You can hear the voices of real school and district leaders from Tulsa Public Schools describe their work redesigning schools for professional learning on a budget in our mini-podcast series, Tulsa Tales. To explore the work districts around the country are doing to gain traction against systemic challenges, check out our Districts at Work series of case studies.
Rigorous curricula and diverse student needs make effective professional learning for teachers a must in districts and schools — but staff meetings and one-off PD sessions aren't enough. Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) has been going bold by focusing on job-embedded professional learning; making it a priority for teachers to meet in content teams once a week (during the school day) for 90 minutes to engage in shared planning and learning, led by a teacher leader.
During the past two years, TPS has redesigned its annual school planning process to ensure that school teams have the time, data, tools, and support they need. So far, the 20 TPS elementary schools that have made the transition to a job-embedded professional learning model have found that creating 90 continuous minutes of release time each week has required more complex schedules and more efficient use of staff. And finding the additional money within schools' already tight budgets to compensate teacher leaders has required smarter budgeting.
Making these types of shifts at scale requires strong tools for staffing, scheduling, and budgeting. Now, each school in TPS has a Google Sheets-based planning workbook — which includes tabs for staffing and budgeting, as well as information about priorities, strategies, and implementation plans. Additionally, the 20 elementary schools in the professional learning cohort use a Google Sheets-based scheduling tool.
Here are the four key ways that these planning tools have transformed from a disconnected set of forms, used solely for submitting information, to a connected suite that both encourages strategic resource use in schools and helps district teams shift from compliance monitor to strategic partner:
TPS schools receive staffing allocations based on grade level and student enrollment. Previously, principals did not have a formal tool for planning staffing assignments; they only had a form for trading allocations (i.e. swapping a library aide for a classroom aide). The new staffing tool connects to the latest enrollment projections and staffing allocations, and includes a table for assigning staff members to each allocated position. Requests for converting positions are made within the tool, eliminating the need for a separate form. Principals are also able to add additional staff using Title I and other funds.
Content teams are developed right in the staffing tool, integrating teaming with staff assignment decisions. As principals assign teachers and build teams, they can see if novice teachers or expected vacancies are clustered in certain grade levels or teams. This enables them to strategically distribute experience and expertise.
The new tool also improves district talent processes. Talent Management team members used to enter staffing assignments into the district's HR systems by having school leaders complete a separate, time-consuming assignment sheet by hand. Now, staffing assignments automatically aggregate from schools' staffing tools, which leaves more time for the Talent Management team to support strategic decision-making, instead of just data entry.
School teams in TPS have three main sources of funding under their control:
Previously, principals completed separate forms for general and Title budgets, and submitted these forms to separate teams, with no planner for bond funds. General fund budgets were typically completed by school office staff, and principals assumed these funds were too small for personnel spending. Without taking a closer look, many principals were leaving resources on the table that could in fact be used for personnel spending — such as teacher leader stipends or additional support staff, who are often key to providing the coverage necessary to create team time.
The new budgeting tool brings together planning for general, Title I, and bond funds. A school's up-to-date allocated amounts are displayed at the top of the tool, along with the amount remaining in the budget. School leaders plan categorical non-personnel spending — such as office supplies and furniture — by using a table that displays previous year and current year-to-date spending for each category on each line. Integrating this information into the tool helps school leaders identify opportunities to reallocate spending.
In the past, principals approached budgeting each source of funding separately by asking, "What can I spend funds from this source on?" Now, schools set priorities, identify the strategies needed to achieve them, determine the staff and other resources needed to execute those strategies, and then combine funding sources to plan how to get there. The budgeting tool guides them through the complex rules for each funding source.
In the past, most TPS elementary school principals used Microsoft Excel or Word to build class schedules. As the 20 schools in the professional learning cohort shifted to schedules that freed up each teacher for 90 minutes of content team time on at least one day per week, these old tools became cumbersome because a lot of time had ot be spent merging and unmerging the cells in various tables. As school schedules became more complex, it also became difficult to determine whether or not these new schedules met the district's instructional minute guidelines.
The 20 schools that have transitioned to job-embedded professional learning now use a scheduling tool built in Google Sheets. This new scheduling tool allows school teams to create and manipulate schedule blocks more efficiently, generate student- and teacher-facing schedules for distribution, and keep track of daily instructional minutes for each subject. The consistent format and instructional minute display allows district-level teams to quickly understand how schools use their time.
In the past, district teams reviewed pieces of schools' plans in siloes — for example, discretionary budgets were only reviewed by the budget office and Title I budgets were only reviewed by the Federal Programs team. With the new tools, each district team is able to see how the pieces they support fit into a school's overall vision and plan. As part of the revised planning process, district teams come together to provide school teams with coherent feedback that is focused on strategy, instead of simply compliance. The new tools enable this improved feedback process.
Because of these new tools and improved collaboration structures, schools are experiencing a subtle, but powerful shift in the support they receive from the district-to-school relationship; from "I need to submit my Title I budget to the Federal Programs team," to "The Federal Programs team is supporting me to develop the Title I budget portion of my plan," school improvement is now front and center.
Redesigning these tools, timelines, and support structures has required significant time investment and cross-functional collaboration from district teams — including a willingness to revise their own processes in service of creating more coherent and strategic experiences for school leaders. Both the improved quality of the plans and principal survey results show that their hard work is paying off:
More innovative designs need tools that provide flexibility and strategically connect resources to make the most of every person, every dollar, and every minute. Whether your goal is to increase opportunities for personalized learning, add intervention blocks, or dedicate more time for social-emotional learning, ERS can support and guide these efforts. To learn more, contact us.
Eddie Branchaud is a Principal Associate at ERS. In his work with Tulsa Public Schools, he supports school teams in planning for strong professional learning and district leaders in redesigning the school planning process.