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Monday, March 21, 2016

From the Beginning

 This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement. They advance in time and concept in book-form beginning on March 21.    

     I have been asked, after posting yesterday's Blog involving practical advice on school improvement experiences gained over my career, to back up a little and start from the beginning of the transformation effort. The reader wanted a comprehensive perspective on "turning around a distressed school." If you sustain your interest through the entire series of postings that chronicle this school improvement process, I promise you  an ending with a twist that will surprise you.

     Here's the background to offer a context.

     I was thirty-four years old and just completed my tenth year as a full-time building principal. After serving as an elementary principal in a Texas school district of thirty-three elementary schools I was anxiously awaiting the outcome of an application I had submitted to become the Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Instruction for the entire school system. 

     Although I was experienced in school leadership, but remained a bit naive in the palace politics of a large school district's central office, as well as bit green regarding politics in general. I was casually classified as a Yankee by my peers, and not in a flattering fashion. The superintendent had hired me five years ago, in 1982. 

    Soon after my arrival, I discovered that the hiring process for me was unprecedented in the district. It turned out that the Director of Elementary Education had hired every other principal for the last twenty years. The past practice had left its mark on the composition of the elementary principals.  There was one Black elementary principal and a lone Latino building leader among the group of thirty-three - now joined by a Yankee.  

     There was no way that an outsider would be hired for the position I desired, but I didn't know that then. I did receive a phone call on the night of the decision. However, it was neither a congratulatory message, nor a "thanks, but no thanks" notice. Instead, I was asked by the interim Superintendent if I would be interested in serving as principal of a junior high school. Not just any junior high school, but without question the lowest performing school, at any level, in the system's forty-five schools. I was shocked by the question, and further surprised because there was no principal vacancy among the eight junior high schools. 

     It should be pointed out that this was a district that did not dismiss failing staff members. Rather, they engaged in what was generally accepted as, "the dance of the lemons" whereby individuals were moved around the vast number of schools within the district until they retired. This prevented any toxic impact on one school for a lengthy period of time. 

     The interim Superintendent simply explained that the principal was no longer working there. In fact, he and the assistant principal had been dismissed. I later learned it was reported that an eighth grader had a gun in his locker and the administrators retrieved it from his locker and sent him back to class. The teachers signed a petition that was sent to the state education agency, which prompted the state's intervention and subsequent quick action by the school district. I should also add that Texas school districts do not have unions as we know them in New York. They are represented by associations, lacking the political bargaining leverage of typical unions here.

     The offer seemed like an appealing opportunity. After all, the school could only go up! In fact, I woke up in the middle of that night and began jotting down ideas until I had a long list of prospective plans. Armed with that bit of optimism, and the perception (later proved accurate) that the central office exercised a nonchalant, benign neglect of the low socio-economic, high need schools, I was eager to start work. 

     I suspected (also later proved correct) that I could employ a wide latitude in developing programs and practices unfettered of the intervention of upper layers of bureaucracy. It was informally reported to me, off the record, that as long as there were no race riots at the school, I was free of the reaches of central office staff. Containment was the policy. Low expectations were the norm. I woke up in the middle of the night writing down ideas until I had a long list of prospective plans.

     The next day I shared the news with the few close friends I had among the group of elementary principals. Not only was I the only principal from north of Oklahoma, but only two of the thirty-three principals were near my age. My friends reacted as if I announced I had been diagnosed with cancer. There were condolences, not congratulations. Soon thereafter, I heard there were bets being placed by principals on how long I would last there - the young white Yankee in an underfunded, under-served, miserable school dominated by racial minorities and disenfranchised parents, with teachers who annually sought transfers within the district to escape. It seems the over-under was six months away, around Christmas.

     Let's start here.

Educational Alchemy 

     The World Book dictionary provides the following figurative definition of the word “alchemy.” 
     “A magical or mysterious power or process

of transforming one thing into another.”  (p. 50)  

     The term is often used to explain the process studied during the Middle-Ages that combined chemistry, magic, and philosophy in an attempt to find or prepare a substance which turned cheaper metals into gold or silver. 

     What does this have to do with school improvement?

     Many public schools find themselves involved in a similar quest for a conversion formula to transform themselves into highly effective schools where all constituent groups experience success and meet their potential. This improvement process also involves chemistry, magic, and philosophy. However, the record of performance on school transformation may not be much better than that of metal transformation. 

     Thirty-eight years as a school leader has provided a unique perspective on the issues and problems confronting schools. This career has spanned work in five different states, in environments as varied as a high minority, low socio-economic, urban junior high; a virtually all-white, affluent high school; and a rural elementary school experiencing rapidly changing demographics. Good fortune has accompanied this odyssey; being recognized as the Principal of the Year in a region of 120 different school districts in New York while serving as the leader of a school routinely awarded the highest achievement standard in the state as a High Performing/Gap Closing School; and receiving the John and Mary O’Brien Award for Educational Excellence in Texas, along with flattering recognition in varied media outlets.
     This Blog compilation will be organized in two separate parts. Part One focuses on the following components: 
Mission, Vision, Database, Goals, Culture, Change, and Empowerment. 

     These conceptual frames are expressed in individual chapters. Part Two offers a narrative of the transformations of two vastly different schools as a means of providing practical applications of school improvement tactics - the conversion of an urban junior high in Texas plagued by the social ills of crime and drugs into a distinguished school later described by one of its learners as “a school of hope; and the emergence of a forlorn rural school in upstate New York that languished beneath the weight and resigned acceptance of being “good enough, or average.”  
     One of my hobbies is magic; hence the reference to alchemy. Magic is an intriguing subject. It also looks good on your resume, particularly when more and more school leaders are expected to routinely exercise magic on the job. I regularly employ magic in workshops on school improvement as a visual cue to introduce or reinforce key leverage points. Many people retain elements of the highlighted concept because they associate it with the effect of the trick.  
     Most of us, at one time or another, have been held spellbound by a magician. Early in my career I was curious enough, following an entertaining show, to seek additional information on magic. This interest led me to a purchase at a store specializing in magic.  
     As soon as I bought the trick the proprietor demonstrated it to me. Needless to say, I was disappointed at how easy it was to perform the sleight of hand. What at one time appeared so amazing was surprisingly easy when the process was slowed down and reduced to discrete parts that revealed the “magic.”  
     Magic and the process of school improvement share that same serendipitous feature. Once someone exhibits the proper steps the “trick” becomes much more understandable and attainable than previously imagined.

     Tomorrow marks the introduction of the process of school improvement, providing a context as well as an explanation of transformation strategies.  

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