FUELING THE JOURNEY
The pathway to change for these QEIA schools was not without several roadblocks. Like other schools, they struggled with financial challenges due to the ongoing fiscal crisis in California. Maintaining class size reduction was particularly difficult with shrinking general funds and diminishing resources. Annual reductions in the teaching force due to budget cuts made it difficult for schools to retain consistent staff and sustain momentum. Additionally, like all organizations working toward systemic change, our exemplary schools noted that building the initial commitment necessary for improvement was sometimes challenging. Across the board, stakeholders in these exemplary schools emphasized five common features of their schools and cultures that helped them stay on the path and mitigate roadblocks:
➊ Exemplary Leadership;
➋ A Common Vision;
➌ Willingness to Change and Innovate;
➍ Ongoing and Open Communication; and
➎ Relentless Drive and Dedication.
Staying the course began with an exemplary leader who set the tone for success and championed the endeavor. These leaders were accessible, visible, and compassionate. They clearly communicated their expectations and engendered a sense that everyone was in it together. In nearly every exemplary school visited, staff and parents often lauded the principal and attributed much of the school’s success to leadership. For example, one teacher at the exemplary high school remarked: “He makes you want to achieve more. I mean he really does. He’s always pushing the envelope that we lead the schools as far as doing new things that help students achieve. And we’ve shown it to be successful.”
One parent interviewed in an exemplary middle school honed in on the administration’s high level of accessibility and visibility: “I know that if they’re accessible to us, they’re also accessible to the kids. And just being visible, seeing them in the morning out there in the crosswalk, seeing them on campus. They’re just not out somewhere in education land. They’re actually visible.” In addition to accessibility and visibility, the parent reiterated the significance of the principal’s dedication and commitment: “They care about our kids. They want our kids to succeed…I think they’re very genuine in how they feel about all the students here, and just working hard.”
Additionally, critical to success is a laser-like focus on core shared norms and values. In successful schools, nearly everyone we interviewed shared a common vision of where the school was headed and how they were going to get there. They underscored the importance of having common goals and views about how to improve student learning. One principal commented:
"I think our success is because we had a vision of where we wanted to go and QEIA made that possible. It didn’t come in reverse order. Sometimes when people hit a jackpot of funds, they start trying to figure out what they need to do to spend the money. That is not what we did. We had a direction of where we were going. We had some guiding principles, and we had already started figuring out what we needed to do and how we could achieve it."
Moreover, the work of administrators and teachers was aligned with this vision. Goals for professional development and collaboration were consistent with the school vision. One teacher described her fellow colleagues as “a disciplined group fixed on a common goal.”
Stakeholders in highly effective schools also resoundingly emphasized the importance of gaining the commitment of teachers and staff; all stakeholders must understand, realize, accept the need for, and be willing to change. One teacher explained, “First, we have to get everybody to decide that there’s a need for it. Then, we’re more open to changing our ways. And that’s always the hardest part of changing human nature. We’re all resistant to change.” Another teacher echoed the importance of commitment to the change effort: “You just need to make sure that the staff is totally onboard with the mission. You have to have a common goal, and the goal should be to move the school forward, making sure of setting up kids for success.”
Along with being committed to change, a key driver to success was a willingness to innovate and adapt to changing times and circumstances. For administrators, it involved thinking outside of the box and being creative with the use of additional funds. For teachers, it included shifting paradigms to start collaborating with peers and sharing data and strategies rather than remaining isolated in individual classrooms.
Teachers also noted the salience of ongoing and open communication: Make sure staff is open…use each other as resources…my most valuable resources are my other colleagues, hands down.” Others expressed the significance of communication to enhance relationships and understanding of others: “Our communication, our collaboration helped us all understand not just what people thought but why they thought that. You did get a fuller understanding of what it was like to be a teacher at that grade level, doing what they were doing.” Other teachers shared the importance of ongoing communication that clearly laid out what was needed from staff: “[The administrators] always present their expectations. They do it daily through email, during staff meetings. Just constantly, anytime we meet and anytime we talk, it’s always these are my expectations; this is what I’m expecting from my staff.”
Finally, teachers and administrators stressed the importance of relentless drive and dedication to working together to achieve goals. Stakeholders in highly effective schools overwhelmingly possessed a positive, “can-do” outlook. Schools celebrated success, stayed positive, and relied on each other even in the face of challenges. One teacher vocalized: “I would say definitely it takes a village. It takes all of us to help all of our students.” Another teacher commented: “It’s everybody working together, and that’s when you see that growth.” Successful schools also largely had the support of parents in the classroom, on committees (SSC, ELAC, PTA), and participation at various school events which helped to improve the school’s culture and build a strong sense of community. According to one teacher at an exemplary elementary school:
"We’ve had a lot better parent involvement, especially since they see a lot of the program and things that we’ve tried to do, to bring the families into the school and make them more involved and then they become more involved in certain fundraisers and even social things like talent shows and stuff like that, that has brought the community together."
Relentless drive and dedication was encouraged when exemplary leaders modeled such commitment. In one example, a teacher in a particularly effective school said: “She’s always willing to listen, stay late, do whatever it takes for our students. Contact the parents, contact the community…She’s just willing to go above and beyond and always try her hardest to do whatever it is.” Because of the principal’s modeling and leading by example, staff were inspired to follow suit: “She does whatever it takes every day and I think that’s what leads our team to have everybody do whatever it takes.”