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Roundup Blog Series

Helping students thrive through Oklahoma Excel: Stories from a networked improvement community

people talking in front of a whiteboard

By Marshal Conley and Lacie Davenport | November 05, 2019

This post is the second in our series from the Southwest Networked Improvement Communities Research Partnership, a collaboration between REL Southwest and the Oklahoma Department of Education (OSDE). The partnership is implementing networked improvement communities (NICs) as part of the state’s Champions of Excellence program to test and scale up effective and innovative practices through Title IV funding. Part 1 of the series provided an overview of the Champions of Excellence program.

In this post we learn about Oklahoma Excel, a pilot program that included four participating districts in the 2018–2019 school year. The districts—Tahlequah Public Schools, Stilwell Public Schools, the Lane Consortium, and the Osage County Interlocal Cooperative—joined the REL Southwest NIC exploring how to improve in the area of creating safe and healthy learning environments. Each district formed teams of three to five teachers and one improvement fellow, the improvement science champion in the building and a leader in implementing a “change idea.” Each change idea, a specific, actionable change designed to lead to improvement, was tested by Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles. (Learn more about the NIC process and terminology in this REL Southwest Resource Roundup.) OSDE provided training and facilitated planning activities that included content on improvement science, research, and best practices for implementing and integrating the change ideas and collecting data. As part of this process, REL Southwest provided an impartial, external party to observe OSDE’s five professional development and implementation support sessions. REL Southwest collected and curated a set of lessons learned and recommendations that OSDE used to inform scale support for NICs to a larger set of Champions of Excellence districts in the 2019–2020 school year. This included consultation on the design of practical measures and support structures for districts implementing those measures as part of a PDSA cycle, with an explicit focus on differentiating measures for change ideas.


As OSDE’s Oklahoma Excel pilot program got underway, teams from the four participating districts worked together in the safe and healthy learning environments NIC. The districts would implement two change ideas: a daily greetings protocol that participating teachers would institute to welcome students to school, and check-point chats during which teachers would “check in” with students to provide social and emotional support. These change ideas were put in place to pursue a common aim: By the end of school year 2018–2019, participating schools would increase the number of students who report having a trusted adult at school.

Lacie Davenport, family and community engagement director at Tahlequah Public Schools, is one Oklahoma practitioner who experienced the Oklahoma Excel pilot up close. She served as the improvement fellow for Tahlequah’s safe and healthy learning environment NIC team.

When first presented with the change idea, approach, and opportunity to be an improvement fellow, she thought, “Well, why wouldn’t we do that? Absolutely! It’s just what good teachers do.” An early challenge emerged as Davenport worked with district leadership to put together a team of teachers to drive implementation and a larger coalition of teachers willing to implement the change idea. Not everyone recruited immediately bought into the idea. Davenport stresses that while all educators could get behind the need for students to have a trusted adult in their buildings, several educators felt the greeting protocol was a little extreme and that “not every kid wants a high five or a hand shake.”

Another challenge that Davenport and the NIC team had to face head-on was the short timeline. The first professional learning events for the pilot were held in early February, and OSDE and NIC teams agreed to implement the change ideas and measures the following week in order to complete two PDSA cycles before the end of the school year. Tahlequah’s Oklahoma Excel team made slight adjustments to the implementation plan to find realistic ways to implement the greeting protocol. Davenport was effusive in her praise for OSDE in this regard: “[OSDE] told us ‘make it work for you and your school’ and that the goal was to help students have a trusted adult; it wasn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach and that was a big part of the success.” In the spirit of improvement science, the team had half the teachers focus on the greeting protocol and half on the check-point chats for the first PDSA cycle; they would then use the PDSA results to inform an approach in a future cycle bringing both change ideas together for all teachers.

As the team began implementation and data collection, they identified additional adjustments. Due to campus size and afterschool activities, several high school teachers conducted the check-ins via text message rather than face-to-face interactions as designed. For the daily greetings, teachers quickly learned what worked and what didn’t for increasing student engagement. For example, some teachers presented a set of options on a chart outside the door, such as high five, hug, head nod, or fist bump, that students could point to indicating their preferred greeting. The Tahlequah team also found ways to make adjustments around the availability of technology required for data input. To collect data online, OSDE provided teacher and student surveys administered via Google Forms, asking questions related to whether students felt they had positive relationships with adults or could turn to an adult in the building if they had issues.

When pilot teams gathered with OSDE to review data from the first PDSA cycle in March, Davenport and her team were pleased with the improvements between their first data collection and the midpoint collection. At that point, they adjusted their aim statement to be, “By the end of school year 2018–2019, we will increase the number of students who report having a trusted adult by 10 percent,” and hoped to have 100 percent of all students report a trusting relationship with an adult in their schools. At the end of the second PDSA cycle in May they were disappointed to not reach that number, but they were also inspired to keep improving. “It made us all brainstorm about what to do to adapt the change for next year,” said Davenport. “Even though the pilot’s over, we’re not going to abandon this, because 100 percent of students deserve a trusted adult.”

Davenport shared plans to expand these change ideas, add other ideas, and continue the work. She wants to scale up networking within their team and with teams in other districts. Additionally, Davenport suggests that student-facing measures like the surveys used in the pilot be differentiated more so that students are not responding to the same prompts each week of a PDSA cycle, encouraging more thoughtful student responses later in the cycle.

Despite the challenges, Davenport valued the NIC pilot and would do it again. She particularly valued the NIC network meetings facilitated by OSDE, some of which included all participants from all districts and others which only included her peer improvement fellows. “I learned something every single time from someone. I brought back an idea, or I heard something that didn’t work for someone else so I knew not to try it. I also never felt like it was something we couldn’t handle due to the support provided by OSDE.” Additionally, she witnessed real impact for Tahlequah students. For one high school student, the check-point chats were a way to connect with a mentor teacher and gain access to the PAL program so she could find a safe place to live independently to finish high school. Another student working with the same mentor teacher was able to connect with a sponsor who not only helped her with resources for prom hair, makeup, and dress, but also hosted a graduation party. This mentor also connected that student to an internship in a district kindergarten class, and she now wants to be a teacher, all due to the positive adult relationship she developed because of the work of the NIC.

As a result of the work of Lacie Davenport and her peers, OSDE is working in partnership with REL Southwest to expand NICs through Oklahoma Excel to include more districts and more content areas in the 2019–2020 school year, with the ultimate goal of ensuring all Oklahoma students have access to a rigorous, well-rounded education in a safe and healthy environment.