Centering community and collaboration in a multi-year literacy professional development initiative between a university and school district

Rebecca Rogers (College of Education, University of Missouri-St Louis, St Louis, Missouri, USA)
Martille Elias (College of Education, University of Missouri-St Louis, St Louis, Missouri, USA)
LaTisha Smith (St. Louis Public Schools, St Louis, Missouri, USA)
Melinda Scheetz (University of Missouri-St Louis, St Louis, Missouri, USA)

School-University Partnerships

ISSN: 1935-7125

Article publication date: 16 April 2024

Issue publication date: 28 June 2024

150

Abstract

Purpose

This paper shares findings from a multi-year literacy professional development partnership between a school district and university (2014–2019). We share this case of a Literacy Cohort initiative as an example of cross-institutional professional development situated within several of NAPDS’ nine essentials, including professional learning and leading, boundary-spanning roles and reflection and innovation (NAPDS, 2021).

Design/methodology/approach

We asked, “In what ways did the Cohort initiative create conditions for community and collaboration in the service of meaningful literacy reforms?” Drawing on social design methodology (Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010), we sought to generate and examine the educational change associated with this multi-year initiative. Our data set included programmatic data, interviews (N = 30) and artifacts of literacy teaching, learning and leading.

Findings

Our findings reflect the emphasis areas that are important to educators in the partnership: diversity by design, building relationships through collaboration and rooting literacy reforms in teacher leadership. Our discussion explores threads of reciprocity, simultaneous renewal and boundary-spanning leadership and their role in sustaining partnerships over time.

Originality/value

This paper contributes to our understanding of building and sustaining a cohort model of multi-year professional development through the voices, perspectives and experiences of teachers, faculty and district administrators.

Keywords

Citation

Rogers, R., Elias, M., Smith, L. and Scheetz, M. (2024), "Centering community and collaboration in a multi-year literacy professional development initiative between a university and school district", School-University Partnerships, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 103-123. https://doi.org/10.1108/SUP-10-2023-0039

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2024, Rebecca Rogers, Martille Elias, LaTisha Smith and Melinda Scheetz

License

Published in School-University Partnerships. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) license. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this license may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


[The Cohort initiative] built a network of people interested in the same goals. We are teachers who wanted to be able to improve our literacy instruction. We wanted our students’ literacy levels to improve. I feel a part of, more so than ever, a strong group of colleagues that worked together and I feel more connected to a broader educational community.

(Teacher, Interview)

I felt like I could be a better resource and support to those in the district by having those skills myself. So, I was very excited to be able to participate and to you know be able to have that to offer to the individuals that I work with on a regular basis… [The Cohort persists because] one of the district’s focus is literacy. [The Cohort] really helps me to champion the things that I feel are good and necessary.

(LaTisha Smith, Interview)

[The cohort teachers] were all from the same place, experiencing the same PD [professional development], and experiencing the same culture in the district. So, their conversations just became so rich in terms of what we always talked about in literacy.

(Martille Elias, Interview)

Introduction

In December 2014, the University’s College of Education and School District (all names are pseudonyms) partnered to develop an initiative to prepare cohorts of teachers to gain their literacy certification. In this unique “job-embedded” partnership, school administrators from professional development schools (PDS) and university faculty from higher education institutions (IHEs) worked together to build a program that provided a pathway for K-12 teachers to obtain their Reading Certification from the state’s Department of Education. Rebecca, Martille and LaTisha have been the cross-institutional leaders of this initiative from the beginning. As of 2020, over 80 teachers (four cohorts) participated in this cohort program [1]. The multi-year collaboration across institutions is guided by several, overlapping theories about preparing literacy specialists and professional development in a cohort model. This district-university partnership model aligns directly with the tenets of a Professional Development School, as identified by the Nine Essential Elements summarized by the National Association of Professional Development Schools (NAPDS). First, embedding professional development, graduate coursework and literacy clinics within the school district supports transfer to practice in deep and lasting ways (e.g. Desimone, 2009; International Literacy Association, 2017; National Association for Professional Development Schools; Snow, Griffin, & Burns, 2005; Stephens & Mills, 2014). Second, sustained, longitudinal professional development efforts support teachers’ deepening of content and pedagogical knowledge through ongoing inquiry and collaboration (Darling-Hammond & Richardson, 2009; Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; National Association for Professional Development Schools). Third, the presence of a community of learners supports educators across institutions to extend their learning and leadership in ways that are responsive to the realities of schools, teachers and students (Dozier & Rutten, 2005; Gutiérrez, 2011; Lee, 2010; Stephens & Mills, 2014). Through the cohort, educational professionals develop knowledge and practice to lead school systems to reach their established academic, social and emotional outcomes-most of which are girded in some form of sustained literacy practice that is targeted, comprehensive, job-embedded and sustained. Fourth, a context and culture for continual professional learning guided by inquiry and reflection alongside continual investment in teacher leadership reinvigorates educators and sustains enthusiasm for the profession (National Association for Professional Development Schools). Fifth, literacy teachers must be prepared to teach diverse students in ways that are evidence-based and culturally relevant, place-conscious and sustaining and it is important to experience this kind of community themselves (e.g. International Literacy Association & National Council of Teachers of English, 2017; Paris & Alim, 2017; Skerrett et al., 2018; Winn & Johnson, 2011). While there are many points of overlap between this initiative and the NAPDS Essentials, the aforementioned principles are aligned with Essentials 3 and 4. Essentials 3 refers to Professional Learning and Leading (A PDS is a context for continuous professional learning and leading for all participants, guided by need and a spirit and practice of inquiry). Essential 4 refers to Reflection and Innovation (A PDS makes a shared commitment to reflective practice, responsive innovation and generative knowledge).

In an earlier study, we examined the forms of literacy leadership that developed from this collaborative cohort initiative (Rogers et al., 2021). Here, we return to the data set to focus on how the cohort partnership fosters community and collaboration within and across educational institutions. We imagine the cohorts as learning ecologies (Gutiérrez, 2011; Lee, 2010). Both the university and the school district are distinct, yet nested, learning ecologies. We define a learning ecology as the physical, social, cultural and historical contexts in which learning occurs. These domains are nested at the local, institutional and societal levels. The university, for example, is made up of discipline-specific colleges and programs which, in turn, are designed by faculty who curate book lists, course assignments and clinical experiences. These courses and programs are informed by research conducted by the faculty and members of professional organizations at the state, national and international levels. Likewise, school districts consist of nested learning ecologies with discipline-specific expertise and knowledge. Faculty within school districts are also members of professional organizations. Literacy educators in school districts may primarily work in one classroom or may work across schools or in the district office. Educators have a certain degree of agency to interpret policies, curricula and testing mandates in ways that are responsive to the needs of their students. Both school districts and universities are held accountable for state funding which is often connected to changing waves of educational reform. Similarly, both university and school district learning ecologies offer a range of cultural, educational and social resources that extend educator learning such as conferences, networking, awards, self-directed professional development, etc.

When the school district and University came together for this multi-year partnership, we created a hybrid learning ecology that crossed local, institutional and societal domains. Comber (2010) refers to this as a “meeting place” which includes physical dimensions and cultural, temporal and social practices associated with literacy teacher education. In the “meeting place” of the Cohort, we develop pedagogical and content knowledge of/in literacy practices that are answerable to changing educational reforms. Drawing on programmatic data, interviews and artifacts of teacher learning, we asked: In what ways did the Cohort initiative create conditions for community and collaboration in the service of meaningful literacy reforms? To foreshadow our findings, we showcase descriptive findings in three sections: designing diverse learning ecologies, building relationships, collaborations and a network and rooting literacy reforms in teacher leadership. In each section, we highlight the voices of educators and the multiple, reciprocal and nested layers of learning that emerge from, inform and expand the Cohort initiative.

Research design and methodology

Our approach to this programmatic case study was rooted in social design methodology which is guided by principles in learning sciences and a cultural, historical approach to inquiry (e.g. Engeström, 2007; Gutiérrez & Vossoughi, 2010; Stake, 2005). Gutiérrez describes this design as an approach “that seeks to transform social institutions and their practices through mutual relations of exchange with constituent people as valued stakeholders and partners” (p. 192). That is, social design methodology seeks to generate and examine educational change.

The Cohort designers (Rebecca, Martille and LaTisha) have for many years, worked within this urban district in various roles (e.g. Director of Curriculum & Development, Director of Professional Development, partner University educator, practicum liaison, literacy coach, leader of teacher inquiry groups and manager of District Certification Programs). We are familiar with the geo-political realities of a large, urban school district that primarily serves African American students. Public schools have been impacted by a history of disinvestment and racial segregation which results in continued systemic inequities (e.g. Furtado et al., 2020; Johnson, 2020). Rebecca is a university teacher educator and identifies as a white, anti-racist scholar who has, for many years, contributed to the school district (e.g. professional development, starting a literacy clinic at an elementary school, facilitating a teacher inquiry group). Martille is also a university teacher educator and identifies as a White scholar committed to diversity and equity in school communities. She has spent many years fostering school-university partnerships with local school districts. LaTisha is a school district leader, teacher educator and a graduate of the literacy Cohort program. She identifies as African American. We consider ourselves to be “boundary-spanners” who work together, across institutions and “understand the dynamics and cultures of both worlds and are vital in linking schools and universities in viable collaboration” (National Association for Professional Development Schools, p. 10). Our leadership has stayed consistent across the duration of this multi-year initiative and, together, we bring distributed knowledge of the school district, University and profession of literacy teacher education. Melinda is a consultant researcher, teacher educator and literacy leader. She identifies as White and works toward creating equitable and inclusive educational systems so that educators can serve all students well.

This is a public-public collaboration. The partnering university is a land grant university recognized as a Carnegie Engaged University. It is one of four University campuses in the University state-wide system; recognized as research-intensive and one of the largest preparers of educators in the metro-region. Specifically, Rebecca and Martille work in a College of Education accredited by the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation (AAQEP) with undergraduate and graduate programs endorsed by the state’s Department of Education. LaTisha works in a school district accredited by the State Department of Education and operates approximately 62 public elementary, middle and high schools in the city. The city’s racial division is categorized by North/South geo-political boundaries whereas the North indexes primarily African American communities and the South indexes White and/or multi-ethnic communities. As of 2019, the district served approximately 23,000 students; 79% African American, 13% White, three percent Latinx and five percent other racial identifiers. The university and the school district are about ten miles apart and both reside within a region struggling with the enduring legacies of systemic racism and inequitable educational access and outcomes.

Description of the literacy cohort partnership

At the core of this initiative is the preparation of cohorts of educators to become experts in literacy teaching and leadership. Coursework and clinical experiences associated with this program lead participants to an accredited state K-12 special reading certificate. Participants’ experiences in the program are guided by broad standards put forth by national organizations well recognized in the field of literacy (International Literacy Association, National Council of Teachers of English and Literacy Research Association, 2017). Common themes across standards promote candidate’s knowledge of theoretical and historical-based foundations of literacy and language, ability to teach literacy to a diverse group of students, assess students’ literacy achievement to inform instruction and evaluate interventions and various print and digital materials to engage and motivate all learners; integrate digital technologies in appropriate, safe and effective ways. Furthermore, the coursework is part of our state Department of Education’s certificated Masters of Elementary and Secondary Education, Reading Emphasis program, accredited by AAQEP. The K-12 special reading certification courses can stand alone, or they can be applied to the university’s Master’s in Reading degree.

During this multi-year collaboration, we initiated one new cohort each year (2014–2019) with a cycle of collaborative practices. For example, LaTisha initiates a recruitment message in the form of an email embedded in the district’s newsletter inviting principals to share the information with teachers in their building. Teachers have six weeks to submit an online application, as well as to complete the process of applying to the university’s master’s program. Next, we host an informational meeting in the school district outlining the program, what to expect in terms of coursework and next steps to complete the admission process. University program advisors take extensive time to review applicants’ prior coursework and recommend a course of study that will lead to the Reading Specialist endorsement. Once admitted, students are advised into courses that follow a somewhat predictable schedule. Although there is some variation in coursework based on prior experience, participants take three core literacy courses together. All students begin with a common literacy assessment course to further orient them to the program, and likewise, orient the University faculty to curricular and assessment realities of literacy education in schools across the district. Following the assessment course, students go on to take two practicum courses that include a site-based clinic to foster teachers’ deep knowledge of teaching pedagogies to promote children’s reading and writing proficiency in literacy and across content areas. Beyond this, there is some variation in pathways, however, on average, teachers take six courses together as a cohort. Typically, it takes teachers two years to complete coursework. Multiple cohorts are active each year. Many of the courses are taught by Rebecca, Martille and Melinda. Across the cycle of a Cohort, we have multi-cohort “check-in” meetings to address items related to the teachers, the program, the University, or district. We work together to create conceptual and pedagogical coherence for educators using professional knowledge to navigate an ever-changing literacy reform landscape. As teachers advance through the program, we encourage community building, collaboration and transfer of learning to practice.

Appendix 1 illustrates a typical cycle of courses in the program for teachers who participate in this initiative. We offer four-week, eight-week and 16-week courses. The courses and clinical experiences are offered in multiple modalities: online and Face-to-Face in the school district. The teachers stay with their cohorts unless they need to retake the course at a different time. The initiative is guided by many of the principles outlined in the National Association for Professional Development Schools’ (NAPDS) including Essential 1 which describes “a learning community guided by a comprehensive, articulated mission that is broader than the goals of any single partner, and that aims to advance equity, antiracism, and social justice within and among schools, colleges/universities, and their respective community and professional partners” (p. 4) [2].

Data sources

Data sources for this study include program materials for all the participants from Cohorts 1–4 (2014–2019) (e.g. spreadsheets created for advising teachers through coursework, retention and graduation rates) and more in-depth data for a sub-sample (n = 30) of teachers (all names are pseudonyms). The sub-sample was identified through email recruitment whereas teachers who were participants in the program were invited to interview, complete a survey and submit artifacts of their learning. In addition, Rebecca interviewed Martille and LaTisha as part of the data collection phase, recognizing our roles as participants in the Cohort initiative. All individuals signed a consent form explaining the purpose of the study and their rights and responsibilities as participants. In total, we collected from a sub-sample of teachers: a survey, interviews/focus groups with teachers, teaching/learning documents (e.g. examples of course assignments, lesson plans, artifacts of literacy leadership), observations of current cohort meetings or classes and publicly available literacy achievement data from school district. Participation in the study provided an opportunity for everyone to deepen reflection and analysis of the cross-institutional collaboration.

Interviews

Our interviews were guided by principles of qualitative interviewing (Rubin & Rubin, 1995) and reflective interviews (Nardon et al., 2021). Reflective interviews create a dialogic space for reflection, inquiry and practice (Nardon et al., 2021). Rebecca and Martille facilitated focus group or individual interviews with teachers from within and across cohorts. We wanted to hear educators’ experiences with the Cohort and put them into dialog with others to continue to reflect and inquire about their professional learning. In a design memo we generated while imagining the interviews, we wrote, “The design of the interviews can connect and network teachers across Cohorts as well as learn more about their experiences within Cohorts.” Our interview protocol included these dimensions (Rogers et al., 2021) (See Appendix 2).

To recruit teachers, we sent an email message with an introductory note about the program evaluation, why they are being asked to participate and the consent form attached to the email. We then established a mutually agreed upon time and location (district headquarters, school, or ZOOM) for an interview or focus group discussion.

In the spirit of the design of reflective interviews, we were intentional about the contexts before, during and after the interview. Before the interview, we emailed participants the interview protocol, so they had time to think about the questions prior to the interview. During the interview, we established rapport, took turns asking the questions and invited reflection and inquiry. We digitally recorded (voice only) the interviews. After the interview, we followed up with participants and asked them to send us artifacts of their teaching and learning journey. All interviews and artifacts were stored in a secure, online drive for analysis.

Artifacts of teaching/learning

Teachers who were interviewed were asked to bring examples of their literacy learning and literacy teaching to the interviews to contribute to the program evaluation. For example, we asked potential participants to bring samples of coursework that were particularly meaningful to their growth as literacy teachers, literacy lesson plans that have been very effective and artifacts of their literacy leadership (e.g. grants, conference proposals, schoolwide initiatives, coaching documents). Some participants brought the artifacts to the interview and others sent them to Rebecca and Martille after the interview. We created a Google folder for each participant that included their interview and teaching/learning artifacts.

Data analysis

All interviews were transcribed to capture the content verbatim with time stamps. We segmented the interviews into narrative excerpts that included thematic foci on context, collaborations and networks. All but two of the participants included several examples of the community of the Cohort. We created a table that included each participant and the narrative excerpts that related to community. On average, each participant shared five narratives related to community, collaboration and networks. Each narrative excerpt was given an in vivo sub-code (e.g. “meeting with community of peers online” and “nonstop collaboration” and “working with teachers for different parts of the district,” “building a culture of literacy”). We noted at this stage of analysis that some of the excerpts were reflections about community or collaborations. For example, “Today, I feel like I have the knowledge, the development of the skills, and also the people I can reach out to because I have this collegial group of people that I’ve worked with to do as much as I want with this.” Other excerpts were descriptions of collaborative practices. For example, “We took a hard look at the middle school achievement data around reading and ELA [English Language Arts]. Kids were not reading. We are starting to build a literacy culture from the ground up.” We noticed that in many cases, the collaborations described were linked to Cohort practices such as readings and discussions, assignments, clinics and other course work. We collapsed similar codes into three categories of findings that were answerable to our research question “In what ways did the Cohort initiative create conditions for community and collaboration in the service of meaningful literacy reforms?”

Findings

Designing diverse learning communities with place-based consciousness

I love cohort programs. You are not just learning on your own; you are building off of the experiences of everyone else…That was key for me because I was able to understand what was happening at the elementary and middle school levels with different teachers (Spring, Interview).

We intentionally created Cohorts that were diverse by design (e.g. Dali & Caidi, 2017). We recruited across the district, grade levels and positions. This resulted in diverse learning ecologies in terms of teaching placement, geographical location of school, number of years teaching and racial background. Using categorical data across the four cohorts, we mapped teachers by school to capture the presence of the Cohort across the school district. Figure 1 illustrates the teachers who were prepared as literacy specialists and schools across the school district (Cohorts 1–4).

Figure 2 visually displays the number of schools with clusters of participating teachers. Twenty schools (27%) have one teacher who has gone through this initiative. Thirteen schools (17%) have two teachers at the school. Six schools (eight percent) have a cluster of three teachers at the school. Approximately 26% of the schools have a cluster of two or three teachers at the school.

Further, 56% of all elementary schools had teachers who participated in one of the Literacy Cohorts. Likewise, 56% of the Middle Schools have teacher participation. Sixty percent of all High Schools have participating teachers.

Teachers across the grade span

Each Cohort was composed of teachers who embodied diverse teaching experiences, racial identities and number of years teaching. Figure 3 illustrates the distribution of participating teachers across the grade span. Fifty-nine percent of the teachers across the Cohorts were Early Childhood Educators and Elementary Educators. Twenty-eight percent of the teachers were Middle School or High School educators. Twelve percent of the participants identified as Administrators.

Importantly, these teachers are distributed within and across the Cohorts. Figure 4 demonstrates the distribution of educators by grade level within each of the Cohorts. While there is some variation, we see that each Cohort includes educators across the grade span. 28% of the teachers across the Cohorts have been Middle School and High School educators who are committed to understanding how to strengthen their effectiveness as literacy educators.

The Cohorts were consistently racially diverse. For example, Figure 5 demonstrates that 46% of teachers across Cohorts identified as African American and 49% identified as White. Participants identifying as Latinx, Caribbean, Russian, or Bi-racial accounted for five percent (n = 4) of the teachers.

Figure 6 demonstrates the racial diversity of teachers within each Cohort. From this view, we can see that the majority group wavered slightly but, overall, each Cohort community reaped the benefits of a racially diverse learning community [3].

Figure 7 illustrates the experience level of the teachers who participated, across the Cohorts. Interestingly, 64% of the teachers have between seven-15+ years of experience. Approximately 30% of the teachers have between one and six years of teaching experience. Novice teachers learned alongside more experienced teachers.

Figures 4–7 speak to the diversity of experiences of participating teachers. Teachers interpreted this diversity by design model of the Cohort in various ways. First, there was positive appraisal of the fact that they could learn from teachers in different schools and across grade levels and teaching placements. Hailey, a White, high school special education teacher, stated, “I love the fact that there are other people in my building that I can bounce ideas off of and also see growth. We have high school students, but some are reading at a first and second grade reading level. [Because of the collaborations] our students are getting it [differentiated literacy instruction] in multiple classes. It’s fantastic” (Interview).

High school teachers learning alongside elementary educators is an important factor in gaining insight into how children grasp the emergent and early stages of literacy development. Madison, a White, elementary educator said, “I was able to bring that skill set to watch all of you. I am always amazed at how people teach so effectively in ways that are so different from how I do it” (Interview). Likewise, it is useful for elementary educators to understand the kinds of disciplinary literacy practices and instructional designs that engage adolescents and self-extending readers and writers. Roxanne, a White elementary educator, explained that working across schools and grade levels served as an antidote to a common refrain amongst teachers which is, ‘this wouldn’t work in my class or school.’ She explained,

As teachers, it can be nerve-wracking. You don’t want to feel like you’re being evaluated. There is always this conversation of ‘that wouldn’t work in my school.’ But when you actually go and see a teacher doing it, you don’t feel threatened to ask them, “How did you make that happen?” That personal relationship makes a huge difference. (Interview)

Too often, teaching reading and writing are viewed as the work of elementary teachers. The participating secondary teachers acknowledged that the students they taught required foundational and strategic literacy instruction, like that of upper elementary classrooms. Toni, an African American instructional coach, stated, “When different teachers on different levels shared literacy strategies, it really helped” (Interview). Likewise, educators acknowledged the importance of Administrators in the district participating in the Cohorts to gain professional knowledge of teaching and leading literacy education.

Educators also acknowledged another benefit of the diversity by design Cohort model: learning more about cultural, linguistic and racial diversity across the district from and with colleagues. For example, Toni stated,

There are a lot of times where situations like those were brought up and it was through a lot of the discussion of my classmates, like even experiences with English Language Learner (ELL) students. I've never had those types of experiences. I think it's just through the conversation and everybody sharing because everybody was from a different part of the district. Everybody wasn't in North City like I am, and I just learned a lot from talking, having those open conversations with my classmates. (Interview)

Andrea, a White literacy educator, talked about learning from Trinity, a Teacher of Color who had experience with multicultural literacy instruction. Andrea described Trinity as experienced in coming up with multicultural literacy lessons that tie into “author’s purpose and persuasive arguments…” (Interview). She and Trinity built a relationship across age, race and cultural differences. They have conversations about racism and cultural differences which helps them to understand their students better and build historically and culturally responsive literacy instruction (Muhammad, 2020).

Another pattern of narratives in this category of findings related to acknowledging the intersection of diversity alongside place-based realities. We intentionally wove this emphasis into the design of the program, coursework, supervised clinics and mentoring. One curricular example of this is a ‘community mapping’ project where teachers were asked to locate and map the literacy assets in the community where their students live (López, 2020; Ordonez-Jasis & Jasis, 2011). Many of the teachers recalled the impact of this project on their teaching. For example, one teacher stated it caused her to “really pay attention” to her students. Amanda, a White academic instructional coach, stated, “They know more of the background of the assets available in the community. And being really powerful and redefining literacy more broadly” (Interview). Educators developed a heightened knowledge of the locality of literacies for students in their buildings and, at the same time, learned from their colleagues in the Cohort about the diversity of these local settings across the district. Beverly, an African American special education elementary teacher, captured this nested learning when she said, “I think it is more authentic way to learn from each other within our home turf” (Interview).

Building relationships, collaborations and a network

I feel like we extended what we learned from the cohort way past the end of it and kept that going and that really for me kept the learning happening even after the cohort itself ended. I think the collaboration piece was huge for me (Kennedy, Interview).

The place-based consciousness of the Cohorts stimulated connections and relationship building within and across Cohorts. Hailey noted,

Even just coming to class, there wasn’t a learning curve of getting to know each other … I did feel comfortable speaking out and listening to other people … versus being in classes at the University where I didn’t know anyone, or they had a very different background. But, in the cohort, on Day 1, you are already going because you have these relationships, and you can go deeper into the topics of the class (Interview).

The initiative provided opportunities for the teachers to work together, learn from each other and build a professional network. Collaboration often occurred in the context of formal coursework and assignments but extended beyond. Olivia, a White elementary educator, stated it this way, “there was nonstop collaboration amongst the cohort during the courses” (Interview). Another teacher expressed, “…we got together because we were all in the same cohort and we had the same frame of mind so we knew that we could work together easily” (Interview). From informal check-ins to more structured co-teaching assignments and intentional literacy reforms, the teachers collaborated within and outside of coursework. This, in turn, helped to sediment relationships which, in some cases, continued to expand and grow.

In every interview, educators described the ways they collaborated with teachers in and across the Cohorts. This included reaching out to others for information or joint problem solving, serving as an observation site for other teachers, unearthing and using assets and funds of knowledge, coordinating for classroom or schoolwide literacy reforms and creating plans for interventions. Kennedy, a White literacy specialist, pointed out how a shared framework of literacy instruction supported their collaborations, “We were able to collaborate effectively because we had shared language and shared knowledge…for what good literacy instruction is” (Interview)

Through their work in the cohort, the teachers learned how to work together to make meaningful literacy reforms. Antonia, a White high school educator, reflected on how a coaching project from class helped her to build relationships and community in her school building. This helped her to “get the word out” in her building that her style of literacy coaching was responsive and sought to build relationships, not evaluate. She reported, “They’re coming to me willingly, and it’s opening that trust and relationship to where they know they’re not going to get judged for it” (Interview). Some teachers described specific collaborations with other teachers. For example, Amanda described her “strongest collaboration” as being with Kennedy. She shared the following narrative,

We got to know each other through the cohort. I was still teaching high school and she was teaching at an elementary school. I convinced Kennedy to come work with me at my elementary school.

We were constantly problem solving together and trying to figure out what was happening for our readers and how we could best support them. It was an incredible relationship.

We were also charged with doing some of the data stuff that’s required and mandated in the district. She crunched the numbers, and we would talk about trends, and we would celebrate progress at scale …

And we would have those deep philosophical conversations about the ways we are being forced to quantify this aspect of reading…. And what culture do we want to build around literacy? …. It was both a really practical and a beautiful theoretical relationship. We were in coursework together, we were having conversations, we did our neighborhood walks together for the community mapping project… (Interview).

Amanda’s narrative captures many of the elements of the learning ecologies: relationships that cross grade level, collaborative problem solving to address how to foreground evidence-based literacy practices in ways that highlight professional wisdom and the use of a collective voice that captures the distributed expertise and collective accomplishments. This educator went on to attribute knowledge building to the collective, “we have built this institutional knowledge around reading. It has been powerful for teachers in the Cohort” (Interview).

Roxanne shared a narrative of how a collaboration that started in class expanded beyond the course requirements. She described how seeing the students’ growth as writers using this model of instruction brought new insights to her classroom literacy teaching.

In one of the practicums, I partnered with another teacher [at a different school], Emily. She had two students and I had two students, and we formed an afternoon writing class with them. I saw an increase in confidence and willingness to try different craft moves in their writing. We moved our group through a few drafts of writing. In the end, they were really proud of what they had created (Interview).

Over time, schools received the benefit of having multiple teachers participate in the Cohort initiative. Figure 2 illustrates clusters of teachers at schools in the district. Thus, collaboration continued to grow within and across schools in the district, creating a network. Hailey described the importance of having several teachers from a building participate in the cohort. She said,

I am lucky because our Academic Instructional Coach (AIC) went through the Cohort with me so I wasn’t alone in my building. My AIC was doing it and so anything we did could become more building wide. At the beginning of the year, we did a professional development (PD) together about helping struggling readers and for some of the staff, it was just introducing them to the idea that every student has an instructional, independent, and frustration level. We focused on book introductions and a little bit of word study but there is never enough time in our PD sessions, but I work with her a lot (Interview).

Likewise, Spring, a White high school educator, talked about her collaboration with Drew, a fellow high school educator also White, at the building level which was forged within the Cohort. Spring stated,

…[T]hat was really helpful being able to lean on someone in my building cause we could literally just, you know, stick our heads out the door and be like, hey, you know, how are you doing with that project? Oh, good. You want some support with that? We would meet a lot after school…It was a good support system to have in the building along with having the cohort members…So he's been a definite asset for me being able to collaborate. Especially when we were in the coaching class, we were able to coach each other and that was huge. I was able to go into a self-contained classroom and just look at literacy practices and see how it works from a coaching standpoint, that was really good to see (Interview).

Other educators pointed out that the Cohort helped them to broaden their professional network and put them in touch with teachers beyond their school or region in the school district. Shelly stated, “The cohort connected me to people I probably would not have gotten connected to otherwise” (Interview). Within the district it meant that the cohort served as a grapevine for resources, advice, support and referrals to begin the cohort. Likewise, because there was a stronger network these teachers knew who to turn to for resources, advice and expertise. Karen, a white English-for-Speakers-of-Other-Languages (ESOL) teacher, stated, “and there are a lot of people to pull from like if I need something with ESOL I’ll text Judy … You know, there are more people to call on. That helps a lot” (Interview).

Michelle, a White elementary English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) educator, described a kind of identity that comes with being a member of the cohort. “It is a really positive relationship that you form in the cohort. When you get back to your schools, a lot of the teachers know that they can come and ask you questions…Being able to share that knowledge is really important” (Interview). Other teachers pointed out an implicit message that people’s participation in the Cohort signals to leadership that they have a certain skill set that helps with ‘talent identification.’ For example, Pamela, an African American instructional coach, said “After completing the cohort, teachers and leaders were aware that ‘hey there’s someone in the building that has completed the cohort…it was great” (Interview). Pamela stated, “[t]here was this feeling or special association with those that had completed the cohort…It was great…” (Interview).

Many of the teachers spoke about “staying in touch” with other teachers from their Cohort courses, even after they finished the program. Amanda talked about seeing colleagues from the cohort after it ended. She said, “every time we see each other it is a beautiful reunion and that feels right” (Interview). For Drew, a White High School English teacher, he described gaining deeper pedagogical and content knowledge about literacy but also developing a network of other teachers he could reach out to. He put it this way, “I have the knowledge, the development of skills and I also have people I can reach out to because I have this collegial group of people that I’ve met and worked with who want to do this as much as I want this” (Interview).

Educators also turned to us for mentorship, thought partners and research. Shelly said, “[The Cohort Leaders] have extensive experience with the district and they know ‘what’s up.’ That has been very beneficial to building the credibility of the initiative with staff. We’re learning with people who understand the realities of our district and make it more meaningful and embedded” (Interview).

Rooting literacy reforms in teacher leadership

[The Cohort initiative] pushes the envelope of teacher leadership for us

(Emily, Interview)

The teachers described the shared framework they built for understanding literacy acquisition, learning and assessment through their work together in the Cohort. This, in turn, supported effective communication, interventions and reforms in their schools. Likewise, we debriefed and reflected on national, state and district literacy reforms to create meaningful bridges and practices. These efforts – large and small – amounted to what we think of as grassroots, teacher-led literacy reforms. This was fueled by the teachers' continued commitment to learning, acting, reflecting and sharing. A few salient themes within this category surfaced: creating a culture of literacy, advocating for systemic, teacher-led reforms and navigating changing literacy reform landscapes together.

Several teachers noted that the cohort created a culture of High School teachers taking responsibility for teaching literacy and for their students’ literacy growth and achievement. Hailey explained, “I know at the high school level it is challenging …. We have school wide literacy objectives …and we are all supposedly working on them. We have people who have gone through the cohort who use a little bit of that [shared] language and we kind of understand how reading works a little bit more than the others, but we come up against staff members who are like ‘I don’t teach reading, I am a math teacher.’ ‘But they have to read.’ I feel like if you haven’t taken one of these classes it’s hard to take it from one PD session and be like ‘yes, I understand literacy instruction’” (Interview). As high school teachers completed the cohort, they provided important examples for others to see themselves as literacy teachers.

There was an excitement that rippled through the interviews about sharing literacy practices with other teachers. Hailey expressed the important idea that when working together teachers can spread the impact of a literacy initiative. Olivia said, “It just makes learning that much more powerful and transformative when we do it together” (Interview). Working together they expressed they are more likely to create change (e.g. Taylor & Shelly). Quite a few teachers commented on the power of working together to create literacy changes. For example, there are three or four teachers who have been through the cohort at [elementary school]. On this, Emily, a bi-racial instructional coach, said it helps “shift the conversation to have a common language. We talk about Running Records and analyzing students’ errors. It puts some ownership on the teachers in terms of student reading progress. It says okay, we do have to use this tool and people can look up to you as a mentor and so it allows me to say ‘I am not the only person who can support you with this. There are other people.’” (Interview).

Additionally, many of the teachers expressed a desire to see more widespread systemic literacy reform in the district. They point to members of the Cohort as capable of contributing to this reform. Chloe, a White instructional coach, described this bottom-up theory of change in the following way, “Knowing that our district has invested so much of us in doing this, it also feels like we are a knowledge bank that is accepted at our individual schools. I don’t see the district’s stance as “Hey, we’ve invested in these 90 literacy leaders. What would happen if we got some of them together to look at this problem of practice? There’s nothing like that…It would be nice if we could have an impact beyond our individual schools. And I think that was kind of one of the points of the program was to help be a catalyst for bigger change beyond our individual school sites” (Interview). Coming from her years of professional wisdom, Gwendolyn, an African American elementary teacher, critiqued the many district initiatives and “it can be hard to mesh them all together” (Interview). Yet, in the hybrid learning ecology of the Cohort, this was our goal: to create and elevate professional knowledge, expertise and agency.

As the teachers shared the results of their literacy interventions and their collaborative efforts many took an additional turn toward imagining more lasting literacy reforms. Indeed, across the interviews, there was a common sentiment that included an outward push to leverage new knowledge together as a community of educators. They wanted the district to call on them to work together to make lasting change. Amanda and Kennedy, for example, collaborated to create text sets that were relevant and engaging for students. Teachers worked together to create an after-school Literacy Clinic at an elementary school, structured after the practicums in the cohort.

When we asked educators how we might strengthen the Cohort initiative, three ideas rose to the top: provide pathways and opportunities for literacy leaders to network and collaborate; continue to call graduates from the initiative to lead district initiatives; and recruit teachers from schools that do not yet have clusters of literacy specialists.

Imani, an African American district leader, talked about the alignment between the concept of the “cohort” used for graduate work and the professional development model that the district developed called “the cohort model of PD…” (Interview). This two-way, reciprocal learning and change speaks to how lasting reform is built over time, by teachers’ on-the-ground literacy practices and the institutional leaders and structures that support them.

Encouraging educators to stay: Retention in a network

“Simultaneous renewal is the continuous process of getting better together” (National Association for Professional Development Schools, p. 14). The Cohort initiative has created a network of literacy educators and leaders who, together, reflect and create their partnership between the school district and the University. It is this “simultaneous renewal” of our university programs and K-12 settings through teacher leadership and agency that is at the heart of encouraging educators to stay in the profession. Indeed, while the school district does not require any formal commitment to the district after receiving their literacy certification endorsement, many of the teachers expressed that participating in the cohort increased their commitment and gratitude to the district. Kennedy explained, “One of the reasons I stayed was I felt like the district had put all of this professional development into me….I feel a strong sense of loyalty to the district that put that into me … it was a thing for [district] teachers to be this pipeline for best practice…I did not want to take that gift and turn around and use that to teach students in the county” (Interview) Beverly also expressed the gratitude expressed by many of the teachers when she said, “it is one of the only districts that offers tuition reimbursement at the level they do” (Interview) Moreover, we return to Drew’s point, presented at the beginning of the paper, which is that many educators felt a renewed sense of professionalism and community. He stated, “I feel a part of, more so than ever, a strong group of colleagues that worked together and I feel more connected to a broader educational community” (Interview). Likewise, this renewal fuels the continual improvement of both the school district and University program.

These sentiments are reinforced by the retention data. Eighty-three percent of the teachers across Cohorts 1–4 were still in the district in 2020. Seventeen percent of the teachers are no longer in the district. When we dug a little deeper into the attrition data by grade level, we noticed higher levels of attrition at the Middle School level than at other levels. The attrition rate for Middle School is 57.4% (however; only five percent of all participants). At the High School level, the attrition rate is five and six-tenths percent (only one percent of all participants) and the rate of attrition of Elementary educators is 12% (seven percent of all participants). Eighteen percent of Administrators who have participated in the initiative have left the district (two percent of all participants).

Discussion

In this paper, we have shared a programmatic case study of a unique, multi-year cross-institutional partnership that prepares educators to become literacy specialists. We have described a multi-year partnership that cultivated collaboration between our authorship team, the Cohort participants, the University and the School District. In the “meeting space” of a Cohort, university and district leaders celebrate, invite and extend the knowledge, beliefs and experiences that educators bring with them. Reflecting on the design of the University-district partnership, a participating educator described how we (Rebecca, Martille and LaTisha) have a “realistic read on the schools…You’re looking at how we can do better for kids acknowledging the context in which we are working” (Interview). The program became recognized and credible within the district because we “understand” the district which makes it in Shelly’s words “more meaningful and embedded for our people” (Interview). Returning to the logic of our inquiry design, we draw from Gutiérrez (2011) who states, “[s]ocial transformation shifts the focus on “fixing” people and their communities to a focus on the reorganization of systems of activity in which participants can become designers of their own futures'' (p. 192).

We return to summarize and discuss key findings from each of the sections. First, we turn to the concept of “diversity by design” which provides the architecture for building collective expertise in literacy education (e.g. Dali & Caidi, 2017). The programmatic data highlight the multiplicity of contexts (e.g. teacher experience, racial demographics of teachers, placement of teachers) that give meaning to diversity. Intentionally seeking out this diversity has a positive impact on professional learning as was reported in the interviews. Likewise, a central tenet is recognizing the placed-based realities of diverse learning ecologies. Teachers are best positioned to build local school cultures of literacy achievement that contribute to educational equity.

Participating educators have engaged in additional research, committee work and curriculum writing/participation as a result of the skills built through this collaboration. This partnership is developing the next literacy leaders to support student literacy engagement and mastery.

Second, across the teachers’ interviews and artifacts of their teaching and learning, we see how relationships forged in their Cohorts were sustained and expanded through collaborative literacy efforts carried out in classrooms, schools and the district. In an era of market-based reforms, networks are increasingly conceptualized as private-public partnerships financed by the very funders who support school vouchers and privatization. This scholarship showcases an initiative chartered by two public institutions of education and highlights the potential of educators working together within the public-school network to strengthen literacy education. Thus, we think of this growing network of literacy leaders as an example of an emergent network cultivated by a cross-institutional partnership.

Collaborations occurred within schools, across schools and across institutions. The cases of literacy reform that developed from these partnerships cyclically created a network of literacy educators. A teacher from Cohort 1 may reach out to a teacher from Cohort 4 for resources, professional guidance, or coaching. This distributed knowledge strengthens the Cohort initiative and our work at our respective institutions. Educators in the cohorts have taken on leadership positions inside both institutions – the University and school district. For example, some have co-taught or taught literacy courses. Others have become literacy coaches in the school district. Our sustained and consistent leadership cannot be underestimated. We often reached across university and school district lines to ask for professional feedback, to share literacy resources, or to collaborate on a literacy related initiative. Likewise, educators from the cohorts frequently reach out to us for mentorship or guidance when creating a literacy initiative, writing a grant, or designing a program. For example, during the Summer of 2020, a participant from one of the Cohorts reached out to Rebecca to help design a virtual literacy tutoring program for their summer school. Despite the constraints of a global pandemic, we collaboratively designed – with a team that included several literacy specialists from across the Cohorts -- a hybrid summer program that included small group literacy tutoring and centering family knowledge in bookmaking.

Third, this is an example of social change that is deeply situated and attends to the complexities of teacher learning and teacher-led literacy reforms. The knowledge that Cohort participants develop can inform systemic change in the district and beyond. Many of the educators who completed the Cohort initiative made an argument for creating literacy leadership positions. Due to the level of trust in this partnership, the district believed in the high value this training would bring in building and sustaining literacy practices in the district. As a result, K-12 Reading Specialist Positions were created, filled and now supported districtwide. These literacy specialists are cultivated through monthly [or more as applicable] professional learning opportunities. They comprise their own Professional Development Cohort, where they learn together as a collaborative of learning leaders during each districtwide professional development day.

This initiative has been characterized by “reciprocity” and “simultaneous renewal” (National Association for Professional Development Schools, pp. 13–14). Both the school district and the University accept joint responsibility for the ongoing professional learning of literacy educators. This requires learning, growth and change for all partners. As we reflected together on this initiative, we noted that learning has been a two-way street and we have strengthened our program, courses and professional development offerings as a result of this partnership. Because of our reciprocal learning about literacy resources, curriculum and assessment demands at schools in the district, we (University faculty) could integrate meaningful examples and realistic challenges to the teachers in our university classes. If we were teaching about differentiated reading instruction, we could support teachers to think across the book room, school library and classroom library to choose texts that are an appropriate level of complexity for students. We have changed course texts and programmatic requirements to be more responsive to the learning trajectories and curricular realities of teachers in this partnership. Likewise, the work of this partnership is highlighted in the school district’s Comprehensive Literacy Plan. The findings from this research have been used to make an argument for and validation of, the support and resources provided to these literacy efforts. Further, findings from this partnership have been used to develop other literacy teacher education initiatives in our university.

There are implications for other IHE/PDS teams interested in beginning cohort initiatives. First, cultivating a partnership team that can commit to continuity of the initiative is essential. Indeed, as we made clear in this article, our “boundary-spanning” leadership offered a level of stability and strength to the initiative (National Association for Professional Development Schools, p. 10). Continuity in leadership ensures the initiatives grow and expand within the vision of the original intent. Maintaining an archive of program documents, recruitment and advising and logistical information about clinic locations helps to build institutional memory if members of the team do move on. We have found it important to continue to educate ourselves about the ever-changing socio-political realities of the IHE/PDS. Another important aspect of developing a cohort initiative is committing to the place-based nature of coursework and clinics. In this cohort model, University courses were held on-site, in the district, encouraging teachers to connect their studies to their teaching pedagogy and the educational literacies in their students’ lives. Clinic courses were designed to be enacted in educators’ school settings with both university faculty and peer coaching and feedback central to the experience. In this way, we leveraged all participants as experts in the field. Thus, each cohort learned from a variety of teaching placements and voices and, at the same time, built a common knowledge base together about literacy acquisition, learning, teaching and leading. Finding ways to intentionally leverage and share this expanding teacher knowledge is another key takeaway for others interested in initiating a collaboration between IHE and PDS. Teachers develop as leaders within this model and finding opportunities for them to share their knowledge and practice is important. Similarly, we found it important in our orientation meetings of each new cohort to remind participants that they were entering a multi-year professional development initiative that included other cohorts of teachers within the same district. Knowing they were part of a bigger literacy reform initiative helped to deepen commitment and expand the professional development network. As noted above, it is important to recruit and establish cohorts that are diverse by design (e.g. number of years teaching, grade level placement, race, language, location of school within the district). Intentionally diverse learning communities stimulated fresh insights into the complexities of literacy teaching practices across time, space and context. Finally, we see great potential in translating this cohort model beyond literacy to other academic contents and interdisciplinary initiatives (e.g. English Language Arts/Literacy and Social Studies).

Figures

Clusters of participants by Cohort on school district map

Figure 1

Clusters of participants by Cohort on school district map

Number of schools with clusters of participating teachers

Figure 2

Number of schools with clusters of participating teachers

Teachers across cohorts by grade level

Figure 3

Teachers across cohorts by grade level

Number of teachers by Cohort and grade level

Figure 4

Number of teachers by Cohort and grade level

Racial diversity of teachers across cohorts

Figure 5

Racial diversity of teachers across cohorts

Racial diversity within cohorts

Figure 6

Racial diversity within cohorts

Teaching experience across cohorts

Figure 7

Teaching experience across cohorts

Typical pathway through literacy courses and clinical experiences for participating teachers

Figure A1

Typical pathway through literacy courses and clinical experiences for participating teachers

Notes

1.

The Parsons Blewett Memorial Fund is a school district fund that provides the financial support for teachers to earn their advanced literacy certificate through this initiative. The Fund was established over 100 years ago by Ben Blewett, an educator and former Superintendent (1908–1917), in honor of his wife, Jesse Parsons Blewett. The scholarship program, “supports the continuing education of Saint Louis Public School Teachers and Administrators employed full time who have served one continuous year (12 months). This program is designed to provide scholarships to qualified educators for educational tuition assistance who wish to pursue additional training or education that will support their work in the classroom or career related profession” (adopted from: Traditihttps://parsonsblewett.org/programs/traditional-scholarship-program/onal Scholarship Program | Parsons Blewett Memorial Fund).

2.

This Appendix reflects a sample of some of the course objectives and texts that were included in Cohorts 1–4. We have made changes to the curriculum in subsequent years and Cohorts based on evolving research in the sciences of reading and literacies and the concomitant interests and practical realities of educators in the Cohorts.

3.

National Council of Education Statistics, NCES (2019). Spotlight A: Characteristics of Public-School Teachers by Race/Ethnicity. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/spotlight_a.asp

Appendix 1

Figure A1

Appendix 2 Interview protocol (Rogers et al., 2021)

Describe your experience with the literacy cohort.

Why did you decide to participate in the cohort?

In what ways did the cohort program strengthen your effectiveness as a literacy teacher? Can you give specific examples?

Student and teacher learning are linked. Can you think about the transfer of this professional development from you, as teacher, to your students as literacy learners. What can your students do better now as literacy learners because of your development as a literacy teacher?

Can you think of examples where you have taken initiative with literacy leadership in your classroom, building or district (unique initiatives, etc.)?

  1. In what ways have you shared knowledge or practice about literacy education with other colleagues or parents?

Can you describe the realities of literacy education in your experience in this district? (1) What are the opportunities?

  1. What are the challenges?

One of the unique aspects of this partnership is that core clinical courses are offered in the district. Because of this, you have had the opportunity to work with students in your classroom and to practice what you are learning in class. Can you talk about this transfer?

How would you describe your growth and development as a literacy educator?

  1. What have been pivotal moments?

  2. Mentors?

  3. What role has the literacy cohort played in your professional learning journey?

  4. How do you continue to extend your learning about effective literacy practices?

One area that we are looking more closely at is the rate of attrition in the district and how this compares to teachers who have participated in the cohort. We have learned […] How would you explain these rates?

What stands in your way of being an effective literacy teacher?

What would have made this program more effective in addressing the realities of your life in classrooms, schools?

How might the cohort system be strengthened to better support and sustain literacy leadership and student literacy achievement?

What do you see as the potential of this cohort program?

Follow up: There are approximately 90 teachers who have been a part of this cohort program. What are your thoughts or responses to this?

You were asked to bring samples of course work that was particularly meaningful to your growth as a literacy teacher, literacy lesson plans that have been very effective, artifacts of their literacy leadership (e.g. grants, conference proposals, schoolwide initiatives). What did you bring and what does it represent?

What additional insights would you like to offer?

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Further reading

Dennis, D., & Hemmings, C. (2019). Making the simple more complex: The influence of job- embedded professional development in supporting teacher expertise in reading. Literacy, 53(3), 143149. doi: 10.1111/lit.12172.

McMillon Thompson, G. (2016). School-university-community collaboration: Building bridges at the water’s edge. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 60(4), 375381. doi: 10.1002/jaal.604.

Corresponding author

Rebecca Rogers can be contacted at: rogersrl@umsl.edu

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