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New video highlights how a network of educators worked to improve graduation rates for high schoolers in alternative programs

Video on REL Midwest work to improve graduation rates

By Cora Goldston
September 28, 2020

Think back to your high school days—what motivated you to succeed? Good grades? A fantastic teacher? The dream of pursuing a specific career? Educators have the unique opportunity to help students meet their individual goals and prepare for the next steps after high school.

To help Minnesota students work toward graduation, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), and a group of alternative high schools formed a networked improvement community (NIC) during the 2019/20 school year. A new REL Midwest video showcases this NIC, the collaboration among the teachers and leaders who participated, and the resulting benefits for both educators and students. The video also explains how the NIC adapted its work to virtual instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

>> Watch the video, “Using Data to Enact Change,” to learn more:

What is a networked improvement community

Dominique Bradley, Ph.D., a researcher and partnership facilitator for the REL Midwest Career Readiness Research Alliance (MCRRA), explains that “a NIC is when educators get together around a certain problem of practice and come up with an intervention or method to address that problem of practice…. The ‘networked’ part of it is that they’re all coming together from different schools or locations.”

REL Midwest’s NIC model includes having participants conduct Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles to identify a problem of practice and then test and refine a strategy to address it. PDSA cycles involve the following steps:

  • Plan: Identify specific areas of need.
  • Do: Intervene to improve supports to address those needs.
  • Study: Measure any changes that occur.
  • Act: Refine the intervention.

>> To learn more about PDSA cycles, browse REL Midwest’s coaching resources on continuous improvement through NICs.

Members and focus of the Minnesota NIC

The Minnesota NIC comprised teachers and school leaders from Alternative Learning Centers (ALCs), which are alternative secondary schools, in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area. Sally Reynolds, an alternative and extended learning specialist at MDE, explains that the agency worked with REL Midwest to form the Minnesota NIC in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

“With the new ESSA requirements,” Reynolds says, “many, many, many state-approved alternative high school programs were identified for support under ESSA criteria. We turned to REL Midwest to say, ‘We would like to know more about what’s going on in the state.’”

The Minnesota NIC started by identifying low graduation rates among ALC programs as a problem of practice. Why focus on graduation rates? Reynolds explains that the NIC chose this focus because of the importance of high school graduation in opening doors for students: “Our hope is that more students will graduate from high school and will be so inspired that they go on and do whatever feeds them.”

To begin addressing the problem of practice, NIC members analyzed the root causes contributing to current low graduation rates among ALC programs and the factors affecting those root causes. The NIC then identified goal-setting with students as a classroom intervention for teachers to implement and test as a way to help students achieve their learning goals and move toward graduation.

>> This blog post builds on a previous post about the Minnesota ALC NIC and the improvement science process. Read the first blog post.

Collaborating and exploring the data

Throughout one school year, ALC teachers participating in the Minnesota NIC tried goal-setting with students and collected data on the outcomes. The full NIC then met as a group to make sense of the data. To facilitate this process, REL Midwest convened the NIC members in both virtual and in-person sessions and provided support for analyzing and interpreting the data.

Susan Burkhauser, Ph.D., a REL Midwest researcher and a MCRRA research liaison, explains that NIC members examined the data on several levels: “They looked at the data on an individual level. They then got together in their site groups to talk about the data. Then they got together at a whole-group level to address challenges that they’ve faced and things they could do in response to those challenges.”

Discussing the data and their experiences with educators at other ALC programs was particularly beneficial for the NIC’s teachers and leaders. Reynolds shared that “the biggest question I get [from ALC programs] is ‘What are other programs doing?’ The NIC brings the [programs] together so they can have those conversations.”

David Tarleton, director of education at PYC Arts & Technology High School, noted that his “favorite part has been the chance for teachers to meet with other schools that are facing similar issues.” In addition, Jody Nelson, Ed.D., executive director at Gap School/Change, Inc., said that working with the NIC made her feel “supported, affirmed, and smart. I felt like we were working with people with a similar educational philosophy, who care about kids in the ways that we do.”

As ALC program teams participated in more NIC sessions, they began to develop more agency. Laura Checovich, communications associate at REL Midwest and a NIC facilitator, describes how NIC teachers’ agency grew over time: “They’re growing more and more comfortable with taking ownership of the change they’re making. They’re no longer looking to [REL Midwest] for the answers on how to make this work in the classroom. They’re realizing they have the answers; they see those students every day and they can implement things that work.”

Benefits for educators and students

NIC participants also saw benefits for themselves and their students as a result of the experience. Scott Ottmar, English teacher at PYC Arts & Technology High School, said, “It’s been very enlightening and I think [participating in the NIC] is eventually going to make me a better educator.”

Megan Hendrix, administrator at Anoka-Hennepin Regional High School, shared how the NIC has benefited a particular student: “We have one student who primarily lives on her own … so there is nobody outside pushing her. Her relationship with our teacher who is working on this change idea has helped her stay in school, stay positive, and make good decisions.”

Adapting to remote instruction

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all the ALC programs participating in the Minnesota NIC shifted to remote learning in March 2020. Kate Quicksell, secondary school teacher at Gap School/Change Inc., explained how this shift reinforced the importance of testing goal-setting strategies: “The goal-setting for students over distance learning will be really successful because it gives them control over something they can choose for themselves. It gives students a way to plan for those successes, even while they’re at home.”

Watch the video to hear more about how the NIC continued its work remotely and to hear from two students about how their teachers are supporting their goals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s next?

In partnership with MDE, REL Midwest is building on the 2019/20 Minnesota NIC to host a virtual NIC during the 2020/21 school year. This virtual NIC will include ALC programs located in different parts of rural Minnesota. Virtual NIC participants will work together to identify, test, and refine a strategy to address a common problem of practice, with opportunities for collaboration throughout the process.

REL Midwest is hosting a series of train-the-trainer sessions with the first Minnesota NIC, which will provide school leaders with tools and resources to conduct their own NICs. Sign up for REL Midwest’s monthly newsletter for updates about these projects.

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Author Information

Cora Goldston Staff Picture

Cora Goldston

Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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