Colo-NESCO and Heartland AEA staff and board members collaborated on a presentation at last fall’s IASB annual convention that highlighted the AEA/district partnership. Pictured, left to right, Kristi Upah, Alecia Rahn-Blakeslee, Jim Verlengia, Margaret Borgen, Joel Niemeyer, Mickolyn Clapper and Kathy Scebold.
Just a few short years ago Colo-NESCO was in trouble. The problems were many—shaky finances, a lack of leadership and lagging student achievement. On a Department of Education site visit, the district had 42 citations. As superintendent Jim Verlengia puts it, “We had massive problems.”
But today you’d never know that. And Verlengia says a considerable reason for the turnaround has been the district’s partnership with Heartland AEA.
Verlengia, an 18-year Heartland AEA employee and a former superintendent, was asked to step into an interim superintendent role at Colo-NESCO in the middle of the 2010-11 school year. Faced with the task of helping the district of 530 students get back on its feet, he knew building a stronger, more collaborative partnership with the AEA would be one of the keys to making this happen. “We had nowhere else to go,” Verlengia said. “It (Heartland AEA) was our only and our best choice.”
One of the most significant improvements Heartland AEA staff has helped the district make was the adoption of a new elementary literacy curriculum series and teacher training to accompany it. Teachers had been using varied materials and teaching strategies, and the district knew it could do better for its students.
Kathy Scebold, a Heartland AEA special education consultant and Becky Hinze, a Heartland AEA reading consultant, have provided teachers with on-going professional development around the literacy curriculum, and Alecia Rahn-Blakeslee, a Heartland AEA school psychologist, has helped facilitate “data days,” during which student data is analyzed. By examining the data, teachers are able to identify students who may be struggling and work to provide more or varied instruction to those students.
The district’s renewed focus on early literacy ties directly to the elementary being chosen as a Phase One district for the implementation of Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS) in Iowa. MTSS is a proven practice to help schools identify and intervene with struggling readers, as well as students who are on track to read proficiently early on. This is accomplished by setting up an early warning system, adapting instruction to fit those students’ individual needs and then monitoring their progress. Colo-NESCO will have free access to the state’s MTSS data system, assessments, training, support and coaching in the area of early literacy, and AEA staff will be right there with them.
“I appreciate the fact that the people who are helping us are willing to get dirty,” Verlengia said of AEA staff. “They don’t just tell you what to do. They roll up their sleeves and are right next to you showing you what to do.”
Kristi Upah, a Heartland AEA regional director who serves Colo-NESCO, gives credit to the teachers and their collaborative nature for the relationship that now exists between the district and AEA. “(District) staff are so open, and they are wanting to be effective,” Upah said. “That’s what’s allowed us to have the momentum to continue.”
Upah is seen as an essential player who attends district leadership meetings and offers input in the decision-making process. “We believe Kristi is part of our team,” Verlengia said. “There is collaboration through the whole system.”Colo-NESCO logo
Heartland AEA consultants have also helped the district think differently about its special education instruction. The district is adopting a co-teaching model in which general education teachers and special education teachers teach together in the same classroom. Scebold accompanied Colo-NESCO teachers on a visit to Ankeny to see how that district was implementing co-teaching, and she will follow-up with professional development sessions for the Colo-NESCO teachers.
“The district is willing to give their teachers the time to collaborate with us,” Scebold said. “An example is co-teaching. They have a great willingness to support their teachers.”
Elementary principal Mickolyn Clapper has been impressed by Travis Wilkins, a Heartland AEA instructional technology consultant, who has been instrumental this school year in helping teachers purposefully integrate technology into their classrooms. Since Wilkins was hired by the AEA straight from the classroom, Clapper says he is popular with her teachers since he understands their perspective.
Clapper also notes that professional development for elementary teachers is now very specific. Instead of all teachers attending the same session, they are broken into small groups, and the training is delivered in a more personal way that allows teachers to immediately take strategies back to their classrooms.
This year Colo-NESCO made the decision to hire its own instructional coach. Heartland AEA has stepped up to provide training and assistance for this new staff member who works closely with fellow district teachers to help them incorporate best practices in the classroom.
Another important service the AEA recently provided to the district was helping preschool teachers prepare for an Iowa Quality Preschool Program Standards site visit, which assesses the district’s preschool program. AEA early childhood consultants provide on-going professional development to preschool teachers and paraeducators as well.
Verlengia and Clapper are quick to point out that all Heartland AEA staff who serve the district—from the regional director, to consultants, to special education practitioners—are helping the district improve learning outcomes for students. “You don’t see this (type of collaboration) everywhere,” Verlengia noted. “This is a holistic package of services. We see a sustained difference, and we just can’t do it without Heartland.” Verlengia said.
When the time eventually comes for Verlengia to bid the district farewell, he believes his greatest legacy will be helping to incorporate AEA services throughout the entire district. “It’s a cultural shift,” he said. “Having the AEA as a partner is how we do business. It truly is systemic now.”