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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Last Chapter

       (This represents the end of the series of posts that began on March 21st and chronicled the story of a school improvement process at an inner-city junior high school)

     One aspect of the conversion of junior high schools to middle schools was captured in the surveys that the district’s central office anonymously administered to parents, learners, and staff throughout the city. These instruments were designed to obtain feedback on what people thought about their junior high school in an effort to create baseline data in the form of a pre-test and post-test with respect to what they felt about middle schools after the following year. 
     The results, published throughout the school district, provided convincing evidence that Mann was held in much higher esteem by it’s parents, staff, and learners than any other school was by their similar constituencies.xiv 
     One of the most personally satisfying moments for me during this wonderful experience was the opportunity to model praise and reinforcement with the staff. There appears to be some general misunderstanding among secondary level educators that the warm and fuzzy notes of praise for learners is something that is confined to little kids at the elementary level. Mysteriously, the need for such a tool disappears during the summer between sixth and seventh grade. 
     A climate where everyone recognized the need to work together was necessary if we intended to stimulate significant change. An important aspect of such a goal includes a healthy exchange of recognition and praise. As in most cases, the leader must accept the responsibility for inviting change by willingly demonstrating the desired behavior as an example. 
     With that in mind, I sequestered myself in my office one Sunday afternoon with the names and addresses of the parents of each and every staff member at Horace Mann. I composed personalized letters of praise that acknowledged the tremendous success of our school. In addition, every letter contained a specific contribution made by the particular individual. These notes were then forwarded, unknown to the staff members, to their parents with a concluding, “thanks for instilling the values and beliefs in (insert name of staff member) that have resulted in significant contributions here at Horace Mann Junior High School.”  
     Very soon thereafter I was visited by a succession of individuals, several with eyes welled up with tears, who came by the office and described their surprise when contacted by their proud parents with news of receiving a glowing note about their “child”, many of whom were in their forties and fifties and long since confused as a kid anymore.  
     I still keep the gratifying letters I received from the parents of staff members who wanted to share the pride they felt about their offspring. One parent letter in particular stated that although their son was a hardworking and successful person he had never distinguished himself to the degree that he excelled at anything in high school,… but they always knew he was special and the letter I had sent to them confirmed this belief – even though they had to wait until their son was in his thirties. 
     Two heartfelt notes were received from a couple of custodians. One was an admission that disclosed how she had always been embarrassed to admit where she worked. But not anymore. She was so proud of the progress at Mann that she now brags about where she works. The other was by a custodian whose father was a bus driver with the school district. He claimed that on the day his father received the letter he went into each and every school he picked up children and broadcast the message to all who would listen.    
     Needles to say, there was a dramatic increase in notes of praise sent home by our staff members to their learners. It proved to be like a small pebble dropped into a pond, its ripples of concentric circles expanding far beyond the point it was dropped. 
     Another sign of our acceptance by the greater community was the reference that the mayor of Amarillo made at a breakfast meeting of civic leaders sharing an interest in revitalizing the economically beleaguered city. He cited the specific accomplishments of the school (academic pep rallies) in transforming itself and claimed that Horace Mann Junior High was an example of what could be done across the city.xv  
     When everything was done at the end of that first year we had a school we would want to attend if we were teenagers, a school we would want to have our own children attend, and a school where we were proud to work. Most of all, we had, as one student proudly declared in the school survey, a “school of hope.” 
The End 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

ACADEMIC Pep Rallies

There were a steady stream of events orchestrated and rituals developed in reshaping the culture of the school. A list of local dignitaries was compiled to serve as prospects for academic pep rallies. Yes, academic pep rallies. Those ceremonies conducted at the end of each marking period to renew our vows to Aim HIGH. Bands played, cheerleaders cheered, erstwhile rap artists performed raps related to the 4A’s, and speakers urged the kids onward.  
     These volunteers signed on and pledged support in various ways. We hosted Elisha Demerson, a graduate of Mann and the first African-American to be elected a county judge in the history of Texas. There was a former Olympic quality downhill skier who was paralyzed in a ski accident and fought her way back to the victory circle – this time in the international competitions held for the handicapped. One of our own teachers, a young woman who fled from Uganda and the treacherous regime of Idi Amin, shared how she had overcome misfortune and met with success. The editor of the local newspaper offered worthwhile advice. John Marmaduke, the progress, civic minded CEO of Western Merchandisers/Hastings Books not only shared his personal philosophy on success but also supplied hundreds of dollars of gift certificates as valuable incentives and rewards. Texas Panhandle oil tycoon, T. Boone Pickens, was another tremendous source of support. He took notice of our billboard mission advertisements and the stories of success in the media and provided thousands of dollars to improve the school’s appearance. Mr. Pickens sent his company’s horticulturist over with a proposal to landscape the grounds of the school. In addition, dozens of employees from Pickens’ Mesa Limited Partnership combined with hundreds of our learners one Saturday morning to actually perform the task of digging and planting all of the plants, shrubs Each of the speakers, without prodding, focused their personal presentations on how they had Aimed HIGH in their life. 
     We were fortunate to be adopted by a number of businesses. The more success we encountered and the more publicity we attracted, the more partners we experienced. However, holding our hand out was not going to solve long term problems. In fact, dependency upon outside sources would only reinforce enabling behaviors that would not empower us for the future. Therefore, we took the unprecedented step and adopted another school! That’s right. We adopted the elementary school down the block. Our Student Council supplied met with the administration of the elementary school and submitted a proposal for a mutually beneficial relationship. They provided the school with $500.00 to fund a recognition and reward system fashioned after the 4A program. In this manner, they reached out to our “vendor” or “supplier” in an effort to indoctrinate the kids who would eventually come to Mann. 
     One of our Adopters was the fast-food seafood chain, Long John Silvers. They had a store near the school and offered certificates as incentives and extended their facility as a casual meeting place, complete with free refreshments, for the Student Council. Again, to avoid the perception of needy kids looking for a handout, we insisted that Long John Silverslike all of our partners in the adopt a school program, receive services from us as well. It would be a two way street. 
     It turned out that the store had a need for placemats. Specifically, placemats of a utilitarian design that would serve a purpose beyond the obvious. They wanted something that could occupy their patrons so the wait for their food was not noticeable. Our Art department organized a contest for attractive and functional designs. Kids created representations depicting a seafood motif, together with crossword puzzles, word finds, and mazes that were directly related to the Aim HIGH and 4A programs at Mann. 
     I was surprised one day to receive a phone call from a regional marketing representative from Long John Silver’s who happened to be visiting the local store and expressed an interest in buying one of the designs. I referred him to the young man who was responsible for the work and they negotiated a settlement that included a job.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cultivating a Culture for Change

Cultivating a Culture for Change 

     Shortly after that first six week marking period there was a district wide staff development day set-aside for the eight junior high schools. The objective of that day was to become involved in a plan to convert to middle schools. I had planned something in preparation for the first opportunity for our staff to interact with their colleagues following the announcement of academic improvement. 
     I took the staff roster and went to a local printing company. Letterhead and business cards were made up for each staff member. These items were practical because our staff, be they teachers who meet with parents,… or custodians who meet with supply salesmen,… have a need to exchange information via personalized school stationery. Another benefit was promoting a sense of pride in who we are. 
     It worked! During that staff development day our teachers proudly distributed business cards to their colleagues as a means of encouraging communication within the district. The looks on the faces of those handing out the cards and those receiving the cards spoke volumes. Teachers appeared unashamed to show they taught at Mann. The recipients appeared both puzzled and envious. Before the day was concluded two junior high principals who wanted to know where I got the business cards printed contacted me. 
     To meet with success we realized that we had to take an alternative road. We had been stuck behind all the other schools like a car stuck behind slow moving tractor trailers on winding, hilly country roads lacking a passing lane. We were so far behind that we would never get ahead by doing what everyone else was doing. 
     On the evening of Open House something happened that would not have been better if it had been purposely orchestrated. Not only did the school enjoy a greater turn out of parents than it had in memory, but the parents assembled in the auditorium reacted with a standing ovation after the introduction of the staff. This remains one of the most memorable moments in my leadership career. 
     Copies of encouraging news articles on the school began cropping up everywhere in the school, around the staff lounge, the copy machine, bulletin boards, and the main foyer. It was like a snowball gathering mass as it descended a hill. 
     I spoke at local, regional, state, and national venues and shared with pride the work at Horace Mann. We had regular visits by contingents representing schools in and out of Texas who had heard of Mann and desired more information. 
     Before the end of the first year we were receiving inquiries from parents of children in other schools who wanted information on transferring to Mann. Teachers no longer requested transfers out of Mann. Instead, as the district approached the move toward middle schools that would change from a grades 7, 8, 9 configuration to a 6, 7, 8 format we had transfer requests from 6th grade teachers who wanted to come to Mann.  

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Proof is in the Pudding (or the Art work)

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

     The newspaper headlines that first six weeks proclaimed improvement. We were headed in the right direction. Our hard work was being recognized. We made progress and now felt capable of even more. 
     There are many different means of measuring success in schools. The choice of instruments or benchmarks in evaluating the progress of a school is the source of heated political debate. However, one of the most interesting and unique perspectives I’ve ever heard was proposed and carried out by an Art teacher at Horace Mann. 
     Toward the end of what would prove to be an extraordinary year of success at the school the Art teacher, Mr. Kirk, asked me to come to his room for a special exhibit of work. He had privately conducted an interesting study on how learners expressed themselves as a reflection of their attitude and self-perception.
     On one side of the room he had a number of pieces of student work completed during the first two weeks of school. The other side of the room contained art work by the same artists during the last two weeks of the year. 
     The contrast was striking. The early work was characterized by small objects captured in dull colors. Those works that featured people revealed small faces that were rendered in profiles. The later work was as opposite as could be. These pieces showcased bright colors that filled the paper and included people as subjects – people who wore positive facial expressions as they looked at the viewer. 

     The Art teacher explained that he had given the same two classes the same simple instructions: Use whatever medium you wish and provide an example of your work. He concluded by stating that this year had been transforming. His evidence was the art work that reflected the changes he witnessed in the teenagers during the course of the year. They were more confident, optimistic, and openly expressive t the end of the school year than they were at the beginning.
     As I viewed the exhibit and interpreted the findings, I realized how narrow experts are regarding their assessments of school performance. Rather, the sense of how well a school is operating must not solely rely on facts and figures (hard data), but also incorporate faces and feelings (the personal, soft edge). This was a truly enlightening experience that reaffirmed my investment in growing people as the core element in school improvement. It reinforced my commitment to the credo - "People don't care what you know, until they know that you care."

Thursday, May 19, 2016

We're In This Together

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

     The next marking period was met with 71% of the student body passing all of their classes.x Another school was surpassed. At the end of the year we would be fourth among the eight schools. The progress was not lost on the media. Print and film reporters gravitated to the school to find out what was going on. As word spread so did pride among the staff and students. Suddenly, we were threatening the other schools in something more than sports. One school was insecure enough that the principal got on the intercom during morning announcements and made it a point to alert the students of that school that Mann was right behind them, as if we were the Mongols at the city gates! 
     Achievement involved more than learner outcomes. I met with teachers as individuals, in clusters, as well as an entire faculty. Staff development was face to face in a number of different meetings and encouraged through more subtle acts like distributing articles on teacher expectations and student achievement. Terms such as wait time and cognitive dissonance were heard here and there in the hallways and lounge. The language of learning was essential to a culture of teaching and learning at Mann. 
     The only other regret I have in terms of an idea not carried to fruition, was my inability to convince a local bank to provide $250,000 in cash, complete with ever present guards, for a demonstration of the difference in earning power among high school drop-outs and high school graduates over the course of their working career. These kids lived in a very concrete, short term oriented, environment. Staring at all that money and the uniformed, armed attendants would certainly dramatize the point and bring it to life.
(I was later successful in producing this 
demonstration as superintendent of Green Island, 
but the figure had increased to $348,000)
     Acceptance by those outside of Mann had been elusive. The energy and effort expended in the past resembled the futility of a child trying to catch his shadow. Nonetheless, the goal of acceptance, the significance of which is mentioned in Abraham Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of needs, remained the object of most everyone at Mann.   
     We would not be accepted by anyone until we were accepted by ourselves. We had to come to grips with who we were. Racially, the 587 learners were 43% Anglo, 31% African American, 23% Mexican American, and 3% Asian American. Financially, the learner population was over 75% free or reduced lunch.xi Instructionally, the staff was comprised either of people who harbored good intentions but had been previously jousting at windmills as they attempted to change the world, or people who had been assigned to Mann by the personnel department because they were not necessarily considered effective and were placed there because an apathetic parent community would not know the difference. 
     None of us, including me, appeared confident of ourselves or secure with who we were. A member of the Board of Education would later reveal to me that the interim superintendent had assigned me to Mann because he hoped “the Yankee” would be swallowed up by the vast maladies facing the school. 
     This acknowledgment of perceived deficiencies and a concomitant sense of urgency provided the essential drive for acceptance. I presented a case for a framework for improving relations with our customers by explaining the five factors cited in Ron Zemke’s Service America! Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service, 1) Reliability, 2) Responsiveness, 3) Assurance, 4) Empathy, and 5) Tangibles.xii Successful application of these principles would offer some leverage to lift us in our efforts.  
     Next, it was my responsibility to exercise the two major challenges of a leader, articulating a vision of a better future in ways that would be inviting, inspiring, believable and attainable, and facilitating the pursuit of the vision. 
     I began with the aforementioned speech on the first day of school that disclosed my own background and hopes. I then had the first six weeks of school to establish a platform for success. That was the period of time before the report card marks came out and served as the measuring stick used by the two local newspapers to determine the layperson’s perception of school performance. The future hinged upon our ability to demonstrate success in six weeks. Anything short of improvement would dilute the motivating activities developed to urge the staff and learners onward. I didn’t really know whether the sandcastle I helping to construct was beyond the reaches of the waves signaling a rising tide.  

     I recognized anyone who approximated desired behaviors and encouraged others to express their appreciation for people doing the right thing. I put in as many hours and as much sweat as possible, attempting to be everywhere and everything. It was difficult work. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Totem Pole and Symbol Management

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

     The totem pole arrived at school. The head custodian and I spent part of one Saturday painting wooden boxes. We had eight boxes, one for each of the eight junior high schools in the district. We painted each box the school colors of the corresponding school. We did not identify them by name. Then, in white paint, we painted the number indicating the percentage of learners at each school who passed all of their classes during the most recent six week marking period. For the first marking period that year we used figures from the end of the previous academic year. 
     Then we stacked the boxes on top of each other with the school with the lowest percentage (Mann) on the bottom. At the end of last year Mann only had 52% of the student body passing all of their classes.viii As soon as we finished we placed the totem pole smack dab in the middle of the busiest hallway intersection in the building, the front foyer and main hall. There would be no way that anyone would miss it.   
     That was it. No one else was informed of the significance of the totem pole. The structure even attracted the interest of the staff. Whenever anyone asked about it I simply told him or her that it would be revealed later in the week at the next academic pep assembly. 
     With an extremely competitive student body, you could imagine the feeling permeating the auditorium when the kids realized how they were at the bottom of all schools. I challenged them to put forth more effort at working smarter not harder. The totem pole would remain there all year with updates after every six week marking period. 
     This precipitated a flurry of responses. Teachers created hallway bulletin board displays based around Aim High themes. There were hot air balloons lifting academic progress, rockets blasting off toward success, and other interesting exhibits. 
     Perhaps the most significant change induced by the challenge was adopted by the football coaches. The head coach went out on a limb, against accepted logic, and instructed that the team would skip a practice each week and head to the cafeteria after school and hit the books instead of the tackling dummies. This was particularly noteworthy in Texas where football assumes mythic proportions in life and the length of a coaching career depends on wins and losses. The coach traded practices with study in hopes that it would serve the team better if more of them remained academically eligible than if they perfected techniques but had the team decimated by poor grades. (the team claimed the city championship at the end of the season) 
     I reinforced the coach. He knew that I played collegiate athletics and was an ardent supporter of sports. He also understood the bigger picture. I shared a copy of an article written by Senator Bill Bradley, a Rhodes Scholar from Princeton and a valuable member of a past New York Knicks NBA championship team.ix The piece was on the exploitation of athletes. The article emphasized that the odds of becoming a professional athlete were 10,000 to 1. It’s okay to dream, I reminded the athletes, but if you don’t get an education as a safety net for your future you may just end up being the star playing ball down at the park while you’re on your way to welfare agency. 
     To illustrate the point I imagined a scenario that would provide a concrete example. I read the article while box after box of toothpicks were piled up behind me. Once I finished reading, I place a single maroon (our school color) toothpick among in the stack of and asked an athlete to pull out the maroon stick blindfolded. They laughed at first, but when a volunteer failed to pick out the maroon toothpick their laughs turned into nervous chuckling. They now realized the odds against success would require them to become much more attentive. That’s a clear way to present a persuasive argument. 
     There was a sense of anxiety throughout the building on the eve of the local newspaper’s publication of the district wide results of the first marking period. We invited the superintendent to attend our academic pep rally the next day when the figures were unveiled. The totem pole was placed on the stage. The anticipation was genuine. 
     Without saying a word, the superintendent and I rearranged the boxes to demonstrate that we were not last anymore. At 64% we had surpassed one of the other junior high schools. The audience cheered. Many stood and applauded! Our work was far from finished, but confidence was climbing. We were Aiming HIGH.