The Essentiality of School Leaders
By Ginger Wu, Tim Burke, Paula Espinoza, and Giovanna Santimauro
Launched in January 2020, the Charter Students with Disabilities Pilot Community Initiative supports a networked improvement community (NIC) of 10 charter management organizations (CMOs) aiming to dramatically improve outcomes for their students with disabilities. This story is part of a three part series that reflects on the CMOs’ learnings from an unusual 2020–2021 school year. Improvement Teams faced school closures and remote learning, but also made time to plan changes that can systematically improve the way we serve students with disabilities.
“Being a good leader isn’t about having power over others, but about instilling power in others.”
— Jessica Bohn, “First-Year Hurdles,” Educational Leadership, April 2013
School leaders can be powerful advocates for change and innovations. This is evident in the Charter Students with Disabilities Pilot Community, a networked improvement community of 10 charter management organizations nationwide that came together to improve educational outcomes for Black and Latinx students with disabilities experiencing poverty.
Here are three examples of how schools are engaging school leaders to prioritize improvement efforts across the pilot community.
Finding the “Right Moment” at Mastery Schools
“For the [continuous improvement] project that I’m doing, I don’t think it would be possible without the buy-in of school leaders,” reflected Ann McKetta, the Director of Specialized Services at Mastery Schools.
McKetta directly oversees emotional support programming at Mastery and understands the importance of school leader support in making meaningful change for students. She is working on implementing Change Ideas to support students with disabilities, such as modifying the school discipline policy and establishing a student-to-student mentorship program. McKetta is working closely with school leaders so they can see the value of the programs she runs.
“In this work, the school principal is highly, highly invested in reducing the amount of suspendable offenses,” McKetta began. “Because he’s so invested in reducing suspendable offenses, I’m getting him more and more invested in the overall work that we’re doing.“
McKetta recognizes that if a principal is invested, they are more likely to support professional development at the school and provide ways to communicate to staff and families. This creates more staff investment to move forward changes and improvements.
One way McKetta is getting school leaders at Simon Gratz High School invested in her work is by aligning Change Ideas to school priorities. McKetta knows that school leaders have a lot on their plates, but they are important for implementing innovative practices. When planning for the next school year, McKetta keeps timing in mind. She believes finding the “right moment” to engage school leaders is critical.
“The right moment is not too early on, when nothing is codified or there are no strong ideas yet, and not too late where we’re down a path they don’t approve of and we would’ve done a lot of work for no reason,” advised McKetta.
She works with the principal once the Improvement Team has prioritized a change idea and gets their input, feedback, and buy-in. She then takes the changes back to the Improvement Team for final alignment. This process can become cyclical as the Gratz leadership team continues to learn, grow, and evolve their improvement efforts.
Next school year, McKetta looks forward to implementing the Change Ideas Mastery has identified and building them into the school model so they become part of the school culture. She will continue collaborating with school leaders to carry out improvement efforts.
Instructional Coaching at the Noble Network of Charter Schools
At Noble Network of Charter Schools, school leaders are jumping in and trying new research-based practices. Dustin Tatroe, the Assistant Principal of Noble DRW College Prep, worked with social studies teacher Drew Matzen to explore a continuous improvement process called Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles. They used PDSA cycles to test ideas around increasing student engagement in reading using Achieve3000.
Introducing Achieve3000 to Matzen’s classes was challenging. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were learning from home and had trouble accessing the program. Tatroe coached Matzen through it, and they collaborated to get students into the program by developing how-to videos.
“We did a lot of problem solving. We thought about what we needed to do and how to support students to do it,” said Tatroe.
Tatroe and Matzen worked together to overcome the technical challenges and get students invested in reading. By the end of the year, they went through four PDSA cycles and saw greater student engagement in reading.
Matzen recalled, “Dustin really helped a lot with describing and setting up slides for Achieve3000 articles. He gave advice on how to spark [student] interest.”
With Tatroe’s support and the use of continuous improvement tools, Matzen was able to develop strategies for increasing student engagement in his classrooms. Next year, Matzen plans to present the continuous improvement process he and Tatroe used to his colleagues and share how continuous improvement coaching cycles can unlock barriers and reveal effective instructional practices.
Creating Collaborative Structures at Summit Public Schools
At Summit Prep, the flagship school of Summit Public Schools, Executive Director Cady Ching created collaborative structures for administrators and teachers to come together and improve support systems for diverse learners. She established a bi-weekly Diverse Learner Team (DLT) meeting for her, the Dean of Culture & Instruction, and learning specialists. During DLT meetings, learning specialists work with other participants to review data, brainstorm solutions, and develop new ideas.
“We were constantly collaborating on what the status of our work was and how we can make it better,” recounted Ching. “From that team structure came so many other great ideas. We had teachers bring forward proposals. One idea a teacher brought forward was co-coaching for next year.”
Summit Prep will test co-coaching practices next year and continue to leverage the expertise of their learning specialists. DLT meetings have become a space to source ideas from the community. Ching shared that teachers regularly added items to the DLT meeting agenda.
“It is really about the empowerment of teachers who are closest to students and giving them the space to collaborate and move initiatives forward — and that all came from the DLT structure,” reflected Ching.
The DLT structure helped to establish a unified, systematic approach that responds to students’ needs on a proactive and ongoing basis. This approach empowered the learning specialists and helped remove the silos that can exist between special education and general education teachers.
Furthermore, Summit’s school leaders met to share practices, and Ching spoke about the DLT structure and its results. School leaders at Summit Everest were impressed and interested in implementing a similar approach to better support their diverse learners.
Next school year, Summit Everest will take the learnings from Summit Prep, make adaptations to fit their school, and set it up as a test of change. Summit’s Improvement Team is excited to take the DLT structure, learn about how it works in a different context at Everest, and consider how to spread the practice to more schools that can benefit from it.
These examples highlight how school leaders are mobilizing to prioritize improvement efforts in the pilot community. Whether they are implementing emotional support programs, empowering teachers to make changes in the classroom, or creating collaborative spaces for the school, school leaders can establish a vision of systems that support all students.
Ginger Wu writes from Marshall Street Initiatives, a K-12 solutions lab that tackles persistent challenges in American public education. She co-authored this story with Marshall Street’s Improvement Advisors Tim Burke, Paula Espinoza, and Giovanna Santimauro. Learn more about Marshall Street’s work in continuous improvement at marshall.org.