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SURN addresses need for school leader collaboration and professional development with new 4:00 Focus program

  • SURN 4:00 Focus
    The School-University Resource Network (SURN)  began in 1994 as a partnership of the W&M School of Education and Virginia K-12 school divisions to conduct relevant research and provide professional development in order to promote quality teaching and learning.  
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While under lockdown during the 2020-2021 school year, W&M’s School-University Resource Network (SURN) heard from principals across the state that they were feeling isolated and were missing opportunities to collaborate and learn with one another. Principals need opportunities to continue their own learning and growing[1], and opportunities to learn with other principals are particularly critical[2], especially for principals in rural districts where professional communities of practice are fewer and geographically far. To fill these needs, SURN took action, establishing the 4:00 Focus program. As SURN’s Executive Director Amy Colley M.A.Ed. ’90, M.Ed. ’01, Ed.D. ’14 explains, “This initiative has been our center’s response to this field-based concern.”

The 4:00 Focus, which utilizes technology to bring school leaders together virtually, invites administrators to pause once a month at 4:00 p.m. to join their community of peers for an interactive webinar. Each webinar focuses on principals' professional learning needs and provides a forum for critical conversations about current educational topics. To help principals devote uninterrupted time to their own growth and development, Colley, who facilitates the sessions, urges principals to close their doors and hang the provided “Do Not Disturb: Professional Learning in Progress” door signs as a visual cue to others that they participate in and value ongoing professional learning.

Each month, the 4:00 Focus targets a timely and actionable topic. “We began conversations around equity concerns, and we have moved through many critical topics over these eight months,” explains Colley. Other topics have included social emotional learning, deeper learning, balanced assessment, and feedback to teachers. Each session begins with a welcome and recap of the previous month, followed by new content presented by an expert from the university or the field. The sessions conclude with time for reflection and a call to one action step for the coming week. To facilitate principals’ engagement and reflection, SURN has provided a reflection guide where participants can capture their emerging thoughts, questions, and action steps.

Sixty school leaders across the Commonwealth of Virginia from 17 different school divisions have attended the 4:00 Focus this year. Participants come from a mixture of elementary, middle and high schools, as well as regional technical centers and central offices. “One of the biggest benefits for me is being able to network with colleagues across the state,” says participant Margo Bruce, principal of Fluvanna County High School.

Superintendent of Cumberland County Public Schools Chip Jones invited all of his administrators to participate in the 4:00 Focus as a way to focus on professional learning and collaborate on issues that could be implemented division-wide. “The collaborative experiences have been beneficial to our building level leaders because they have provided an avenue for growth, collaboration and networking,” comments Jones.

Other participants are finding great benefit from the targeted professional development sessions as well. “In the 4:00 Focus sessions, the collaboration and interactions with other principals have been a great benefit. Just hearing situations or issues that other principals and assistant principals are facing helps me when I face similar issues,” observes Francine Davis, principal of Sinai Elementary School in Halifax, Virginia. With travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic, the 4:00 Focus has allowed principals to connect with others and continue their learning from the safety of their own offices.

For interested school leaders, there is one 4:00 Focus session remaining in the 2021-2022 school year. This session, on May 17, will focus on design thinking for school leaders.  You can learn more and register here. SURN will be offering the 4:00 Focus again next year as well and encourages you to participate. You can contact SURN at for more information about registering and to share your suggestions for next year’s topics.

[1] (Westbury & Zhao, 2021)

[2] (Wells et al., 2021)

The research findings referenced above can be found at Wells, Chimka, & Kaur (2021) and Westbury & Zaho (2021).