Getting a School Back on Track

A friend from out of state recently wrote me asking for some suggestions for helping a school she’s involved with.

She wrote (edited to add some anonymity):

I have been appointed recently to serve on a Commission for a high school that was reconfigured and provided with $54 million for building and equipment in 2000.  It was the investment child of a foundation with matching funds from several local corporate donors for the intention and purpose of establishing a state-of-the art trade and tech school. It has a 99-year intergovernmental agreement among the local university, tech college, and school district that allows the school to be directed by a Commission.  The IGA allows more flexibility and autonomy than I have seen in most charter contracts.

Unfortunately, the Commission has not really held anyone accountable, and never implemented the very cool (albeit unrealistic) curriculum and programs.  Twelve years later, the school is a pack of trouble.  Donors are squealing about wasted investments, and the neighborhood (Latino) kids won’t go to the school since it is now mostly African American.

She wanted suggestions on model programs they could look at (and I suggested one), but mostly she wanted some ideas on how to get the school back on track.

I’m wondering if there aren’t other schools and districts out there that also feel like they have gotten off track and are wondering what to do next.  So I’ll share here a version of my respone to my friend.

I think the answer is working on your school’s “Burning Platform” and on your Shared Vision.

In school change circles, the Burning Platform is that big reason you have that screams “WE NEED TO CHANGE OUR SCHOOLS!” to all the stake holders.  For us (Auburn School Departement), it’s that 70% of our kids are doing well – which really means that our schools don’t work for 30% of our kids.

So, the first step is to work with your leadership team to involve stakeholders in identifying the Burning Platform.  But the Burning Platform can’t be something like “we got away from our plan” (teachers & students are just as likely to say, “so what!” to this as anything).  It’s got to be that one big reason that will pull everyone together to say, “Let’s do it!”

Then you need a shared vision.  There are lots of approaches to creating a shared vision (I promise to blog about a visioning process I like very much in the near future). But which ever way you do it, make sure you are involving TONS of stakeholders – students, teachers, admin, parents, community members, local employers, school committee/commission folk, donors/investors…  Literally having hundreds of people involved with creating your shared vision is not a bad thing.  The more the merrier – but much more importantly, the harder it will be for anyone to criticize your vision after it is created.  But you need a good facilitator and a good process, especially if you are going to involve lots of diverse stakeholders. 

I guess the other piece is leadership.  I suggested to my firend that either their Commission needed to lead hard or they needed to hire a good principal for the school (or both).  Maine’s major lesson from MLTI (our statewide learning with laptop initiative): Leadership is everything. (Judy Enright, another friend who works with schools on large scale change, likes our Lead4Change model to help insure that school change leaders are being systematic and paying attention to all the moving parts.)

Anyway, it seems to me that the only way you start getting back on track is to first bring everyone together – through the Burning Platform and the Shared Vision.

It’s Your Turn:

What are your suggestions for getting a school back on track?