Building Equity in Melting Pot Communities, Shelby County’s Dedication to Teachers and Students

by EdCircuit Staff

What does it mean to invest in education? In some communities, it means building new schools; in others, it means leveraging current resources to hire more teachers, and in most, it means small changes throughout the district over time. In Shelby County, Alabama, the district realized investing in their teachers was the most valuable use of resources. How did they do it? 

To set the scene for the Shelby County School District, you have to break a preconceived idea of just how diverse the state and area are. Shelby County School District is a medium-sized suburban school district south of Birmingham, Alabama, with a total K-5 enrollment of around 9,000 students across its 15 elementary schools. The schools range from 200 students to a little over 1,000 students. The district ranges from schools with 18-20% poverty up to 65-68% poverty and schools with 30% English Learners, and others with 1-2 EL students. Additionally, many families come to the district because of the exceptional special education curriculum that the school provides. With that level of diversity, the district is dedicated to providing a level of equity. What is truly interesting about Shelby County Schools is that district represents the three main socio-economic subdivisions- suburban, urban, and rural. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines equity as “the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among populations or groups defined socially, economically, demographically, or geographically.” In Shelby County, the equity issues of individual learners and the community meant that teachers needed to be prepared to regularly offer differentiated and individualized instruction to students. 

This melting pot of socioeconomic, cultural, and language diversity in Shelby County means that a lot goes into understanding students to meet their needs. An equity-centered initiative was essential for the district, and they found a perfect moment to enact it. 

A Tool For Growth

After the passage of the “Alabama Literacy Act” in 2019, a bill established to improve the reading proficiency of public school kindergarten through 3rd-grade students, the district was introduced to numerous tools across the education technology sector. They chose the i-Ready tool by Curriculum Associates as they felt that it could be the catalyst they needed to introduce differentiated instruction to their students. They began small with just the diagnostic portion of the program, but after continued success, they built out a full curriculum on a variety of learning tools given by curriculum associates. 

“Once we got all of the components, the toolbox and the instructional path, and the diagnostic, we felt like we had it all,” says Lynn Carroll, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction/ Deputy Superintendent. “But what has made the difference in this program for us would be the quality professional development piece.” 

Investing In Teachers

Teachers were led in PD sessions by a Curriculum Associates consultant based on individual students, allowing teachers to begin an individualized instruction perspective. A simple statement was often the cue for success in these sessions- “Give me an example of a student who is struggling.” From there, educators and the professional development team would go over assessments, data, and tracks for personalized instruction to help that individual student and students who may be struggling with similar issues. 

The amount of professional development allowed teachers to address a range of issues from tier 1 through tier 3 students. In congruence with their investment in their teachers, the district made sure to celebrate their teachers. They celebrated time on task and pass percentage throughout the district which motivated teachers to move students along their individualized paths. 

Debbie Horton, the Elementary Coordinator for the district, let teachers know how much growth they were seeing and praised them for their overall success. Any teacher who had moved a student 100% or more received thank you emails. She told them: 

“I want you to know we’re watching reports, and we’re seeing great things from your students, and <we> thank you for the dedication and the hard work that you’re doing to learn about this program and to deliver instruction <which> is certainly paying off.” 

Celebrating Success

Addressing these issues meant that students saw tremendous improvement in the classroom, and teachers were proud to share with them in one-on-one data chats. In seeing their growth using the personalized instruction tools at their disposal, both students who had struggled in the past and those who had previous success showed massive improvement in the classroom. This equitable practice allowed students to feel their needs whether from learning loss, English language learning, or socioeconomic background, were being met. Teachers shared that growth data with parents in conferences or through detailed reporting, allowing students to have continuous support for their learning goals and celebration for success. 

One particular success that the district is very proud of is the growth they saw at the Linda Nolen Learning Center, a special school that serves a population of students identified as struggling in the traditional classroom. These students saw tremendous growth, with some students increasing up to 200% from one diagnostic to the next. 

The story of Shelby County’s success truly amplifies the power of great teachers, a dedicated district that understands its community, and an organization that wants schools to have the tools to succeed. Equity initiatives can be difficult, and addressing a myriad of issues from learning loss to socioeconomic struggle, is an arduous process, but when a district invests in being the change they want to see in the community and support their teachers to lead in the classroom, real and substantial change in communal equity can be achieved. The district has announced further investment in professional development for their teachers and cannot wait to see the amount of growth they see in the coming years.

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