SpeakOut: Every district makes mistakes. How did you fix yours?
A few (brave) administrators share their lessons learned.
“The biggest mistake we’ve made was how we launched employee background checks,”
says Peter Gorman, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Schools since 2006. “We decided—correctly—that we needed to have regular screenings of our employees for criminal offenses, rather than rely on the ‘once when you’re hired’ practice the district had been using. Where we went wrong was in the way we announced it to our 19,000 employees. We told them they’d be required to sign a standard federal authorization form that also included some language about credit checks and ‘modes of living,’ even though we didn’t plan to gather that information.
“It didn’t take long for us to realize we’d goofed. Widespread protests from teachers and administrators were comprehensively reported in local media. So we went to work to repair the damage. First, we acknowledged we were wrong in requiring employees to sign a form with such broad reach and we pulled it back, even destroying the forms that some employees had already signed. Next, we sat down with teacher groups to come up with a form that met our needs for school safety without violating our employees’ legitimate rights to privacy. We didn’t try to patch together a solution; instead, we started over, delaying the background checks for several months while we worked out a fair solution.
“We’ve learned some important lessons about not using overly broad tools in background checks. The other key message we got from this experience was that it’s important to own your mistakes. Our employees were right and we were wrong, and we said so. Our candor helped rebuild trust among our employees.”
“We misjudged how hungry our teachers would be for technology,”
says Thomas Floyd, superintendent of Madison County (KY) Schools. “We implemented a massive amount of technology in two phases in each one of our 18 schools, making every instructional space interactive for our more than 10,000 students. We failed to realize exactly how eager our teachers would be for training, so that they could fully integrate the technology into their lesson plans. We also encountered a need greater than expected for improved systems to support the physical maintenance of so much technology.
“To rectify the situation, we got together. We gathered every stakeholder who might know how to fix the problem—from our tech intern to the director of technology to our teachers and principals—and gave each of them a say. General Patton had a great quote: ‘Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.’ I wholeheartedly believe that.”
“Don’t carry on with your own stubborn thing if it isn’t working,”
suggests Jeanné Collins, superintendent of Burlington (VT) School District. “Listen to the people—the parents in the community—who can help you.
“We wanted to work on socioeconomic integration within the district. We have 48 percent poverty in our district. Two of our six elementary schools had over 90 percent poverty, while another two were in the 45 to 48 percent range, and two more had around 30 percent poverty. We asked the question, Is it OK to have two schools with high poverty if we don’t have to? We wanted to take this question to the community and engage them in the conversation. We did some things wrong in this process, but we learned a lot along the way.
“One of the big lessons was our language. We were talking about students in poverty, and that immediately generated a flurry of questions about the definition of poverty. For schools, the definition is free and reduced lunch. What we learned from the community is that we had people who chose to be in poverty, people in situations of poverty, and people in generational poverty. That led to a very ugly public discussion, with some parents saying, ‘I don’t want my kids going to school with those kids.’ In addition to conducting community conversations in person, we attempted to run a blog on the integration, but people could post anonymously and that’s where the really ugly comments were made. The blog was also just not as informative as it could have been.
“Meanwhile, two parents in the community had set up their own website, and they had successfully renamed the conversation Excellence and Equity. They focused on building excellence in all the schools and for all the students. The socioeconomic- integration piece became a subset of that topic. They knew that we, as a district, had been too focused on our poor students, and therefore sending the message to the community that we weren’t going to do anything for all our students.
“I immediately called these parents and invited them on board. They basically changed the entire direction of the conversation. Today the whole initiative is called Excellence and Equity in the Burlington Schools. They have provided a vision that the entire district and community can really rally around, and it’s working. We are opening two magnet schools in the fall, and the themes for those schools are carried out throughout all of the elementary schools. I can’t speak enough about how important it is to work with parents.”
“Just because something has been done a particular way for a number of years does not mean this is the best way to do it,” says Hy C.J. Schlieve, superintendent of Drayton (ND) Public Schools.
“For years, our students in grades 9 through 12 were expected to do a research paper for their English course, and all papers were due upon return from our district’s holiday break. But each year parents complained that because their children needed to work over the holidays, the requirement was preventing extended family vacations and relaxation during this break from school.
“Because parents and students felt their concerns were not addressed at the building level, they eventually attended a school board meeting to request a change in the practice. Following their request, I suggested the teachers, building administrator, and some of the more outspoken parents conduct a comprehensive study of the practice. The committee agreed that the practice of doing the papers was beneficial. The English teachers noted the basis for the due date was to give students more uninterrupted time to type the paper. But, no one typed their papers anymore; the students completed the papers on word processors. This meant there was no longer the need for the uninterrupted time to type the final copy.
“Once this was noted, the entire process was simplified, but the expectations for the final product were raised. The change ultimately affected the entire curriculum, for the better. In addition, we purchased software to assist the editing and grading of the papers, and students submitted drafts and final copies electronically to their teachers. Everyone—teachers, parents, and students—was pleased with these results.
If you are questioning a specific process, get the people together, lay the issue on the table, and begin looking at it from all the angles. You may just find a better way of doing things.”
“Your criteria for making tough decisions must include what is truly best for the students,”
says McKell Withers, superintendent of Salt Lake City (UT) School District, “rather than what is the most politically expedient way to save some money.
“Just prior to my being hired, the district had to close a couple of schools. Turmoil then erupted over how the district had decided which schools to close. Utah has open enrollment statewide, so if during an open-enrollment window, a school has space available, it is required to take any family who wants to come there. As a result, students from outside the boundaries of a district may still attend a school within that district. But to decide which schools to close, our district only counted the number of kids who attended that school within the boundaries of the district.
“Based on this criteria, our district closed an extremely vibrant, popular school. Even though there were fewer than 200 kids attending this school who lived within the boundary, there were over 550 kids attending the school, loving the school, and wanting to be there. So when the school board decided to close this school composed of a majority of people there by choice rather than by residence, people really tried to stop the process and filed law suits against the district.
I was hired just after the turmoil came to a boiling point. At the time, some of the candidates running for the board of education were the same people involved in the lawsuit against the district. During the first few months of my tenure, in this context I had inherited, I had to find a way to articulate to the community and the board that in the future, criteria for tough decisions would be based on a broader set of factors, and those factors would focus on what is in the best interest of our students.
“When you make an error in judgment, implementation, or even just timing—you got the right idea but the wrong time—the most critical thing to pay attention to is not your ego or reputation, but the best interest of young people. I learned that if you make your students the priority and you’re open and honest with the community and the board about all the obstacles you face, people can and do rise to the occasion.”