This case study describes how Porterville Unified School District (PUSD), a rural school district in California’s Central Valley, began to fulfill its vision to transform high school and career education through the implementation of Linked Learning. Linked Learning is a state-wide initiative for redesigning large comprehensive high schools into smaller learning communities in the form of career-based pathways. The case explains how Porterville’s district leadership team made Linked Learning the centerpiece of its district-wide reform effort and describes the key strategies the leadership team developed in collaboration with stakeholders to implement a system of pathways across five high schools. These strategies included:
1) Creating policy coherence by integrating multiple reforms In developing its implementation strategy for Linked Learning, Porterville’s leadership team made a key and early decision to integrate two reform initiatives that were aimed at high school reform—a National Academies Foundation initiative and a Small High Schools Grant—and bundle them under the umbrella of Linked Learning. This decision not only lessened confusion at the school level about which reform to focus upon, but also communicated to schools that Linked Learning was the district’s policy priority for improving high schools. The district’s positioning of these multiple reforms guided schools to focus on the design and implementation of career-based pathways as the vehicle for school improvement. Porterville’s district leadership team also made a strategic decision to start small with Harmony Magnet, a new high school designed into smaller learning communities, which would serve as a model for the implementation of Linked Learning expansion to other high schools throughout the district. The district also sought to ensure staff buy-in at Harmony by hiring teacher leaders who were fully committed to the concept of Linked Learning.
2) Communicating a compelling vision for redesigning high school Porterville’s leadership recognized the importance of clearly articulating the district’s vision and goals for Linked Learning: Every high school would be wall-to-wall career pathways and every student would have both choice and access to a career pathway. As part of the district’s implementation strategy, the team set out to communicate a set of clear, consistent, and compelling messages to explain how careerbased pathways would enable all of Porterville’s students to be college-ready as well as prepared for the world of work. In a rural community like Porterville, where graduates were traditionally faced with choosing either postsecondary education or work, the concept that every student could be prepared for both career and college represented a profound shift and rise in expectations.
3) Building a broad base of ownership and coalition of support Porterville’s leadership team deliberately set out, in the early stages of implementation, to build a broad base of support for and ownership of Linked Learning. Members of the district leadership targeted parents and teachers; they went out to schools, together with school board members, to signal unified support for Linked Learning, presenting at Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and teacher union meetings.
The Porterville district office also sought to develop a strong sense of collaboration and pathway ownership for Linked Learning among school-site personnel and community partners by creating structured opportunities for involvement through the formation of advisory boards for every pathway. Additional outreach efforts aimed at the local business community helped to build a broad coalition of support for Linked Learning. These efforts galvanized individual community and business leaders, who saw the value of work-based learning and a potential workforce with strong skills, to actively strengthen the implementation of pathways by serving on site-level advisory boards.
4) Targeted capacity-building at the district and school site During the critical early stages of designing and implementing pathways across high schools, Porterville’s district leadership learned that while leadership and guidance from the central office was necessary, on-the-ground, technical assistance to build school- and pathway- site capacity was equally important. To facilitate this, the district made structural changes to the central office. A dedicated team, staffed by experienced practitioners, was created for the sole purpose of implementing Linked Learning and providing guidance and differentiated support to pathway leaders at every school site. Porterville’s district leaders did not shy away from bold decisions aimed at building leadership and organizational capacity at the school site; these included the mid-year reassignment of principals, and a successful campaign to move from a six- to a seven-period day to create the structured time needed by pathway teams and teachers to increase focus on instruction and to collaborate within the school day.
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