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.