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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. 

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