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Success Story: Networked Improvement Communities: A Radical New Approach to Shifting School Improvement Cultures

Over the past three years, the Region 5 Comprehensive Center has been working closely with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) on Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) to help VDOE staff address common problems of practice, using implementation science. The main champion of this work at VDOE has been Dr. April Kiser-Edwards, the Implementation and Communication Coordinator at VDOE’s Office of School Quality. 

Our philosophy in education is grounded in the importance of strong relationships. The team is constantly exploring new ways to instill a love of learning and critical thinking skills in stakeholders via the VDOE-NIC model. The foundation of the model is aligned with the four support domains (Academics, Staffing, Professional Learning, and School Climate) included in the Virginia Support Framework, a system-building approach to school improvement. The Networked Improvement Community Opportunity is also offered as a system of support for Virginia Divisions.

Leading the implementation with Dr. Kiser-Edwards, the Region 5 team has:   

  1. Created a safe and brave space to have courageous conversations with peers to support the development of a systemic approach to problem solving 
  1. Established a platform that honors learning via inquiry and open discourse in a 3-year implementation plan
  1. Engaged and guided sessions of NIC Champions for a deeper understanding of implementation and improvement science
  1. Supported the application of the NIC process with a coaching framework to empower the leaders’ continuous improvement efforts
  1. Provided resource connections to subject matter experts through the Region 5 Comprehensive Center, to underpin the application of the NIC 8-step process to improve outcomes
  1. Built the capacity of leaders to transfer knowledge and skills pertaining to implementation and improvement science practices

The NIC approach has been introduced to numerous school divisions across Virginia over the past two years. This year, we are seeing division NIC Champions taking the lead on creating sustainable implementations of NICs at the local level and actively participating in a Community of Practice (CoP) in which they share their successes and challenges with other divisions across the state and region. In the CoP, division NIC teams help their peers work through the different parts of the NIC eight-step process in an honest and collaborative environment. For example, the Portsmouth Public Schools NIC is working on establishing a measurement infrastructure, while the Henrico County Schools NIC team has been sharing its experience with assembling a diverse team of stakeholders. The significant level of respect and engagement among colleagues during these sessions, and the influence this learning experience has on the accuracy of implementing improvement strategies, constitute evidence of the potential that collaboration and collective knowledge sharing can have on continuous improvement efforts. 

Divisional NIC team members participate in regular learning sessions and are able to take advantage of off-cycle coaching opportunities, which are supported by Dr. Kiser-Edwards and Region 5 subject matter experts. Reflecting the success of the Viriginia NIC work at the divisional levels, several Virginia divisional NICs have presented their work to their local boards of education, regional collaboratives with Kentucky and West Virginia NIC Champions, and regional and national conferences, including the 2023 SREB and ESEA Conferences.  

The VDOE-NIC model is an empowering process for division and state leaders as it offers an opportunity for leaders (including me) to own their learning, to really “sit still” to process for professional growth and ultimately impact change that supports all stakeholders. This model is a platform that leaders have requested in an effort to allow them the benefit of working and learning from their peers. The professionalism on display with these Virginia leaders is awe-inspiring! I am so very proud of the Virginia Networked Improvement Community because it encompasses all components of improvement science and implementation science and it has provided our stakeholders a vehicle to make frameworks operational and packaged with a little bow!

April Kiser-Edwards, Ed.D.

To learn more about Region 5’s NIC work with VDOE and various school divisions in Virginia, please visit our NIC resource page.