Saturday, October 25, 2014

How to Improve Your District - hint: start at the middle school

Today, at the #FallCUE event, a twitter colleague asked me advice on how to improve their district. Quick question, big answer.

First, a disclaimer: I don't know the answer to the needs and concerns of a school district hundreds of miles away from my current school site. That said, I do have a few bits of advice based on what I know about the district in question.

This district is suffering from a few concerning elements: (1) over-involved parent input, (2) not great press, and (3) perceived conflict in administration.

When any district suffers such concerns, it's a tricky road. Often, the superintendent will be replaced, the school board will hire a new candidate, and the cycle will repeat itself.

Instead, here's my advice: hire new middle school principals.

And here's why:

Middle school is the transition from elementary school to high school. Middle school encompasses the transitional years where the parent is overly involved to the four years where the parent is excluded. Middle school is the perfect time to help with these changes and work with the parent community to best communicate during these trying years.

So when your district is in peril with such conflicts, look to your middle schools to solve the problem. Here are your step-by-step directions:

1) Fire/release/reassign your current administrators from their middle school positions.

I realize that this may not be a popular suggestion but here's why: The process is broken and sometimes the only way to fix it is to reboot. By hiring a new administrator, you're giving your parent community, your teaching staff, and your student population a chance to rebuild the relationships that may not have been previously established. As I've personally experienced and publicly shared, it's more than ok for an administrator to walk away from their safety net of employment and seek a new venue to reintegrate themselves. It's not a reflection on their performance necessarily. Sometimes, the easiest thing in a difficult relationship is to begin anew.

2) Hire AMAZING middle school principals

And here are the qualifications: You need to hire principals who are tech-savvy, relationship-focused, willing to devote more than just the usual 7-7 hours to the job, and who "get middle school kids".

Technology because that's the common thread between kids, teachers, and our community.

Relationships because that's how we'll build bridges and cross communities.

Time because that's what our kids need, our parents expect, and the job needs.

And Understanding Middle School Kids because it's such an interesting time in our kids' lives. It's the only place I know of where you'll have thousands of kids going through puberty all at the same time. It is chaos and anyone who loves middle school wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

This principal that you hire need to understand the importance of reaching out to their community. They need to do parking lot duty in the morning and hold evening sessions on digital citizenship. They need to be in teacher's classrooms during the busiest times of the school year and yet still responding to parent emails at all times throughout the day. They need to know how to rebuild and foster communication between the local community and the school staff.

3) Give them time to build these bridges.

Odds are the staff will be hesitant to accept a new principal... just like the students and parent community will be slow to trust this individual to guide instruction and school culture.

And that's where the investment begets relationships and growth in avenues of trust. A new principal needs two years to understand the culture of the school and forge the necessary relationships with the parent community. Given that middle schools are often three grade levels, allowing a principal to have those 2-3 years to build and foster the necessary relationships is a necessary element toward the path to success.

And no, this isn't easy to do.

And no, there aren't that many principals who can do this.

But yes, if you think your school and students are worth the investment, it's worth the effort to go search for the right administrator to lead your school.

Middle school principals are their weight in gold if you get a good one. This is where the culture can begin. Invest wisely.

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