In the pilot program with Public Impact's Opportunity Culture initiative, NCSSM math instructor Maria Hernandez serves as a Remotely Located Multi-Classroom Leader, "visiting" five different precalculus classrooms across the state several times a week via interactive videoconferencing.


Through Opportunity Culture initiative, NCSSM veteran math teacher supports rural high schools — from Durham

Teacher Stanford Wickham is busy with his Monday morning precalculus class of 14 students at Vance County High School, a few miles southeast of downtown Henderson. His students work in small groups, their desks turned to face each other. In a moment they will begin a timed measurement of temperature, then use exponential functions to create a mathematical model for the data collected.

Wickham is an 18-year classroom veteran, the last five at VCHS. The previous 13 years he taught at some of the top high schools in his native Jamaica.

In Durham, a 40-minute drive down I-85, veteran North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics teacher Maria Hernandez observes Wickham’s classroom via interactive videoconference in the school’s distance learning studios. On one monitor is a wide view of Wickham’s class. Another, which replicates what Wickham’s class sees, displays Hernandez’s teaching materials. Other monitors contain additional views and teaching resources. Studio lights illuminate her against a green screen.

Hernandez describes herself as “a guest” in Wickham’s class, invited several times each week into his and other precalculus classrooms across the state as a teaching partner in an effort to lay the groundwork for a new approach to teacher leadership in hard-to-staff schools and subjects. This pilot was initiated by Public Impact, a Chapel Hill-based research and consulting firm.

Public Impact created Opportunity Culture, an initiative to restructure pre-K–12 schools to extend the reach of excellent teachers, principals, and their teams to more students, for more pay, within recurring school budgets. The foundation of Opportunity Culture is the multi-classroom leader, or MCL, an excellent teacher who leads a small teaching team while continuing to teach. The MCL provides guidance and frequent on-the-job coaching, co-planning, co-teaching, and modeling of instruction. In 2018–19 alone, Opportunity Culture reached more than 55,000 students in 300 schools over nine states, and more than 1,800 teachers.

Public Impact had developed the idea of “Remotely Located Multi-Classroom Leadership” — an MCL leading a team of teachers located elsewhere — as a way to provide teacher-leaders for hard-to-staff schools and subjects. But the mechanics of the idea needed testing before being fully prototyped within Opportunity Culture. With funding from the College Board, Public Impact partnered with NCSSM to do just that. How could a remotely located MCL connect successfully with teachers and students? How would the technology work? How could an MCL and teachers in several schools schedule the time needed to plan, collaborate and teach together?

The result was the creation of Hernandez’s role. So far, it’s going great — so NCSSM and Public Impact are now exploring how to offer remotely located multi-classroom leaders to other school districts throughout the state using Opportunity Culture’s full design. The financially efficient approach seems hard to beat, expanding access while losing none of its academic zip.

Hernandez addresses Wickham’s class as though she were in the room. “I’d like you to make a conjecture,” she says, “about what the temperature will be over the course of this time frame.”

“When we are through collecting the data,” Wickham adds in Henderson, “we will compare it to what you thought it would be, and we will see if you were right or wrong.”

Hernandez turns to her own instrumentation where she is running the same experiment. “This is cool,” she says to the students at Vance High.

“Here we go,” Wickham says and begins the project timer.

Math is a passion for Wickham. At Vance County High School, he teaches, or has taught, Math 1, Math 3, Advanced Functions and Modeling, and AP Calculus AB, as well as precal.

“My brain is always working where math is concerned,” Wickham says. “It just has me engaged. That’s why I love it so much. And I want my students to see that it’s not just random numbers that we put in a calculator and get an answer. I just want them to make sense of it on a daily basis and see that it’s applicable in real-life situations.”

Though experienced at well-respected schools back home, Wickham’s curiosity about the education systems in more developed countries led him to the United States through an international teacher program.

That same sense of curiosity sparked his interest in working with a remotely located MCL, which he learned about through Vance County’s curriculum specialist. Many schools in Vance are already using full Multi-Classroom Leadership with in-person MCLs. But teachers in advanced high school classes often do not have enough peers to form a team within a school, much less to have a team leader. NCSSM’s role in the partnership was especially intriguing.

Despite the credentials of the pilot’s partners, Wickham approached it with a wait-and-see attitude. His uncertainty evaporated upon meeting the “well-learned” team members. His greatest enthusiasm is reserved for Hernandez.

“I’ve learned so much,” he says, “especially from Maria, in terms of questioning techniques, giving students time to collaborate, [and] the feedback she has given. I’m implementing all of that feedback into the classroom.”

Wickham isn’t the only one gaining new skills. He points to increases in his students’ confidence with the subject matter. “I have seen where quite a number of them really have grown in that they are more expressive,” he says. “They will take time to discuss the problems with their fellow classmates, and they are willing to share their thoughts and ideas about how they arrived at a certain solution. That’s a very good thing.”

The timed portion of the experiment complete, Hernandez asks the students to consider their original guess. “How does the data you collected compare with your conjecture? Take a minute to talk to your neighbor about this.”

Wickham discovers that one of the students, Hunter, accurately predicted what the final results would be.

Hernandez is enthused. “As mathematicians,” she says to the class, “people often want you to make predictions. If you can become skilled at that, just like we’ve done here today, then you can become very valuable and sought after.”

The data leads to an exponential function. With a stylus and her laptop, Hernandez leads students into an equation, then turns it over to the students to complete. Wickham dives in, moving through his class to lend guidance where needed. A student named Maya hesitantly approaches the camera to work directly with Hernandez. Sharing their work with each other, they together solve the equation.

Hernandez congratulates her. “You did such great work!” she says.

Maya smiles, her head dipping slightly with shy pride. “Thank you,” she says, and drifts back to her seat.

At 10:40 Wickham wraps up his class. Students gather their books, slide back from their desks. “You did a fine job today,” Hernandez tells them.

Says Wickham, “They did very well on this, I agree.”

The monitors in Durham go dark, and Hernandez slides back from her own desk. “I really see a lot of similarities between these students in Mr. Wickham’s class and the students we have here from counties like Vance,” Hernandez says. “These equations are not easy. They’re doing some really powerful math. I can show you video of this class from the beginning of this semester to now, and the growth is just incredible.

“And Mr. Wickham,” she adds, smiling, “he’s really incredible, too.”

A fortunate connection

NCSSM owes its role in the test of Remotely Located Multi-Classroom Leadership to Grayson Cooper, a 2008 graduate of NCSSM and senior consultant with Public Impact. He is also the co-founder of ENC STEM, a non-profit focused on providing disadvantaged high school students in eastern North Carolina with “high quality STEM learning opportunities and leadership training.”

Cooper’s knowledge of the challenges facing rural students and teachers is personal; he grew up in a small, rural community tucked just inside the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina. After graduating from college, he taught math for three years through Teach For America in northeastern North Carolina, a region dotted with tiny schools and school districts critically short of resources.

Despite the challenges faced by such districts, they’re filled with talent, just like their better-resourced brethren. When a district doesn’t have an appropriate person to lead as an MCL in a specialized subject, teachers still have the same potential — they just need a supportive team leader. “Opportunity Culture is really about trusting great teachers and trusting their judgement to know what works best for their students,” Cooper says of the program. “It’s about having them take on roles where they have the autonomy, the authority, and the resources to be able to implement the change that they see is needed within their schools. I really wish that I had had that sort of support when I started teaching.” Public Impact has heard in many interviews of Opportunity Culture educators how even veteran teachers appreciate that support and collaboration as they focus on being lifelong learners themselves,

Public Impact had been considering the possibility of adding remotely located MCLs to the mix since Opportunity Culture’s inception in 2009, well before Cooper joined the organization. The idea of partnering with NCCSM to make it happen gained traction once Cooper came onboard.

“It was a situation of ‘College Board is interested in this, we’re (Public Impact) interested in this, who can we get to partner?’” Cooper says. “That’s where my status as an NCSSM alum and working really closely with the school for a number of years worked out really well.”

It took two years to align all the moving parts, but the effort paid off. “Being able to hit the ground running with Science and Math, which has such good relationships and infrastructure across the state, was really crucial to this project being a success,” Cooper says.

Math is math

Ashley Knox, a fourth-year math teacher at New Bern High School, also joined the pilot as a team teacher.

Raised and educated in eastern North Carolina, Knox is at home among her students. Her love of numbers led to a master’s in math from East Carolina University, and then to New Bern High, where she teaches Math II (honors), Math III and precalculus.

Hernandez is again in the classroom, the 140 miles between New Bern and Durham erased by the real-time connection between NCSSM and Knox’s Wednesday morning precal class. The same precalculus principles that applied on Monday morning at Vance County High also apply this morning in Knox’s classroom. Math is math, no matter where you are.

Graphing sine and cosine is the day’s challenge. Hernandez pulls up a video of a young girl on a park swing. It’s her daughter, Olivia. She swings back and forth, hair in her face one moment, flowing behind her the next. Two orange traffic cones mark a spot in front of and behind her. The laughter of children off-camera rises and falls.

“I want you to think about her horizontal and vertical position,” Hernandez says. “What do you notice? What do you wonder? Think about this like mathematicians. Turn to your neighbor and talk with them about what it might have to do with trigonometric functions.”

The class hums with multiple conversations.

Knox winds through the room, looking for signs of creative, mathematical thought. Satisfied with her students’ progress, Knox says, “I think they’re ready now, Mrs. H.”

“What did you notice?” Hernandez asks.

“Hunter, you and Cole had a good conversation going,” Knox says. “Tell us what you noticed.”

“Each time she goes back and forth is one cycle,” Hunter says.

Hernandez graphs the student input. A few minutes later she runs an animation showing Olivia’s motion as data points. She ties it all back into sine and cosine.

“Okay, now I want you guys to find a model for the horizontal and vertical position of the swinger,” she says. “Think about trigonometric functions and transformation functions.”

Knox takes over, leading her kids through their calculations.

A student approaches the camera and shows Maria her work. She’s found a truly unique way to solve a problem. “That’s great!” Hernandez says. “I’ve been teaching a hundred years and that’s the first time I’ve seen that. That’s great!”

Sarah Donaldson of North Pitt High School and Stanford Wickham of Vance County High School are two of the teachers participating in this pilot program, receiving guidance, co-teaching, and modeling of instruction from Hernandez as they lead their own high school precalculus classes.

Like Wickham, Knox was drawn to joining Hernandez’s team due to NCSSM’s involvement. “I‘ve always been very curious about that school and how students learn there,” Knox says, “so I thought of this more as a partnership where they can see what it’s like with everyday students … and we can continue to challenge our honors students into becoming ready for AP Calculus, or even beyond. It’s been a great experience involving more of the modeling instead of what I normally do.”

The collaborative spirit among the team teachers has been incredible, Knox points out. In addition to using materials shared with participants by NCSSM, the teachers themselves have worked together to build resources.

“A lot of the time teachers don’t have resources available to them through their school,” Knox says, “so I think it’s nice that we have this cohort of teachers helping each other.

“There’s so much to gain from collaboration. The students gain as well as the teachers gain. Education is a constant change, and so teaching has to be a constant change, too.”

“She’s kind of a mover and a shaker,” Hernandez says of Knox. “She’s been really good about trying to grow as a teacher [and] she really likes to learn.”

Sustaining and growing Remotely Located Multi-Classroom Leadership

For this semester, NCSSM used temporary grant funds to cover pilot expenses, including the remotely located MCL’s salary. But one of the five Opportunity Culture Principles is that MCL roles — including extra pay — are funded through reallocations of regular school budgets so they can be sustained over time without grants. Public Impact’s routine work with Opportunity Culture schools includes working with teams of teachers and administrators to make budget reallocation decisions that fit each school.

Melissa Thibault, NCSSM’s Vice Chancellor for Distance Education and Extended Programs, is eager to continue the school’s work.

“We want to keep doing it, we have the will to do it, and we have identified some areas where we can continue to build capacity within some of the schools that we are working with,” Thibault says.

“We’d love to continue working with Public Impact on this,” she says. “There’s a lot of mission alignment between their organization and ours. We have here the teaching expertise and the IVC infrastructure to connect with partner schools, but Public Impact is the organization with the relationships and the management capacity and the product.”

Thibault believes so strongly in the program that she and her colleagues at NCSSM are eager to collaborate with Public Impact on a design for future scale and sustainability. “This is one way that we can retain talent and magnify the impact of great teachers,” she says. “That, to me, is at the heart of why this is an important program.”

Give and receive

For the remainder of the semester, Hernandez will have the good fortune to continue working alongside Knox, Wickham, and the other teachers on the team — Corrette Miller at Lexington Senior High School in Lexington, Sarah Donaldson at North Pitt High School in Bethel, and Jocelyn Thammavong, a teammate of Ashley Knox’s at New Bern High. In every instance, the project stands as an incredible example of how public and private partners can leverage their strengths to extend to students statewide the knowledge and skills they need to live their best lives.

“We have a great group of teachers who signed up to do this because they wanted to grow as professionals,” Hernandez says.“I learn so much from them, too. The opportunity both to work with the students and work with the teachers is really valuable. It’s really something that, I think, is a rare occasion for us.”

To learn more about NCSSM’s work with the Opportunity Culture initiative, check out this video.

Written by Brian Faircloth with contributions from Public Impact staff.