It’s All About School Culture!
I have been working since 1985 on competency-based education (CBE) models to better serve over-aged and under-credited students, first as the Principal of Jobs for Youth High School in Boston, later as the founder of Diploma Plus and more recently as the founder of Schools for the Future. During my roughly 30 years of doing this work, I have tested out several hypothesis as to what the key is to starting great schools. While the schools that I have helped open have accomplished a lot, there have also been shortcomings. My team and I applied these lessons to the design and early implementation of Schools for the Future Detroit (SFFD).
One of the greatest lessons is that building an extremely strong school culture from the “get go” is absolutely necessary for success. While obviously not the only necessary component, without it very little else (e.g. blended technology, curriculum) will make a significant difference.
SFFD has been open for less than one month. While I don’t want to get overly excited about what, to-date, has been a very smooth opening, I can point to several tangible steps in opening this school that seem to have made our opening successful so far:
1. Hire the right principal and focus on the school’s vision.
No matter how great the model looks on paper, the principal must be committed to the schools’ stated vision. Additionally, the principal needs to be able to juggle the implementation balls while inspiring the staff and students to buy into the schools’ mission.
Tangible steps: During the three step principal interview process, SFF Detroit really pushed the “vision thing” with the prospective hires and then went deeply into questions about how they would go about making it a reality in the run-up to opening the school. We also asked about the candidates’ comfort level with working from a pre-designed blueprint. We made the point repeatedly that we were not looking to hire a principal to create his or her own vision.
2. Invest as much as you can in upfront staff orientation and training before you open the school.
While creating a strong school culture begins with the principal hire, it very quickly moves to how much the teachers/staff buy into the model and create a team.
Tangible steps: We paid for nearly five weeks of orientation and professional development from the last week of June to the first week of September for the new SFFD staff. It included not only on-site training conducted by SFF national trainers, but also paying staff to go to Chicago for training by the developers of educational software that we had purchased.
3. Keep the students at the center by understanding and implementing strong youth development strategies.
There are more students than staff and the only way to maximize success is to help students take ownership of their own learning (see SFF’s 3 big principles below)
4. Build a strong collaborative team.
During our training we constantly stressed the idea that teachers/staff are learners too; as such it is good to ask for help and not to worry about making mistakes.
Think Big (High Aspirations)
|Values for Students||Values for Teachers/Staff|
You Own It (Personalization)
|For Students||For Teachers/Staff|
|For Students||For Teachers/Staff|
5. Create a schedule and structure that enables the teachers/staff to be reflective.
SFF has many moving parts that are different from a traditional approach. We hypothesized that our best chance for success was to invest considerable time for teachers/staff to be able to plan and reflect. As a result, we designed a schedule in which staff have two 70 minute periods off—one for common planning and the other for individual planning.
6. Have An Aggressive Focus on Students and Learning using data to guide the way
After school culture, we believe that the most important thing for the success of SFFD will be the clarity around our mastery standards, the data that we are using in an ongoing way to measure how students are doing, and the associated teaching & learning strategies and revisions.
Tangible steps: SFFD is using a combination of formative and summative measures. For formative, all of our modules and courses have built in interim and longer term products that teachers & students assess together using rubrics. Our developmental reading (Achieve 3000) and developmental math (Think Through Math) software also has built in formatives. In terms of summatives, SFFD is using a combination of the ACT Plan/Explore and the Scantron Performance Series.
While it is too soon to know how SFFD will ultimately do, we feel good about what we did to prepare for the opening. SFFD is proud to be part of the Next Generation Learning community and we look forward to learning from the other grantees.