Some teachers say a new training program in D.C. Public Schools helps them better understand their students and leads to better lesson planning. (iStock)

Kelly Vergamini feared that a revamped training program for teachers in D.C. Public Schools was going to be a waste of her time. To her, many of the professional development sessions the school system offered teachers had felt that way.

But after spending 90 minutes each Wednesday morning for the past four months with other teachers at H.D. Cooke Elementary, Vergamini said the new approach to improving teachers’ skills feels different.

“We were all a little apprehensive, thinking it was just going to be like the old professional development,” Vergamini said. “These sessions are impactful on our teaching, and that’s what we wanted. It provides opportunities for professional growth.”

The school system’s new teacher-training model, known as Learning Together to Advance Our Practice LEAP is a move away from training sessions that focus on general teaching practices, such as classroom management, to a program tailored to improve a teacher’s instructional skills.

DCPS is focusing its training dollars at the school level, where teachers meet weekly with a coach who is an expert in the subject they teach. The teachers meet in small groups of colleagues who teach the same subject, and the coach helps the teachers think through lesson plans and review student work to reshape their teaching practices if a student is not understanding certain concepts.

Many teachers and school system leaders across the country see teacher-training practices as a waste of time and money. A 2015 study by TNTP, a nonprofit organization focused on teacher quality, estimated that school districts spend $18,000 per teacher annually on development efforts, yet there is little evidence that professional development consistently helps teachers improve in the classroom.

TNTP chief executive Daniel Weisberg said LEAP has the potential to be successful because it is focused on improving specific areas of teaching, has clear goals and has a way to measure whether goals are being met. While other school systems have aspects of LEAP’s model built into their training programs, Weisberg said DCPS is the first in the country to roll out a program such as this across all its schools.

“This is the opposite of a one-shot workshop,” Weisberg said.

That’s what Vergamini was used to. She described previous training sessions in the District as a “presentation in the dark” inside a school theater.

Vergamini’s experience with LEAP looks much different. During a recent training session, Vergamini, a third- to fifth-grade special-education teacher at Cooke, spent 90 minutes with the school’s English language arts teachers for the same grades. Their coach, Brittany Skipper, led them through a discussion about how to help students interpret a complex reading passage.

Skipper played a video of an instructor giving a similar lesson in a classroom. The Cooke teachers then talked about the types of questions the instructor asked to get the students to analyze the text and how they could incorporate those practices in their upcoming lessons.

The teachers also pored over their students’ essays together. The teachers provided ideas for how to retool their lessons based on the concepts the students appeared to have missed.

Kristina Probst, a fifth-grade English language arts teacher at Cooke, said she believes the new training model is helping her become a better teacher because she is able to get constructive feedback from other educators. Before LEAP, Probst said, she felt she was attending professional development sessions simply to meet a requirement.

“You came for four hours so that your principal wouldn’t fuss at you,” Probst said. “This time, everyone is engaged. We are there to share and collaborate.”

The head of the Washington Teachers’ Union, Elizabeth Davis, said that the program is working in some schools, such as Cooke, that have more flexibility in scheduling and staff but that not all schools have received the money needed to support the program. She said some teachers now have less individual time to create lesson plans.

Davis hopes the next chancellor of the school system will work with the union to “fix the many problems of LEAP before continuing the program.”