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Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Vision: From the Beginning

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.

     I was gripped by fear as soon as I returned the phone to its cradle. The evening hours had been spent pacing the floors of my home, waiting and hoping for the call. It was the time of summer that personnel decisions were made in the Amarillo School District. The ringing was supposed to signal the announcement that I was selected to be the new director of elementary education for the public schools of AmarilloTexas. Instead of receiving a promotion from my elementary principal position, I was shocked to hear that I was being asked by the interim superintendent to become the next principal of Horace Mann Junior High School 
     The news was confusing because I wasn’t even aware that there was an opening at the school. More out of bewilderment than logic, I readily accepted the change and the challenge. 
     I recovered enough to make several quick phone calls to other principals in hope of acquiring information from them on the school. The size of the district, (thirty three elementary schools, eight junior high schools, and four high schools), prevented me from having a depth of knowledge about Horace Mann Junior High. Each conversation ended with condolences rather than congratulations, as if I had informed them I had been diagnosed with cancer. The gravity of the situation soon began to engulf me.  
     Further inquiries convinced me that the school was in terrible condition. Every form of measurement revealed negative statistics. Attendance was depressed, morale was dispirited, staff transfer requests had piled up, turnover was high, and discipline problems (a total of 525 days of suspensions for drugs, weapons… for a student body of 600 during the just completed school yeariv) were enormous. Apathy and pessimism covered the school like old, parched paint on barren walls. 
     I sank into a comfortable chair, sat still for a long time, and stared into nowhere before seeking refuge in sleep. I didn’t share the news with my wife. Too much undigested data. I had to chew on everything first. 
     The tossing and turning abruptly ended when I quietly exited the bed and tip toed out to the living room. It was 4:00 am. I grabbed a pencil and something to write on and began jotting down thoughts, words, ideas, and figures. The scribbling went on for over thirty minutes. When I was finished, I had the blueprint for what was to become a school of hope, a school where I would want to go if I was a junior high student, a school where I wouldn’t mind sending my own two children, a school where I would be proud to work as a staff member.  
     That manifesto, pencil scratches on the back of some envelope I had picked up in the middle of the night, contained the outline for a far better Horace Mann Junior High School. It began with the foundation for the school, a two word, one breath mission - Aim HIGH; it continued with an explanation of the formula for success, the 4 A’s: Attitude + Attendance + Achievement = Acceptance;v ceremonies like academic pep assemblies featuring learning cheers, rap songs pushing the 4 A’s, and trophies for each category of the 4 A’s; stories developed around the creation of heroes among the current learner population and the recognition of legends emerging from an analysis of the school’s history; symbol management promoting values using the Gold Card, the Totem Pole, placemats, school stationery, rubber stamps, business cards for all employees; and much more.  
     As the leader of the school I assumed the responsibility for creating the vision. I had to sincerely and deeply believe in the concept if I expected to share it with others and enlist them in following along. I had to be able to submerge myself in it, feel it, see it, and touch it, if I wanted to convince people that the trip would be worth the cost.  
     And, understand, there is a cost. Considerable time, effort, energy, and resources would have to be committed toward the transformation of the building into a real school. The author of the vision is generally a lightning rod for skepticism and cynicism. 
     The blog posts that follow in the coming days will outline the practices exercised along the school's journey to success.

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