Leadership Team: One High School Transformation

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

I was selected to be an assistant principal – a coveted position in my district for sure – as my first step into administration. One month into the school year, I knew I was in a professional situation that would test my ability to apply my carefully studied ISLLC standards to the real test. With my new position as an AP, I felt like I had landed myself on one great vacation spot at the beach looking at one huge, impending storm.

Impending Storm

Impending Storm

One month later, my principal was removed from duty. Our staff was surprised, but not really. Our district leadership decided it was best to allow the two assistants to lead the school as co-principals. I do believe I lived one of the shortest assistant principal tenures on the planet.

“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

Armed with three solid months of AP experience, two years of instructional coaching background, and an ABD in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri (Go Tigers!), I knew the first thing we needed to do as co-principals was get a leadership team up and running. Up to that year, the situational leadership of the school allowed for department chair meetings that were often canceled and an administrative team of three that split itself to facilitate discipline, instruction and management. It was not an odd set-up; probably relatively standard for the time period. Our assistant superintendent challenged us to design a leadership team and create a concept map of our vision of a governance structure for our school. I was never so glad as at that moment to have read Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations

“…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

The conversations were rigorous about who we bring to the table to lead the school in such tough times. The school had departments with powerful and politically aligned department chairs – an old guard of sorts – that protected the traditions of our locally popular high school. The school had also started down a path of transition to become a Professional Learning Community with identified coaches who were not necessarily department chairs but carried a clique of teachers with them on an appropriately identified track of learning. How did we organize this team? What personal agendas did we allow or disallow in leading the school? What would be the fallout if we did not include a known “Big Fish?” What teachers and teacher leaders were truly qualified to be decision makers for their peers. The options were endless.

“…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”

Our decision was to center our leadership team around the department chairs. We felt these individuals were, or at least should be, strong content knowledge teacher leaders who would help us keep our decision-making focused on what was best for our students academically. Our school has 12 department chairs on the team – four core (MA, LA, SS, SC), five electives (FL, FA, IT, FACS, PE, BUS), counseling and library. We obviously added our admin team, which included our Activities Director and an assistant principal in the subsequent years), on the leadership team as well as our instructional coach. As it turned out, the PLC coaches were not pleased with our decision. The tough conversations about our decided leadership direction provided a first conversation in what was about to become one exhausting marathon of conversations.

“…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

We brought the team together. We studied how to be a good team. We studied how dysfunction would affect us. We studied data. We wrote our School Improvement Plan using our leadership team to lead the staff. We believed in a vision and mission and made it our own. Together, we suffered through a pounding by the press and a drop in state testing scores. We developed policy (cell phone usage and tardy) together that began to change the way we offered learning and managed classroom behavior. We grew as a team, but it often felt like we were rowing the Titantic.

“…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

We felt like we were moving. We added an “At Large” member to our leadership team who was a teacher voted on by all the teachers to represent them on the Leadership Team. The tenure of that position was one year to offer the opportunity for any teacher looking to grow leadership experience. We also made a super smart decision to add our Professional Development Committee members to the leadership team. This decision was made based simply on the fact that the leadership team was making PD decisions they didn’t want denied. It was logical to include the voting PDC members a part of the decisions and save a step. Smart leaders, eh?

“…we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.” ~ Charles Dickens

So, despite NCLB goals increasing at an unprecedented rate (or at least it felt like it), our leadership team stayed focused on our school improvement and continued to study how to make our students better learners and more successful community members. We pulled together to earn NCA-CASI accreditation – a team building experience if I’ve ever met one – and we earned a humbling US News & World Reports Best High Schools 2009 Bronze Award. We were selected by the district to pilot technology integration with pedagogy and content knowledge, and Virtual Southside was born with ensuing success and a tremendous professional impact. The leadership team was pulling the staff to earn some great wins. Then, with little warning, much of our hope was dashed when our community decided to withdraw their financial support and not renew a 63 cent levy our district used for basic operations and salaries. When a strong leadership team exists in a high school, adversity only makes you stronger. We were rock solid.

Picture 2

Leadership Team: The best of times in the worst of times

We had our third start of school leadership team retreat today. We battled over our literacy plan. We focused on reaching each student personally with our ready-to-launch CAMP (Cardinal Mentoring & Advisement Program). We will grow our school spirit by including every teacher and every child in activities and class acclimation. We grow every time we meet together — we have a plan for that which includes bi-monthly leadership team meetings, monthly department meetings, and monthly job embedded professional development on TPACK. Our conversations are vocal and passionate now — the transformation to instructional leadership within the team is exciting and dynamic. We will succeed, hopefully with the levy, because we believe in our vision: Success for all through education!

8 thoughts on “Leadership Team: One High School Transformation

  1. I am such a nerd. How’s that for a starter? I got a little emotional as I read this – this is all I’ve ever known! Your first year was my first year and although I’m not on the Leadership Team (sometimes I wish I was, other times I remember that the meetings are in the morning – LOL) this post serves as a reminder as to how proud I am to call Benton my home. The direction we are heading in and the passion that our teachers display is inspiring! I’ve been a little sad about the summer ending but as I type on my MacBook (I’m a total PC person…or I was) I’m excited to start Monday with staff meetings (I think I’m one of the only people who look forward to staff meetings…mainly because I LOVE our staff.) and gear right into the students coming on Wednesday! 🙂

  2. Thanks Sarah! I am also excited to have everyone come back after being home in the summer! The halls are very lonely and quiet in July. I think we are about to embark on yet another exciting, growing year. Thank you for holding hands with me and taking our kids to greater and greater successes.

  3. It is amazing to think about the past 3 years at your school summed up in this post–wow. I agree that when you have a strong team, adversity makes you stronger. Although there has been some adversity for your school and your team over the past three years as you have stated, it is obvious you have a team approach to tackling issues that has helped you through some rough times.

    Focused, continuous, school improvement is where it’s at. You are right on track to maintain focus on what your team set out to do. You aren’t done and I believe you have only scratched the surface of the accomplishments your school can achieve if you continue to maintain your focus.

  4. Dr. J, this is an outstanding bit of history, and I’m glad to now have a little better insight. Even more, I am excited to be a part of the transition as Benton becomes a transformational leader in the 21st century learning community. You have been an inspirational leader, and I couldn’t be more grateful that you allowed me through the gate into the “kid business.” I look forward to being all that I can be in the year ahead, and — hopefully — inspiring my kids to do the same.

    Ancora Imparo!

  5. MG — I’m glad to have you on board as well. We have much work to do together, and it promises to be tough but fun! I agree, our school is a transformational leader! I had never put that to a school before, only to a person. Nice!

  6. I’m proud to be a Benton graduate, but I’m even more proud to be a teacher in an amazing school. It couldn’t be more true when I say I have come back home. Thanks for the post. I did my student teaching the spring of your first year. It amazes me all that has taken place since then.

  7. Lynn,
    It’s really exhilarating knowing we have energetic, young teachers joining our team and really making a difference for the Benton students. Your leadership growth has been exciting to watch. Keep on your game. You are so valuable to our staff! ~j

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *