How Prioritizing Teacher Coaching Helped Accelerate Student Growth During the Pandemic

When Cara Cooke, superintendent of Aransas Pass ISD, arrived at the 2019 TASA Midwinter Conference, she knew that her district was in need of a reset. 

“We knew that we wanted to grow our teachers, and we needed to have a mindset change,” Cara said. “We wanted to take it to another level, and we knew our teachers were capable of doing that.” 

The problem was Aransas Pass ISD is a small district located in South Texas, and no one in the district was quite sure how to bring about the growth they knew they needed. That is, until Cara attended engage2learn CEO Shannon Buerk’s first session at the conference. 

“It all just started coming together,” Cara recalled. “She had a second session, so I went and got the team. I said, ‘I want you all to come with me. Come and listen to this.’” By the time Cara’s team left the conference, they knew they had found their solution. “This was a new way to come at this. It’s the brightest way using best practice, reimagining what education needs to look like here in Aransas Pass, Texas.” 

Not long after their introduction to engage2learn, Cara and her team were ready to leverage e2L’s focused approach to instructional best practices and coaching. After e2L facilitated the district in creating a locally-designed learning framework, Aransas Pass ISD was poised to implement a three-year phased roll-out approach, beginning with having coaching for all core teachers and administrators. Shelley Dominguez, director of curriculum and instruction for Aransas Pass ISD, said she immediately noticed a change as a result of coaching. 

“I was expecting it to take a little longer, to be honest,” she shared, “but really early on, only about one or two sessions in, I started visiting some of the classrooms of the teachers that were being coached. Immediately, I could pick out some of those framework strategies that were already being implemented in the classroom.”

Shelley recalled how exciting it was to see such impressive results in such a short amount of time.

“It speaks to the coaches [at e2L] and their skill level and how they pushed the teachers to really engage with the learning framework,” she said. Shelley also credited the teachers for their willingness to be coached and for how thoroughly they followed through with the goals they set during coaching sessions.

“In a short amount of time, we really gained a whole lot,” Shelley said proudly. 

Aransas Pass ISD was on track for a reset, and Cara was excited to see what the future held for her district. 

“We started in January. Things seemed to be going well, we had our plan,” she said. “And then… Coming back from spring break in March, the whole world had changed.” 

COVID-19 hit, closing the district, and once again, Aransas Pass ISD was back to square one, trying to figure out which path to take when every direction was so unknown. 

“We had some pretty stark predictions that were coming out nationally and from the state as well, saying how behind our kids were going to be because of COVID,” Shelley recalled. “We had to immediately begin to think about how do we close these gaps now, and what support are we able to give them?” 

Cara shared Shelley’s concerns. 

“Everything we do, and I tell my staff this all the time, our measuring stick is the needs of the students. Period,” she said. “How do we advance them? How do we provide access that they may never have thought they could have?”

With all of the unknowns surrounding them, and a new landscape of virtual learning appearing to be the only way forward, the path Aransas Pass ISD needed to take was clear. While most leaders might think rolling out a new, innovative approach to learning in the middle of a global pandemic would be a bad idea, Cara and her team pressed forward, aggressively. 

“We felt strongly enough that we don’t stop now,” she said of the decision to continue with coaching and their new learning framework. “If we’re going to have to rebuild what education looks like for a year and use Zoom, Google Meets, or whatever – because at that point we didn’t know how we were going to do any of this – we felt like the best thing we could do was support our teachers.” 

“If we’re going to have to rebuild what education looks like for a year…we felt like the best thing we could do was support our teachers.” 

Cara Cooke, Superintendent, Aransas Pass ISD

Rheanna Picarazzi, assistant principal at Charlie Marshall Elementary, said she believed there was truly no better time to try something new – after all, the rules on how this was “supposed to be done” hadn’t been written yet. 

“When the pandemic hit,” she recalled, “I thought what perfect timing to throw that technology in, and the teachers learned from their own personal coaches, and so it was very exciting.” 

Naomi Stephens, a teacher for Aransas Pass ISD, echoed her sentiments. In the summer, her boss requested that a few brave teachers volunteer to go fully online. “Our school didn’t even have Chromebooks,” Naomi said. “We had no technology whatsoever.” But that didn’t stop her from volunteering. “I just was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to make up my mind, I’m just going to push through.’”

That mindset could be felt throughout the district. Gathering their resources, the teachers, administrators, and leaders in Aransas Pass pressed on. Cara said they made the commitment to get every core teacher a coach to help support them on this new journey. The results spoke for themselves.

Since starting coaching in January 2020, e2L has completed 735 coaching conversations with Aransas Pass ISD educators, and the district has continued to show an upward trajectory of growth and best practices. APISD educators have earned a combined total of 1,048 best practices badges, marking growth in areas like standards alignment, digital learning, and differentiation and scaffolding. 

“It just blew my mind because I grew so much,” Naomi shared.

“They are doing so well,” Rheanna said. “They see where their students are going, they’re moving their children, they’re achieving success, they’re allowing the kids to analyze their own data, and they see the progress they’re making.” 

That progress isn’t limited to only teachers. The students are reaping the benefits as well. 

“We started assessing them once we got them back,” Shelley said. “We were seeing in some areas our students were actually performing as well as they had previously done, or, in some cases, even better than what they had previously done. We were encouraged by that.” 

For Cara, seeing the growth in both her teachers and students despite so many months of uncertainty and change has proven what a difference coaching makes. 

“Even as we start to see some of our scores come out, I am amazed,” Cara said. “engage2learn coming and partnering with us has enabled us to take all that we were talking about and wanting to do; they gave the fuel to us, and the best practices, and the encouragement and support so that we can take it to that next level. And along the way, pride is being built.” 

Moving forward, she said every teacher in the entire district of Aransas Pass will have a coach in the coming year. 

“I think this time next year,” Cara said, “we’ll really be able to see the fruits of the labor that has been put into this.”

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