From Practice

In Silver Hill School District, Superintendent Gray has always worked to improve the programs and practices available to all students. But in the past several years, he has especially addressed the needs of at-risk students. Gray, a careful observer of the educational environment, is attuned to his state department of education's standards for student learning, to other rules and regulations, and, in addition, to the opportunities the department provides for assistance. Thus, in planning to analyze and respond to the needs of the at-risk student, Gray invited state department consultants to access and organize a wide array of data about the district, past and present, and about its students, specifically students at-risk. These data were explored by a team representing all elements of the district's educational personnel, and community business and service organizations. Knowing the community context and scanning the internal professional education environment, Gray involved all relevant parties: teachers, parents, the Chamber of Commerce, the Bureau of Human Services, the Girl and Boy Scouts Associations, to name a few, in addressing the needs of at-risk students. As a result, the team targeted language development and math competencies for improvement.

Because a district mission statement that promised to address the needs and potential of all students had been developed the prior year, Gray was able to develop and articulate his vision more effectively. To all constituents, he pictured the students, regardless of gender, age, race, or socio-economic class, moving across the gymnasium stage receiving a diploma. To make this dream a reality, he used key staff members, principals, teachers, and parents, to assist in identifying goals and objectives that would guide the district to the vision. The superintendent, at the "visioning" stage, was not an expert on at-risk programs and policies. He learned all he could by asking questions of other administrative and teaching staff, seeking expertise and resources wherever they could be found. Additionally, he sought help from external sources, such as the state administrator's association and a local college. In all ways, he demonstrated interest in, commitment to, and a belief in pursuing change in the district to accomplish new outcomes for the district's children.

Over time, Gray helped individual principals in each of the schools to develop shared leadership practices, to develop trusting relationships with the staff and parents, and to organize school improvement teams composed of principals, teachers, and parents (creating context). He provided training to them to work with their school staff, and campus improvement plans resulted. Each school team and faculty received training and support in their change effort so that they might be effectively involved in the improvement process. While each school staff's plans reflected the unique needs of their particular school, they all were guided by the vision of improved outcomes for students at-risk articulated initially by Gray.

It's one thing to talk and dream and plan; it's another thing to take action and actually get people to change their behaviors and beliefs. Superintendent Gray became a student of implementation, and a model for the school-based administrators to follow.

Through monthly meetings with individual team members, he reviewed and assessed (checking progress) the knowledge and skills of the district improvement team that included central office supervisors and the principals of the six schools in the district. At bi-weekly meetings with principals he shared information, reviewed resources needed and available. Together they clearly articulated expected outcomes along with long range and short term goals, and established timelines and anticipated stages of development (planning and providing resources). At these meetings, expectations for change-related roles and responsibilities were defined. Ample opportunities were provided for discussing the procedures and process. Principals reported on progress, problems, and concerns with their own school-based teams (assessing progress). As time progressed, the meetings became trouble-shooting and problem-solving sessions. Periodically, principals brought other members of their campus improvement teams for sharing and to report.

The district and campus improvement teams received training in using change process tools and techniques (see Winter, 1990 edition of Issues...about Change) to support implementation of their campus improvement plans; these plans addressed a new district-wide mathematics problem solving curriculum, plus language development strategies selected by each school. Faculties and administrators designed a system of ongoing professional development to learn the new curriculum and instructional strategies. School improvement teams became skillful in conducting training sessions with the staff. In addition, they modeled and demonstrated the new behaviors required of the change. They addressed openly the staff's initial fears and the setbacks they all experienced as they prepared for and began implementing the new practices (continuous assistance).

Importantly, Superintendent Gray had engaged the Board of Trustees in the goal and mission statement development for the district, and had shared a summary of the disaggregated data that identified areas of need in the district's program. Thus, when a columnist for the community's weekly newspaper attacked the superintendent because of the resources required to support the improvement efforts, the Board stepped in to "help the media understand the important activity underway" and to support the effort. The Board had been involved in the process from the start and was an active supporter of the proposed school improvement efforts and changes.

The media incident was not the only disruption of Silver Hill's improvement effort. The manipulative materials for developing mathematical concepts and problem solving skills, due to be delivered to all of the schools, were delayed due to a shipping problem at the production location. Several weeks elapsed while principals, improvement teams, and central office monitored both classroom practice and resource needs. When it was determined that implementation was on hold awaiting the math manipulatives, the administrators decided it was time for serious "coping." Canvassing the community, they found an abandoned lumber yard's stack of "widgets and gizmos," excellent substitutions for the materials needed. Instruction resumed, monitoring continued, and progress resulted.

When the leaders noted frustration mounting or a lack of focus with the new materials, continuing assistance activities or celebrations for accomplishments would occur. Superintendent Gray might appear in a school to encourage staff, or write a note of appreciation. During such difficult times, he would restate the vision and its expected outcomes. Periodically, principals visited classrooms to ask students to explain their work, and to thank teachers for their effects on children. Gray and the principals were supportive and noticeably visible throughout the process of change.

The superintendent regularly requested feedback and debriefing from the district team and encouraged principals to solicit reactions from their teams (assessing progress). Over time, ultimate responsibility was shifted to the school teams, empowering the members with the job of monitoring the staff's change efforts, followed by coaching and technical assistance to the teachers. The teams became known as collegial cheerleaders, coaches, and counselors to their peers.

Three years have passed and the district leadership have developed understandings and skills for guiding and supporting change. The district's capacity to change itself has increased as its leaders have learned to apply persuasion and press for change, along with assistance and support to the staff. These two elements, pressure and support, have been specified by numerous researchers (Fullan, 1991; Hord & Huling-Austin, 1986; Huberman & Miles, 1986; McLaughlin, 1987) as the "bottom line" for accomplishing change. Providing this delicate balance is one of the absolute necessities of leaders' involvement in planning and implementing change.

As the research and practice have shown, leaders bring about change by

  • developing and articulating a shared vision of improvement,
  • planning and providing resources and needed organizational arrangements,
  • investing in training and ongoing professional development,
  • monitoring progress and needs,
  • providing continuous assistance, and
  • creating an environment supportive of individuals in the process of change.

Through these major categories of actions, leaders fulfill the requirements for successful change.

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Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 1, Number 2, Leadership: An Imperative for Successful Change (2000)