When Donald Cousens School opened, then-principal Sharon Moss envisioned, and intentionally created, a supportive, positive culture for teaching and learning. Acting on the theory that structure drives behaviour, she set up the school to foster a sense of ownership and collaboration among students, staff and community, making specific structures part of the teaching-learning experience while building a sustainable professional culture that encourages staff leadership and innovation at every level. For example, the staff embraced the importance of data from EQAO and other sources, used technology instead of textbooks to provide authentic learning opportunities and encouraged one another to be open to learning and change. Principal Moss eliminated traditional divisional leaders (these became community, culture, curriculum, technology and student services leads) and instituted inclusive character-building programs such as TRIBES. The stage was thereby set for success.
In keeping with its innovative and inclusionary practices, Donald Cousens welcomes the diversity of its student population. With 70% of the students speaking a language other than English at home, the school accesses its students’ unbridled zest for learning by using EQAO data to ensure a more targeted support system that allows for a differentiated approach, layered with strategies to identify the special needs of each child. “Like peeling the layers of an onion,” the school’s use of data reveals the focus necessary to respond to the changing needs of its students. This inclusionary, precise and proactive planning also facilitates a respectful partnership between school and home. Valuing education, parents are supportive of the school’s philosophy of engaging the whole child in exploring, investigating and gathering evidence through programming that features embedded technology.
The alignment of data, resources and professional knowledge are key elements of both school and board structures that build capacity to ensure consistency in student support and teaching practice. The board provides a broader lens through which to view school improvement and makes available a wide variety of consistent system-level support through professional learning, networking opportunities and data management. Teachers understand that “assessment drives instruction” and that large-scale and classroom assessment support each other. The teachers appreciate this connection and have a stake in collecting data to inform their classroom instruction. According to Principal Tracey Cox, teachers “devour data, using it as the starting point to understand our context. Data allows us to be precise, to personalize and to drill down right to the classroom.” Collaborating in mixed-divisional groupings, teachers look for trends, use moderated marking, conduct itemized analyses of student clusters, narrow results, identify strengths and needs and “dig deeper” to understand their next “challenge of practice.” As Vice-Principal Jeff Demacio puts it, “the staff are aligned in knowing what good assessment looks like” and strive to deliver the curriculum based on a critical analysis of a wide range of data.
For example, seeking precision through collegial critical analysis, the school adopted and adapted the board-wide cross-grade and cross-curricular “Critical Friends Framework.” The teachers are used to being asked for their opinions, taking responsibility, articulating student needs and leading other teachers to be leaders. In fact, the power and commitment of the professional culture at this school is such that its highly reflective staff can, with the help of the above framework, engage passionately in “productive dissonance” questioning, educating and ultimately aligning themselves in support of student needs. Recently, for example, during an in-school teacher-moderation exercise, staff used technology to conduct blind assessments of student work. Gradually, the ensuing discussions evolved from asking whether the responses matched the assessment rubric to questioning the validity of the rubric itself. Acting on this discovery, staff refined their processes by matching assessments to curriculum expectations.
“The staff are aligned in knowing what good assessment looks like.”
— Jeff Demacio, Vice-Principal
Another successful and innovative strategy is “The Skill Will” matrix (based on Robyn R. Jackson’s work), which permeates all processes at the school and complements EQAO and internal data to describe the whole child. The original matrix is based on four quadrants, each containing specific skills with corresponding strategies to achieve them. When it became apparent that many students didn’t fit neatly into the quadrants, the teachers were inspired to expand and create a new chart with six, possibly nine, areas of skill and developed corresponding strategies that allowed them to refine the skill base and identify the student engagement approaches that may be missing. From there, cross-divisional discussion groups built appropriate strategies for each student. Strategies like this allow the school to foster an open mindset, which has improved learning over the past five years. Taking ownership, teachers help one another and sustain momentum. Invariably, new teachers quickly absorb the spirit of innovation and intentionality.
A constant cycle of revisiting what they have done encapsulates the reason these students and their exceptional educators who “love their job” are thriving. In a nutshell, they are successful because, as Principal Cox says, “we are dynamic and responsive to the needs of the school.” With strong leadership and a deep commitment to long-term learning, the staff at Donald Cousens blend data skilfully to get to know their students, develop a challenge of practice and a theory of action, and to monitor progress. With excellent board support and programming, they have also become skilled at data use and the inquiry method of learning, and as a result continue to build exceptional programs for their students.
Dr. Bette M. Stephenson Recognition of Achievement, 2014 School Recipient