," Gremminger said. "We sit down with our team at Franklin every week to say what we are doing and what we can do better. Working with other people is key."

Gremminger said he works much more with teachers at the other two middle schools.

"Teachers are assessed on student outcomes," Gremminger said. "Students at each school are on pacing charts. This is what you have to do and this is when you have to do it. It ensures that you're going to get a good education no matter what school you're in."

Gremminger said student performance on tests, grades and comprehension of material in class are all used to assess teachers.

Parker High School teacher Bob Getka said collaboration between high schools has allowed for more advanced classes to be offered because students from different high schools are able to take joint classes together. In the past, a course may not have been offered at a particular school because not enough students enrolled in it.
"One thing that's very different now is that the high schools work closer together," Getka said. "Before, it was unusual for two schools to work together to form curriculum. Now, they work together. It's common practice to work together. I think the collaboration is going to help out a ton."

Leah Hellenbrand, who teaches fourth grade at Kennedy Elementary School, said she encounters the Journey to Excellence on a daily basis when meeting with her principal.

"I experience some of the Journey to Excellence initiatives through meeting with my principal to round," Hellenbrand said.

Rounding, she said, is sharing with her principal what is working well in her classroom and where she needs support.

For example, if her students are learning multiplication tables well, she will share her teaching methods in hopes others could benefit. In contrast, if her students are struggling in an area, the system is designed to help her find a more effective method.

Board member Bill Sodemann said he has been involved with the Journey to Excellence since its inception. The program has caught on well, but there is always more to be done, he said.

"I think we've changed the culture to a culture of service and accountability," Sodemann said. "Evidence-based leadership is how we evaluate ourselves. Our goals have become objective rather than subjective."

The district uses evidence-based leadership as a driving force on its Journey to Excellence. As part of the Studer plan, it evaluates supervisors on their performance using metrics, which create a final "score" for the staff. Therefore, they are judged on numbers rather than if they are a likable person, for example.

They are evaluated using a leadership evaluation manager form.

Much like a report card for administrators and principals, the leadership evaluation manager form measures performance based on criteria tailored to the goals set at each school.

"We thought we were good as a district, but the reality was that test scores were average or below average," Sodemann said. "When you think you're good, it's hard to become great because you get complacent. It creates an attitude of just being OK. You have to push the envelope to be great."

Sodemann said he hopes to see evidence-based leadership spread to all staff in the coming years as well as more in-depth surveys measuring teacher and parent satisfaction.

"Once you get success, success keeps on building," Sodemann said. "But we're not done, yet. We're pushing forward to be more rigorous."

The Journey to Excellence has six foundational pillars: service, quality, people, finance, growth and health/safety. The school board uses the pillars to help set goals.

Goals for the 2013-14 school year included:

-- Service: To raise the overall parent satisfaction score.

-- Quality: To raise the overall accountability score and rating of the district report card to significantly exceeds standards.

-- People: To raise the overall staff satisfaction score.

-- Finance: To meet the fiscal year balanced budget without using reserve funds.

-- Growth: To increase revenue through a net gain in total enrollment and to increase net open enrollment.

-- Health/safety: To decrease student and employee accidents.

Standards of professional behavior all employees are expected to follow were introduced as a part of the Journey to Excellence.  

The standards were developed by district employees and based on the six pillars. All employees are expected to practice the behavioral standards in the areas of respect, caring, honesty, cooperation and responsibility.

"We want to continue to achieve, continue to raise the bar," Schulte said. "I want our students to have the right skill set to build on to be successful in the future and have the skill set to be college and career ready."

Many districts have followed in the footsteps of Janesville and begun adapting accountability and metrics as ways to measure success, Schulte said.

In light of Act 10, which removed the ability of some unions to negotiate for anything but base wage increases based on inflation, some districts have decided to use metrics to evaluate a teacher's supplemental pay.

Schulte said this practice is not being used in Janesville.

"Some schools are struggling to recover from Act 10," Schulte said. "Some are looking at tying metrics to salary or tying rewards to metrics. But raises, salary and bonuses are all separate."

Schulte said it is hard to quantify how much the Journey to Excellence has cost the district in terms of dollars since its inception because it is made up of many pieces. She said the Journey to Excellence is more of a vision than a defined program.

"How much does the Journey to Excellence cost?" Schulte said. "I don't know if you could put a figure on it. It pervades everything we do."

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