At some point in the career of every school leader, we reach a point where we feel like we are spinning our wheels, constantly pivoting to adapt to new changes or finding our community beginning to question the needs and effectiveness of existing initiatives and changes. It is inevitable that strong but elastic organizations will succeed at meeting the needs of stakeholders, while others will either fail to ever actualize their efforts or never reach a level of internal sustainability to avoid becoming stagnant.
It is natural to ask what schools or organizations can specifically do to avoid or counteract these tendencies, which can lead to a failure to obtain goals, evolve, or promote the school purpose. We know that, as leaders, it is critical to create environments where deliberate planning meets visionary progress. However, where do we even begin in this process? Isn’t this the purpose of the school improvement plan?
Often school improvement plans are designed to elevate a process for closing achievement gaps across populations on some measure of summative assessment. By nature, the design of these processes, although essential for identifying root causes and aligning academic improvement strategies to historical trends in data, lack the multiplicity to enact schoolwide systemic planning to influence overall school effectiveness. As a result, school improvement plans are simply one critical tool, or component, to a larger conversation successful schools engage in to meet the diverse and multiple needs of all areas of school effectiveness, leading to sustained and dynamic growth and development at an organizational level. To accomplish this, schools must adhere to and design systems and philosophies similar to successful and complex organizations.
‘Start With Why’
I am sure most of us have at least heard of the seminal work introduced in Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. If you haven’t, I highly recommend you watch his TED Talk that outlines how visionary companies focus on their “why.” According to Sinek, great organizations begin with their “why,” and then align their “how” and “what” to the efforts and initiatives necessary to align with the identified “why.” While identifying “why” is critical to this work, I believe schools gain the systematic support for their “why” through building their “how” and “what.”
Why: In Start With Why, Sinek explains to the reader that why an organization exists is a purpose or belief that drives its internal motivation. In a school setting, this is most likely encompassed in the form of a vision or purpose statement, or some sort of symbol that represents the ideological objectives of the organization. At Fountain Middle School, our “why” is the school vision statement: “Developing well-rounded citizens, lifelong learners, and leaders for the future.” This philosophy identifies the beliefs and purpose our community aspires to accomplish. It is what we strive to realize, or the reason for our efforts.
How: Organizations accomplish their “how” in many ways. Some organizations create social contracts, while others create elaborate trainings and professional developments. Regardless of approach, how an organization functions is critical to creating independence, distributive leadership, and systemic growth. Think of it as the agreed-upon acts or actions each individual within the organization engages in regularly as they participate in the work of the organization. At Fountain Middle School, our “how” is incorporated with four guiding principles that we have further clarified and elaborated on within our school’s strategic action plan. These four principles include:
- Be Accountable to Each Other—Cultivate and maintain leadership with colleagues, students, and the Fountain community.
- Empower and Excite—Sustainable organizations build culture and community. This means a culture where everyone acts confidently, demonstrates adaptability, and promotes leadership.
- Develop Communication and Trust—Build strong teams and accountability through clear and consistent communication to all stakeholders of our school community.
- Be Decisive and Take Risks—Make decisions based on facts, listen to all stakeholders, and take action based upon what is best for students. Decisiveness and risk-taking are paramount to the success of an organization and failure is a process for learning.
Establishing and reinforcing how we engage in the efforts and initiatives that promote the “why” of the school allows for all members of the community to participate, lead, and contribute to the essential work of the organization. With a “why” developed and agreed upon, and a “how” describing the methods and actions that everyone within the organization adhere to, the heavy lifting can begin with the identification of the “what.” The “what” is where strategic planning meets improvement planning, and this intersection can shift the conversation to school effectiveness.
What: Once an organization has a well-established “why” and “how,” Sinek emphasizes that there must be clarity on what is done to accomplish organizational purpose. In my opinion, if identified collaboratively and with intentionality, schools will probably not see much short-term change or fluctuation in their “why” and “how.” It is within the “what” that organizations have the ability to identify specific actions and benchmarks that will lead toward visionary progression.
At Fountain Middle School, the “what” in our strategic plan has changed and been modified slightly over the last five years as we have grown and evolved in our practices. Currently, the strategic plan outlines three priorities that provide guidance and support to the school improvement plan and overall school effectiveness. These priorities include:
Priority 1—Dynamic Instructional Practices: Within this priority, we focus on the development and promotion of a teaching and learning framework that provides clarity and direction on how units of instruction are developed, along with the promotion of student agency, critical thinking, and skill-specific feedback. Within this priority, we incorporate major improvement strategies also found within the school improvement plan related to the district teaching and learning framework, school multitiered systems of support, and rigor and relevancy.
Priority 2—Systemic Systems: Provides focus on the uniform and guaranteed structures that are in place to ensure all students have access to a high-quality and dynamic middle level education experience. To further define this priority, we align work related to distributive leadership development, embedded professional learning systems, and educational operations to maximize the productivity and output of the school community.
Priority 3—Postsecondary Readiness: Consists of the preparation of students for a world that has yet to be defined. We define postsecondary readiness as growth related to academic, social emotional, and the attainment of specific essential skills necessary to succeed in high school. Postsecondary readiness is further delineated through the focus of high school preparation, college and career exploration, and developing a culture of pride and citizenship.
Fountain Middle School began implementing this work with the building leadership team in 2016–17 following a number of tumultuous years that resulted in a lack of identity and intentional design leading to decreasing academics, degrading culture, and high staff attrition. Over the course of the following five years, the “why” and “how” have remained constant foundations of our work. The “what” has evolved and been refined as new needs have been identified and other needs have been addressed and systematized. This work has collectively led to a resurgence of overwhelmingly positive school culture, improved academic success, and high retention of staff. As a result of this work, Fountain Middle School has been named a finalist for Best Middle School in Colorado Springs by the Colorado Springs Gazette in its annual Best of the Springs recognition and as a 2021 Colorado Trailblazer Schools to Watch by the Colorado Association of Middle Level Educators.
A full version of the Fountain Middle School Strategic Plan can be located at www.ffc8.org/Page/4343.
Looking to stop running in the hamster wheel of school planning and improvement? Everything you need or are looking to define as the purpose and function of your school can be addressed through strategic planning.