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Goal of RPS 205 Peer Reviews: Make schools better

RPS 205 employees participate in a Quality Peer Review this year.

RPS 205 employees participate in a Quality Peer Review this year.

As a teacher in the Rockford Public Schools, Chris Watts spends all day listening to students. But there’s something special about listening to students during a Quality Peer Review. You step back and appreciate students for the keen observers they are. “I think we need to let them in on the conversation,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, they know exactly what is going on.”

Watts, who teaches eighth grade English at Thurgood Marshall School, participated in two peer reviews this school year. The district held eight Quality Peer Reviews at elementary and secondary schools in 2016-17, involving about 160 staff members. It’s the second year of the peer review program.

For a peer review, teachers, principals and district administrators visit a school for two days and analyze processes. They are joined by the school’s own building leaders, teachers, students and community members. Over the two days, the groups determine which processes are strengths of the school and which should be prioritized for improvement.

Schools use the feedback in Quality Peer Reviews to set two- or three-year goals. The process is aligned with the RPS 205 Strategic Plan.

Susan Fumo, executive director of school improvement, said staff members tell her the QPRs are the best professional development they have had at the district. They learn best practices from each other and the most effective structures for school improvement.

Barb Dowdakin is a literacy leader at Auburn High School and a facilitator for the district’s SMART learning software. She has pulled a lot of good ideas from the three peer reviews she’s participated in. “I see so many things I’m impressed with and I think: You know? We’re stealing that!”

But peer reviews are not all positives. They are aimed at growth. “Sometimes it’s easy to be too nice and say, ‘You are doing everything great’ and whatever. We don’t want to do that. We want to say, ‘This is what we really saw,’” Dowdakin said.

Seeing a school through a parent lens was especially useful to Dowdakin (parents are included in the peer review process). She sees how communication can break down. While education terms are second nature to her and other teachers, parents said they were confused by the terms. “School did not look like this when we were growing up,” she heard parents say.

Even for fellow educators, there’s a learning curve in the peer review process. Each school has its own culture, especially those schools with special programs.

Jazmine White, a seventh grader at Maria Montessori School, participated in a peer review at her school last fall. Her job was to describe the Montessori self-directed approach to learning. Students move at their own pace, sometimes at “rocket speed,” Jazmine said.

As fast as education is changing, one need is as strong as ever–and its importance was reinforced during Quality Peer Reviews. “There’s a lot of value in listening,” Chris Watts said.

Mary Kaull is strategic communications coordinator for the Rockford Public Schools. Click here to subscribe to this blog. Also, please like RPS 205 on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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