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How Successful Districts Continue to Navigate and Grow

By: Kelly Freiheit on January 9th, 2020

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How Successful Districts Continue to Navigate and Grow

In the early month of December, Anthony Kim and I had the opportunity to visit Mason City Schools outside of the city of Cincinnati to ask the question, “How might we use responsive practices to know we are on track to exceeding our goals?” The initial relationship between Education Elements and Mason City Schools started over a casual conversation of the sharing of what books they were reading. One book being Measure What Matters by John Doerr. As a learning organization, we are always on the quest to learn from others who are impacting the educational landscape, and our hope is to help connect them to other innovators, and to share what they are learning with partners in our network. Christine McCormick, Innovative Systems Officer at Mason City Schools, is a disruptor, dreamer and visionary of what the potential of what a school district could look like. 

Even with a stellar team, it’s hard to continue to make lasting change in an organization. This was no ordinary meeting -- it was simply a time to sit down and brainstorm big. As Christine said, “We had an “idea jam” session in her office.” Our team learned from Christine more about how they were taking the learnings and practices from books like Measure What Matters, Team of Teams, Atomic Habits and The NEW School Rules into their district. The one practice we admired was OKRs, short for Objectives and Key Results. Over the last year and a half, the leaders at Mason City Schools have been creating a collaborative goal-setting protocol for their district.

What do OKRs look like in Mason City Schools?

The concept was invented at the Intel Corporation and surprisingly is used in some of the biggest technology companies including Google. At Mason City Schools, they’ve taken their Big Rocks as a district and set strategy and goals over a specified period of time. They ask the big question, “What is most important for the next three (or six to twelve) months?” This question allows for them to place urgency on the initiatives in the district that will make a big difference and defer the others if they don’t align to their district’s Big Rocks.

Their objective is what they are going to achieve as an organization -- very action oriented. From there they have key results which is how they plan to get to the objective. They’ve learned that the OKRs have to be measurable with a number. You either meet the key results or you don’t. Christine shared how one of their teams has the hardest job of choosing the right objectives for the district. However, they’ve learned that if the objective is done well -- it’s easier to develop the key results for the objective. 

How Mason City Schools created a culture of OKRs across teams of teams?

Through conversations we learned that every employee (even the custodians, IT department, and cafeteria staff) in Mason City Schools is a part of a team. They have approximately 144 teams of 8 across the district which meet monthly to discuss the themes for the month which are aligned to the Big Rocks of the district. The teams are cross-functional. For example, the district had conversations around their OKRs with culture in the month of September. Christine mentioned that everyone is a contributor and they’ve found that people are more engaged when they are actually able to see how their work contributes to the district’s success. They’ve found that they are successfully reaching their OKRs because it’s not the isolated act of the superintendent but within a team of teams approach people are making critical contributions.

What Education Elements learned from Mason City Schools?

OKRs are used to help communicate with your district on how to move forward your district’s vision. Through this conversation, we’ve learned that the individuals in Mason City Schools better understand their district’s goals and how they are going to effectively reach their outcomes. They have taken the time to plan OKRs and assess them through their team of teams. It’s apparent that the district is seizing the ever-changing opportunities within their community and they know their organizational model must be fluid and open to achieve their district’s outcomes with their Big Rocks.

About Kelly Freiheit

Kelly is on the Design and Implementation Team. Kelly is a former science blended learning teacher from Charlotte, NC. She began to recognize the parallels between her life as a struggling reader in elementary school and her work on education’s front lines. Kelly knew she loved collaboration, camaraderie, and the pursuit of a common goal, but hadn’t drawn the connection between those passions and the career she now counts among them. Outside of work you can find Kelly relaxing on a yoga mat or spending time with family and friends.

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