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santo-nicoteraTransformational Learning Communities

“The School Reform Initiative creates transformational learning communities that are fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence” (see SRI What We Do).  The SRI Critical Friendship model for Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) is an integral part of the CITY Center for Collaborative Learning’s work with teachers, educational leaders, community partners, and school/district teams. (see CITY Center)

In the summer of 1997 I was sent by my school in Denver, CO to a week-long teacher training in Providence, RI that proved to be the most transformative, professional development experience of my life.

I was an eleven year, classroom teacher in Denver Public Schools at the time and a member of both the Manual High School ‘Collaborative Decision Making’ governing team (site-based management) and the DPS teacher support team (working with struggling teachers, district-wide).  I loved teaching in my urban high school, serving on its CDM, and working with teachers around the district.  In 1997, I was given the Denver Teachers’ Award (‘honoring distinguished teachers for excellence in teaching’).

That summer, busing was coming to an end in Denver and Manual was looking at a dramatic demographic change in the next school year: MHS in SY 1996-1997 had been 42.4 % Black, 42.4% White, 14.0% Hispanic and 3.7% Limited English Proficiency but in SY 1997-1998 MHS was projected to become 40.4% Black, 6.5% White, 51.3% Hispanic and 28.3% Limited English Proficiency.  Poverty, as measured by Free/Reduced Lunch eligibility, was changing from 48.5% in the prior year to 75.1% in the year to come and the percentage of incoming 9th graders Reading At/Below the 50th Percentile was increasing from 48.5% to 82.5%.  Manual High School, which had been touted as a ‘school desegregation success story’ in years past, was facing serious challenges in the coming school year.

In anticipation of these challenges, the Manual CDM had hired a new principal for the SY 1996-1997 and in February of that year presented to the Board of Education the ‘Manual Reform Initiative’ for restructuring the educational program at MHS beginning with the ninth grade in the 1997-1998 school year and continuing in subsequent years with the other grade levels (one grade per year).

Manual High School – Denver Post

Part of this initiative (approved by the Board) included the implementation of a 4×4 block schedule school-wide (four 90-minute blocks of instructional time per day) beginning in SY 1997-1998.  Every classroom teacher would be assigned 3 instructional blocks and 1 planning block per day and each week one of those planning blocks would be used for collaborative work with other teachers within a professional learning community (PLC).*

*In previous years, teachers at Manual had been assigned five 45-minute instructional blocks per day and one 45-minute personal planning block.  The Manual Reform Initiative increased a teacher’s personal planning time from 225 minutes per week to 360 minutes while providing a 90-minute, weekly planning block for collaboration with other teachers.

And these weekly, 90-minute PLC blocks were to be critical to the success of the ‘Manual Reform Initiative’ going forward.

So in the summer of 1997, I was sent to Rhode Island (with a teacher colleague) and charged with the task of bringing back to Manual, a model for doing PLCs at our public high school that would allow teachers to drive the reform initiative – not realizing that this week-long training would not only provide this for Manual, but also, would be the transformational, learning experience of my lifetime.

What Is Transformational Learning?

Transformational learning theory makes a distinction between informational and transformational learning.  Informational learning is the learning that increases what we know.  But not who we are or how we understand our world… Transformational learning is different.  It is learning that changes not only what we know, but also how we know what we know, and even who we are… Informational and Transformational learning can be seen as ends of a learning continuum.  Most learning experiences are valuable but also informational.  However it is only to the degree that any learning experience is pulled towards the transformational that the possibilities of surfacing, facing, questioning, and challenging fundamental, taken-for-granted assumptions arise… Transformational learning is the learning that happens as adults move from instrumental to socializing to self-authoring knowers.  Informational learning is valuable learning, but it does not change our stage of adult development, who we are, or how we make meaning of the world.” (excerpted from Towards a General Theory of SRI’s Intentional Learning Communities, Kevin Fahey and Jacy Ippolito, April 2015)


I had always known that the way I made sense of the world was changing throughout my life.  I knew that my world view as a four year old was very different from my world view as a forty-four year old (summer 1997).  And I knew that the way I made sense of my teaching practice had dramatically changed from those first days in the classroom (1986) eleven years earlier.  But I had always thought that these changes stemmed from increasing my knowledge base, building my confidence as a teacher, and deepening my teaching skills over time.

Transformational Moments

What I came to realize at the training in Providence in 1997 was that the ‘engine’ behind the big changes in the way I made sense of the world were ‘transformational moments’ that occurred when I was able to relinquish my taken-for-granted frame of reference (my way of making sense of the world, my definition of self at that moment) and adopt a new framework, a new paradigm – one that was better able to make sense of my ever-changing world.  Moreover, I came to realize through the training that these transformational moments (these personal ‘system updates’) occur more frequently when I am  participating with colleagues in collaborative reflection on my own and our own practice.

I left Providence committed to making this a regular part of the teaching experience at my school through our participation in professional learning communities using the SRI Critical Friendship model.  Amazing changes occurred at Manual High School over those next four years (see Manual Reform Initiative 1997-2001) – changes which could not have occurred without the teacher leadership and transformed teacher practice that emerged from within our weekly, professional learning communities.

“If school improvement and school reinvention make different learning demands on adults in schools, then any SRI theory of action needs to take into account the different ways that adults in schools understand these different demands. Constructive Developmental Theory (Kegan, 1998) – which explains how adults intellectually grow and develop over time – can help us do this. The fundamental tenets of Constructive Developmental Theory are:  (1) Adults continually work to make sense of their experiences (constructive).  (2) The ways that adults make sense of their world can change and grow more complex over time (developmental).  (3) Four of the most common ways adults understand their worlds can be described as instrumental, socializing, self-authoring, and self transformational.  Each stage of adult development represents a more complicated way of understanding the world and one’s place in it (Kegan, 1998)…  Figure 8 sums up the relationship between the different stages of adult development.” (excerpted from SRI Theory of Action, Kevin Fahey and Jacy Ippolito, Feb 2016)


When I retired from Denver Public Schools in 2002, I moved to Tucson, AZ and co-founded (with SRI Critical Friendship colleague, fellow teacher leader, and life partner JoAnn Groh) the Paulo Freire Freedom Schools in downtown Tucson.  Both schools were founded on the principles of SRI Critical Friendship and both schools, together with City High School are operated by CITY Center for Collaborative Learning as demonstration learning environments for best teaching practices including SRI Critical Friendship.  CITY Center offers a week-long training in the SRI model of professional learning  communities every June but is also able to provide trainings to schools and school districts at their own sites and at times that work for them.