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Candid dialogue on school issues

Laguna Beach Unified School District leaders and board officials reached the “tipping point” at their retreat on Monday at Hotel Laguna.

Superintendent Theresa Daem introduced the “tipping point” as the theme for the 2006-07 school year.

The phrase generally refers to the moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass, or when small changes produce results that take effect quickly.

In his 2000 book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell used the phrase to explain the decline of crime in New York City, the pervasiveness of teenage smoking, and the sensation of Sesame Street.

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The attendees discussed what creates such a social phenomenon in small groups, and then representatives from each school and Professional Learning Community (PLC) shared what has happened in the past year in their groups.

PLCs are groups of teachers and other district staff which participate in staff development and discussions.

The overall consensus was that small changes have made a big impact on the lives of students and faculty, creating their own tipping points.

“The number one difference is the idea of the PLC,” said Laguna Beach High School Principal Don Austin. “It is without a doubt the single best way to move our schools forward.”

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Austin said that a focus on consistency has changed the atmosphere at the high school. “We’ve really challenged our staff to stick to the essential questions,” he said.

“Questions that used to come to my office don’t come anymore.”

“PLCs work for us because we have candid dialogues,” concurred LBHS Assistant Principal Bob Billinger.

Joanne Culverhouse, principal of Thurston Middle School, cited the teachers’ “Friday Treats” program, in which teachers visit a fellow teacher’s classroom once a week to see what they are working on.

It has elicited extensive positive feedback from the teachers, who appreciate being able to see their colleagues’ work, Culverhouse said.

She noted that the teachers are especially interested in seeing new technology in action, which in turn inspires them to raise their own standards of excellence.

“It’s a little uncomfortable at our school right now, and that’s a good thing,” she said.

Culverhouse also spoke about a new initiative by English teachers to focus on writing.

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She said that after-school tutoring numbers have almost doubled, and described a new program where a student receiving an “F” in any subject loses 15 minutes of their lunch break.

The number of students receiving “F” grades has gone down from 70 or 80 to about 30, she said.

“The shift in the culture has really been quite dramatic and quite pleasing,” said El Morro Principal Chris Duddy.

Duddy described the success of a new orientation program for incoming students.

“Small changes can bring about big results,” said Ron LaMotte, principal of Top of the World Elementary School. “We are so susceptible to new, big initiatives.” LaMotte used the example of a notable rise in good citizenship on the buses, when reward systems were brought into effect.

Previously, he said, the school received typical complaints from teachers regarding copy machine protocol and rain gutters.

But most recently, with the development of PLCs, the feedback from teachers has shown a deeper concern with student well-being, and contained suggestions on how to remedy issues.


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