Vanessa Wilkins
May 31 · 6 min read

How One Passionate Principal Used Design-Thinking to Transform her School

“We had a joy problem,” Jami Fluke said. We sat in her office on May 8 when many teachers and students in Oregon were out of school for statewide “Red for ED” demonstrations. Teachers in Dayton “walked in” together wearing red to show their support and keep students in school.

I’ve wanted to visit Dayton High School since they posted a 97% graduation rate, far higher than our state’s 79% average and far higher than it had been five years ago when I’d read their application for a Nike School Innovation Fund grant.

Jami is a force of nature. You can tell by her passion that there wouldn’t be much point in trying to talk her out of doing something she knew was better for kids. But, it takes more than exuberance to transform a school. Here’s how her team did it:

Step 1: Get the right leader in place. Jami’s been in Dayton for 22 years, starting as a teacher, then middle school principal for nine years. She took over the high school in 2010 when the district decided to combine the two schools due to budget cuts.

Step 2: Build your team. Combining the two schools felt overwhelming. It required a team willing to rethink systems and the way both schools were set up. “Sometimes your constraints actually make you think bigger,” Jami said.

Roger Lorenzen shared Jamie’s passion for thinking big and supported the design work that was to come as Assistant Principal. Mitch Coleman, a veteran teacher of almost 30 years, was one of the many teacher leaders to embrace change and think creatively to give kids opportunities beyond his classroom to build confidence and competence. Mitch leads Dayton’s highly-acclaimed Agriculture CTE program and continues to build on industry partnerships to bring in experiences and equipment that sets Dayton apart.

Step 3: Establish trust and capacity for change. Change management theory suggests you give your team some “quick wins.” Typically, we’d recommend small changes, but Jami’s well-established team went all in. First, they combined the middle and high schools.

Next, they took on the challenge of implementing a state-mandated competency-based grading system. Although mandates from the top rarely go as well as hoped, Jami’s team dug in. They attended a high-quality training and read several books on competency-based grading. The team decided the competency approach was better for kids. But, it would require changing how they taught, not just how they graded.

“You have to really articulate what it is kids are LEARNING, whereas before it was more about what are we DOING.” Even after the state walked back its competency-based grading requirements because of district push-back, Dayton staff stuck to it. They now use success criteria to grade student learning. While there is still room to improve, Jami’s team is well-equipped to make improvements using their design-thinking skills.

Step 4: Create urgency for change. “Before we started the innovation movement, teachers would say ‘in the real world…’ I thought, ‘do we really know what’s happening in the real world, beyond the walls of the school?’”

When Innovate Oregon approached Jami to set up a meeting with industry leaders, she jumped at the opportunity. She hoped to hear what the “real world” was looking for in future employees.

“When you are changing a system, you need some external validation. To hear the business people say, ‘I want the disrupter, I want the people who are going to come in and say I have an idea. I think this could be better,’ — that made us realize we had to change because we weren’t teaching [students] that. They want the creative problem solvers. A lot of our compliant learners struggle with that.”

Note that although Dayton didn’t explicitly create a graduate profile at the time, they did have a clear vision for students. They wanted students to discover their brilliance and become creative problem-solvers, not compliant test-takers.

And, they never lost sight of the key to any successful school. “It’s all about relationships,” says Jami. And, that takes everyone.

Step 5: Start with the adults. The excellent book In Search of Deeper Learning notes that “those teachers who were able to provide deeper learning experiences for their students had themselves had a ‘seminal learning experience’ that had inspired them.” Teachers need exposure and training to the kind of learning experiences we want for our kids.

Luckily, Gina Condon from Construct Foundation approached Jami about design-thinking programs for teachers. Construct trains principals, teachers, and students in Stanford Design School’s School Retool and Breaker programs. Construct also creates customized design-thinking challenges.

Jami and her team at Dayton were ready to do things differently. “We were putting ceilings on kids’ learning because we wanted to be in control. We had a real paradigm shift from power and control, to creating space for the kids to create and find their voice. There’s no ego in it. It’s about them, not about us. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Fifty to seventy percent of the staff went through Breaker and “they were on fire.” The teachers created design challenges for students, put them in teams, and then dedicated several full calendar days to roll out the design challenge.

Step 6: Keep iterating. Jami says they made a lot of mistakes that first year, but they learned and retooled the experience for students.

The second year, students designed the challenges instead of the teachers. “We explained the process better to get the kids excited. And, we realized we didn’t need to break up their friend groups.” Basically, they turned over even more control to the kids. The team created Design Challenge courses where the only requirement for student projects was, “you have to make the world a better place.”

Next, they added “Innovation class” inspired by the Innovate Oregon team who helped organize the industry meeting. “We started with six weeks of coding, six weeks of circuit board and six weeks of invention.”

“That’s when we partnered with Lemelson and MIT and their JV Invent Curriculum, which had always been an after-school program. They said, ‘what if we partner with you and you put it in school?’” Of course, Jami’s team was up for that challenge.

They added Genius Hour and now have Genius Hour 2.0, taught by Jenni Shilhanek, Carrie Carden, Jen Spink and Michelle Borst, which helps connect learning to the real world and still builds academic skills. “Kids are learning some really incredible skills, but it’s not being taught in a linear fashion. Students are given space to be curious and create.”

“You need to keep creating space for this work or it will get eaten up in the scheduling. In some people’s minds, this is the frosting, but really, it’s the cake.”

Step 7: You’re never done!

Now, Dayton has added advanced innovation classes taught by Patrick Verdun. “Some kids want to dabble in video production or 3D modeling, or coding or manufacturing. We’ve added more equipment, and now kids are making things to sell in our local store. They’ve learned how to make things people might want to buy. Back in the old days, you took woodshop and everyone made a little bookshelf. Everyone made the same thing. Now, kids make whatever they are interested in. This is where we learned that art is the foundation of creativity and how technology, agriculture, art and design come together to create solutions for real world problems.”

Although they didn’t realize it at the time, the competency-based work they started with years ago set this team up for the work they are doing now with innovation classes, genius hour, music, and art. Those classes naturally lend themselves to competency-based teaching and grading.

Jami and her team have been learning to operate in a paradigm they call “create” as opposed to the old paradigm of “power and control.” In order to take risks without fear of failure and shame, there must be a culture of trust.

Jami is leaving Dayton this year after some clear differences with the new Superintendent. The community is paying attention and is in support of Dayton’s continued transformation. All schools should be a place of joy, belonging, and real-world skills development.

“You have to be convicted about your truth, about what you believe about learning and about kids, and have the courage to act accordingly,” concludes Jami.

Vanessa Wilkins

Written by

Vanessa combines her experience creating a highly successful education partnership at Nike with years in the social sector to advise on innovation in education.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade