As school districts actively pursue the goals of their strategic vision, they tend to look outward for a spark of innovation. Unfortunately, there is a limit to the amount of “new” a system can take. It is common, within a single district, there can be multiple initiatives happening at once. Over-indexing new initiatives can lead to information overload, miscommunication, and burnt-out educators. That is why the most impactful approach is often to look inward to seek alignment on existing innovations.
Schools across the country work tirelessly to provide positive educational experiences for their students, staff, and the larger community. Yet, there are times when they fall short of this goal. They may experience high teacher turnover, a poor school climate, and low student achievement, just to name a few challenges. In our work, we see that with the right support systems in place, we can collectively improve school performance and meet the needs of students and educators. Here are three valuable strategies you can leverage to achieve transformative improvements:
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I support school teams nationwide through the process of unpacking survey and focus group data from their communities. One consistent trend across school districts is that most adults overestimate their ability to understand and empathize with their students’ experiences at school. Even teachers who regularly work directly with students and have the best intentions tend to misrepresent students’ feelings and beliefs about their academic and social experiences at school. This trend is particularly problematic when a district’s strategic plan, the framework that guides decisions impacting students most, is written solely by adults. Nearly every school district strives to write a student-centered strategic plan, but how student-centered can your plan be without actively including student voice throughout the planning process?
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically shifted the culture of learning in America and the issue of school enrollment is a current topic of repeated conversation. Remote learning created the option for students to learn outside of the school building and the shifts from remote, to hybrid resulted in a noticeable decline in school enrollment. Many students simply struggled to return to school. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a drop in K-12 public school enrollment of 1.2.million students. This indicated that no school district was immune to the enrollment challenges happening across the nation.
I have always aspired to open a new school that cultivates a school atmosphere centered on learning and student achievement. One that recruits and retains the best teachers and staff, meaningfully engages with students, families, and the community, and utilizes research-based and culturally responsive curriculum. I have not yet fulfilled that dream, but I had the opportunity to work alongside James Hopkins, a school principal in Durham, North Carolina, who has done just that. James opened Lyons Farms Elementary School during the 2022- 2023 academic school year.
Last year, I relocated to my home state of Tennessee from New York City, and I had to secure a car for the first time in many years. As luck would have it, my first winter back in Tennessee was one of the state's coldest on record. Just enough snow fell in late December to make driving, especially up my steep driveway, a daunting experience. As I slowly crept up the hill toward my house, my tires spun in place. Decisions needed to be made. Would it make sense to keep spinning my tires in place hoping to gain enough traction to move forward, or would it be better to stop, reflect, and rethink my approach? It was clear that what I was doing wasn't working. I took my foot off of the accelerator, stopped the car, reversed slightly, and attempted a different path on the grass adjacent to the driveway. In a few moments, I was safely parked in my house’s garage. Sometimes we need to pause and create new strategies when the ones we have in place are not working. This applies to school districts today who are facing very challenging circumstances with a record number of educators leaving the profession, math and reading levels at a twenty-year low, and public trust in education eroding.