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    Learning-Focused Conversations
    Posted on 10/20/2017
    Middle school students gather in the classroom to talk about a project

    Learning-Focused Conversations Require Collaboration, Curiosity and Openness to Grow

    As an educational leader and public servant, my priority is to empower others to serve students well.

    We have made historic gains over the past four years. Together with our community partners, including Seattle Education Association and Seattle Council PTSA, Seattle Public Schools educators, school leaders and central office are continuing our district’s journey toward educational excellence for all students.

    We have expanded preschool access across our city and increased the graduation rate for students of color. We have navigated the most challenging budget year in three decades. Most importantly, together, we have committed to addressing and eliminating opportunity gaps. The gains students are making every day are evidence of this commitment. Join us on Nov. 14, at West Seattle High School to learn more about our vision and progress preparing students for success at the State of the District 2017.

    With the 2017-18 school year well underway, I have been reflecting on the importance of learning-focused conversations.

    Learning-focused conversations require collaboration, curiosity, and an openness to grow. I often share that I am a recovering knower. I have personally committed to taking a learning stance in my work and encourage others to the same.

    Every week, I spend time in three to four schools. With each visit, I observe students and educators immersed in experiential learning and school staff collaborating to boost student progress.

    In these moments of exchange, I see students and educators sharing discoveries, influencing outcomes and building relationships — one learning-focused conversation at a time.

    To fulfill our promise to each and every student everyone must work together to improve outcomes. Authentic, learning-focused conversations help us cultivate positive learning environments for students and follow through on our collective commitment to social justice.

    Dr. Larry Nyland
    Seattle Public Schools

    Our goals depend on learning-focused conversations.

    three students in the classsroomFor the fourth year in a row, Seattle Public Schools, with full support from the School Board, will work to: facilitate academic excellence for every student, eliminate opportunity gaps and engage families and community.

    Engaging in constructive dialog about these critical opportunities for growth, respectfully and receptively, is essential for our students’ success.

    At a time when perceived differences are polarizing our nation, our community has an opportunity to come together and face the issues that could divide us or will move us toward a more inclusive society that prepares every child for the future.

    Every student deserves academic excellence.

    a teacher and student work on classworkOur responsibility, as educators, is to ensure every student is known for their individual strength, story and need. Learning-focused conversations establish and propel this task.

    The adoption of Multi-Tiered System of Supports, MTSS for short, enables us to provide an education that meets the unique needs of our students. MTSS emphasizes an evidence-based framework for the integration of academic and behavioral supports to ensure successful outcomes for ALL students.

    It provides a systemic way to address individual needs and provides a continuum of supports for all learners. The framework, which is promoted by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and is being used across Washington state, seeks to remove barriers and provide student support based on tiered categories. The three categories are efforts that affect ‘all,’ ‘some’ and ‘few’ students based on the degree of need.

    MTSS moves our practice away from intervention toward prevention through the collaborative use of data. Educators meet regularly to review student progress and collaborate to create a plan to ensure each student receives the support they need to succeed and excel. School staff have a consistent process for identifying struggling students or students who need additional challenge. MTSS helps educators implement a proactive plan of action and then monitor progress. Read more about MTSS.

    We must eliminate opportunity gaps.

    I regularly (some might say relentlessly) remind our community that eliminating opportunity gaps and ensuring educational excellence for all student is the issue of our time. I will continue to press us to be courageous in our work to ensure equitable access to robust, high-quality education for every student. It is our moral imperative.

    The problems of inequity plague our society. Conversations about diversity, inclusion and equity are the starting line to eliminate opportunity gaps caused by institutionalized inequities. I recognize these conversations may at times be difficult, but they are essential for success — not just for our students but for our entire community.

    three students in the classroom Strategic goals and associated performance metrics ground our work. Seattle Public Schools is a high-performing urban school district. However, we must acknowledge the hard truth that we have not delivered the promise of a high-quality education for all students as made evident by disparities in test scores. Our low-income students and students of color disproportionally face academic achievement challenges.

    These achievement gaps have life-long effects that lead to poor adult outcomes. This means the work we do in our schools impact generations of individuals and our community as a whole.

    Addressing systemic barriers to student success requires doing things differently.

    I am proud of our growing number of schools leading the way and actively reversing these trends. However, whatever progress we have made, inequity continues to be a reality. Seattle Public Schools is doubling down on our efforts to eliminate opportunity gaps so that every child has a supported path to a bright future.

    Seattle Public Schools has great educators and leaders who collaborate, cultivate and communicate every day to help students achieve academic success. A student’s belief that an adult at school cares about them is critical to their academic success. Relationships matter. Learning-focused conversations and building trust through positive relationships is often the starting point to deliver academic excellence. Our district is building this capacity of educators and school leaders through professional development.

    The early release on Wednesdays and recent state-in-service day on Friday, Oct. 13, are part of a district-wide coordinated effort to provide our educators and staff the tools they need to help all students succeed.

    During the last year, the central office offered more than 700 professional development courses including how to ensure our classrooms and schools are places of equitable access. On Oct. 13, much like workshops last year, our Strategy and Partnerships Division hosted at a half-day professional development session focused on institutionalizing educational equity. The Eliminating Opportunity Gaps Institute builds on past equity-based training for staff and included student and expert perspectives on how we can implement changes in our schools and district.

    Read more and watch a video about this year's Eliminating Opportunity Gaps Institute at Chief Sealth High School.

    Watch a segment from an educator professional development series about building trust.

    Listening and learning through family and community engagement.

    We believe community engagement and two-way communication with our families, students, community partners and staff are essential to improving outcomes for students. In support of this commitment, the School Board and I have made improved and transparent community engagement an ongoing district goal.

    a student and teacher talk in the classroomWe are cultivating this engagement-based model in order to ensure important decisions are made with the diverse needs of our community in mind.

    Across our district there are many examples of these efforts. This year, I spent the first day of school at Hawthorne Elementary. Hawthorne for the third consecutive year has earned a prestigious recognition from Johns Hopkins University’s National Network of Partnership Schools.

    The award recognizes the school leadership and educational practices that create welcoming schools. Welcoming school climates influence the daily experiences for students, families and staff. Engaged families, staff and community partners who are committed to improving student achievement, attendance and other indicators of school success are what make a school environment welcoming. Read more about Hawthorne’s award.

    Today, I see a pressing need to move past divisive rhetoric to something more collaborative and effective. We must engage in constructive, compassionate and critical conversations about what it takes to help every child succeed.

    Learning-focused conversations are by definition the exchange of ideas and questions. These personal conversations are at the heart of our engagement work. The efforts to close gaps and offer educational excellence for all students would fall flat without inclusion of our entire community. This work demands that all of us involved — from leadership to educators to families — be up for challenging, respectful conversations. These goals demand that we be receptive to discovery and change. It is not always easy but essential to our success.

    Learn more about community engagement.

    Seattle Public Schools’ commitments to academic excellence for every student, eliminating opportunity gaps and family and community engagement are more valuable than ever. By leaning into these goals, engaging in learning-focused conversations and sharing successful strategies we can create integrative solutions designed to successfully meet the individual academic and social emotional needs of each student and build a more inclusive and just society of tomorrow.