Creating and Sustaining a Structured Professional Learning Community within a Catholic Context

Article excerpt

Diocese of Yakima establishes PLCs to ensure ongoing learning for staff and students as well as improve organizational capacity

If, as Jamentz (2002) says, "Isolation is the enemy of improvement," then the typical Catholic school teacher and administrator is uniquely hamstrung. In the case of many Catholic schools, and particularly those within a large, spread-out diocese, isolation is a pervasive occurrence for the personnel. In fact, this isolation is common within the broader K-12 teaching and administration professions.

One method of intervening and overcoming this enemy is through the process of developing and engaging in the work of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The mission and disposition of Catholic schools lends a particular head start toward this powerful school improvement process. While secular in much of its delivery, the characteristics of and necessary conditions for the successful execution of PLCs in schools are powerfully congruent with Catholic school identity and culture.

Characteristics of a High-Quality PLC

Covey (1996) states, "Only the organizations that have a passion for learning will have an enduring influence" (p. 149). There is a consistent message in current research that the establishment of a PLC helps ensure ongoing learning for staff and students as well as improves organizational capacity. A PLC is characterized by four cornerstones: a clear mission, a sense of purpose, a shared vision and intentional goals (Dufour & Eaker, 1998). Through collegial and collaborative activity, a collective responsibility is formed among staff that promotes and sustains continuous improvement and learning (Newman & Wehlage, 1995). This notion of individuals coming together to work interdependently toward the common good requires staff to be able to:

a. engage in public reflection where they freely talk about their beliefs and challenge each other relentlessly;

b. develop shared meaning where the team establishes common ground to work from;

c. engage in joint planning where the team designs actions steps and tests their insights; and

d. coordinate action to be carried out by individuals and / or a group.

(Ross, Smith & Roberts, 1994, pp. 59-64).

Within a Professional Learning framework, a clear mission and purpose for schools is focused on student learning. A shared vision becomes this framework for action and answers the question: What is it we want to become (DuFour & Eaker, 1998)? Values guide actions (Kouzes & Posner, 2002) so, consequently, knowing what one values is critical to the individual and the learning community.

A Professional Learning Community is intentional about identifying what its members value. This clarification of values and team norms serves as the driving force that leads the group to its collective vision of ensuring that each student learns (Dufour and Eaker, 1998).

Finally, intentional goals help to institutionalize a plan of action that is focused on results and answers the four fundamental questions of a Professional Learning Community:

1. What is it we want them to learn?

2. How will we know if they have learned?

3. What will we do if they have not learned?

4. What will we do if they have learned? (Defour, 2004)

Intersection of Professional Learning Communities and the Catholic Mission

Catholic schools do not have student academic performance as their sole objective. The U.S. bishops have reminded us that "Catholic elementary and secondary schools are of great value to our church and our nation; and that, in our role as chief teachers, we are each responsible for the total educational ministry of the local church" (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1990). This is a heavy charge and one that underlines both the mission of the Catholic school and the subsequent service to the church and greater community that is an outcome of this type of education. …