I work for a fantastic Superintendent, Dr. Marty Lexmond, who has done some incredible things for our district. One of the most important ones was to help us develop a strategic plan through which we established a shared vision for our whole district with specific strategies to achieve it. It was important to clearly define what we hold in common at eighteen school sites, what is a school-based decision, and what is a classroom level decision. He has shifted us to a collaborative leadership model where jobs at our district office became to help schools stay true to our vision while supporting staff through professional development and opportunities to give and receive feedback. A focus on embedding the Deeper Learning competencies: Content Mastery, Collaboration, Communication, Problem Solving, Self-Directed Learning, and Academic Mindset in every classroom is what we have decided to hold in common across all schools. It is work that comes out of the Hewlett Foundation that we have adapted to fit us. The ultimate goal is to ensure our learners drive instruction through authentic opportunities to practice their skills as many times as needed to demonstrate mastery and be ready to live life on their own terms after graduation.
We meet as a leadership team (principals, assistant principals, deans of students, instructional coaches, and district office staff) once a month to professionally grow and make sure we are implementing our strategic plan effectively. Several years ago, in our first year of our plan, we worked on various topics each month. Everyone would leave these sessions energized to do the work, but just like when you go to a professional development session without the time to process and plan, not much carried over into our schools. In the following year, we aligned each meeting to the same topic every month to be more consistent and have opportunities to practice. We would again have great meetings where everyone was committed to implementing our vision, but it still did not always carry over into schools once the meeting had ended and leaders got back into the daily routine of running a busy school.
When we really thought about why that was happening, it became clear that we needed our district-level support and coaching to be far more specific to the work that was being done at each school site and how it connects to our larger vision with much more time for reflection and feedback. We needed to spend time with the team from each school to strengthen our relationships with them and build the support they needed to move forward. Our individual players had many strengths in their roles, but we needed to find better ways to create connections as a team between schools and our district office staff. We needed to find the levers of what was working well at each school and make specific plans for professional development and coaching for growth areas. We had a lot of great work going on in every school, but we were not using our coaches and our teachers to help our bright spots grow as often as we should. We were missing the boat on spending the time learning each school well enough to help them identify their own strengths and take small steps to shift opportunities for growth into strengths.
Our strategic plan is designed around assisting students to find their own pathway and ensuring all students have equitable access to opportunities to make, build, and create as a way to authentically master content in a way that meets their needs. We were pushing towards that vision with learners but were not always doing that with staff. Each school did not need to approach the work in the same exact way. We needed to support each school with the specific professional development required to help the staff in that school realize the school’s vision. The school’s vision is still aligned with our district strategic plan, but it needs to be specific to the staff, learners, and families at that school site and developed by the staff in that school. The overall goal is the same, but the pathway and support to get there for each school are different. It is personalized to the needs of that school and the feedback we get from learners, staff, and families.
Once we identified the problem, we needed to find a possible solution. As a team, we decided to schedule a meeting with each entire administrative school team and our whole Leadership and Learning team individually for about three and a half hours. It was quite a feat to fit them all in during the first part of that first summer, but we got there in the end. We started each meeting by writing out our vision for where that whole school could be in three to five years. We found commonalities between members of our district team and the school’s administrative team, which allowed us to understand better what we were trying to do and be sure we were all on the same page. It was evident that our teams were connected to our strategic plan as elements of it came through from every school, but that each school had its own focus as well. We then wrote out the strengths of what that school was doing well, the opportunities or bright spots that we want to make sure become a consistent part of our practice through coaching, and the weaknesses that need professional development to achieve the vision. These were rich discussions that helped leaders to reflect on where they are, where they are trying to go, and what they need to get there from our district team. We could see when a school was moving too fast or when the school team was not all on the same page, which makes it really hard on teachers.
As we always need to make sure our evidence informs our work, we looked at the evidence we had collected over the last year from an equity lens and answered some questions. For example, is our discipline data disproportionate for students of different races or identifications? How are our students with special needs doing on more traditional measures compared to students without disabilities? We do a Social Emotional Learning survey twice a year that we can disaggregate by grade level, gender, ethnicity, and disability status. Most importantly, our evidence review is what our learners told us in the survey about how they feel about school. Can they self-regulate? Do they feel curious? Have they developed a growth mindset? Do they have a trusted adult at school? Do they have a trusted adult outside of school?
We end the long meeting by setting some short-term goals and a support plan for the school from our district team. What are the one-year markers that would best enable us to get to the five-year vision? What support does the administrative team need to best help teachers, learners, and families? These questions turned into a redesign of our school improvement plans to align with a continuous improvement cycle with concrete action steps to meet the one-year markers with purposeful professional development for teachers and leaders. The plans are intended to be discussed regularly with the staff at each site and adjusted after reflection many times throughout the year. In addition, we now use our monthly leadership meetings to review parts of the plan in small groups with other schools to share progress and get feedback from peers.
The visioning meetings gave us a sense and a plan for continuing to grow each school’s practice as individuals while joining them through a shared district vision at the same time. It pushed us all to embrace change and take risks knowing that there would be support as we established trust and strengthened our relationships. We have seen some amazing bright spots over the last few years with instructional practice across our district that is learner-driven. We will continue to look for ways to grow that to scale, so we have wall-to-wall, bell-to-bell, empowering Deeper Learning classrooms and schools at every school site.
We just started our third year of doing these meetings. It has been amazing to listen to the reflections of each school team and how they have grown over the last three years. They are open about what is going well and where we can improve. The time we have invested has been well worth learning about each school site on a deeper level and hearing how we can help. We don’t do that enough in education- take time to listen, take time to process, take time to celebrate, take time to iterate ideas, and brainstorm together. Whether the big ideas we create at that moment are the right ones or not doesn’t matter. We know we’ll try, collect evidence of success, and iterate along the way to achieve our goals.
Marty says something that resonates with me every time I hear it, “School should not be about what’s wrong; it’s about what’s possible.” These meetings have become about what’s possible for each school. We cast forward to what we can do and how we can make it happen for every learner every day. We have had a couple of these meetings so far this year. It has been incredible to see that despite everything that has been thrown at us this year, it’s still about what’s possible for our learners at every turn.