How long does it take to really change a school? I have previously written that “organic” percolation of ideas might require 12-15 years before we see true system-wide change. Even highly intentional processes need 3-5 years to really take root. What if we shortened our horizon to 6 months? Is it possible? Have courage; it’s possible.
This week I met Shannon Bartlett, principal of Ashland Elementary School in New Hampshire. I know I will write more in detail about the Ashland story, but I was so impressed by our short meeting that I wanted to share the highlights with you. Ashland is a small school, just 20 classroom teachers. According to Shannon most of the students are rural, mostly Caucasian, and mostly lower economic status. Relative to nearby districts, Ashland is resource-poor and their teacher’s pay is lower. The last principal had served for 37 years, and instruction was highly traditional. Student engagement and performance was low. Shannon wanted to see a change.
In February of 2013 Shannon gathered her teachers and they talked about what learning could really be. She encouraged them to think beyond what they HAD been doing to what they MIGHT do. As we find at most schools amongst educators given this permission to think expansively, there were many points of agreement, but a general reluctance, a fear, to break out of the traditional mold. Shannon says it was at this point that one of the most veteran teachers challenged the whole team to align their practices with their passion, to DO what they knew was best for their students.
I can’t reprise the detail here, but by that same September, just months after first engaging in the discussion, Ashland Elementary launched three major changes. Students were no longer grouped strictly according to grade level. Students self-select learning in 6-week units developed around their interests and passions, that meet Common Core standards. And they jettisoned the traditional grade-based assessment, developing an individualized tracking and assessment protocol with rubrics they developed themselves.
They did all of that, including breaking through inevitable pushback from parents and the district, in about 6 months. Shannon says the critical element was the courage her team showed in the face of unpredictable outcomes:
“We took a hard look at our existing structure and practices, and measured them against what we agreed is true about learners and learning. In that context, our necessity to evolve became obvious if not critical to the future of our students. The challenge was in mustering the courage to step off that familiar and comfortable ledge and into the scary abyss of “What if?” From my perspective, it was the most daunting, overwhelming, challenging, exhausting, rigorous, collaborative, memorable, beautiful experience of my career. I credit my amazing staff at AES, for their trust, bravery and determination to succeed.”
I am going to dig more deeply into just how Shannon engineered this dramatic change. Her school has no advantages other than their small size. Their story busts the myth that rapid change, even in the most compliant settings, is just too much for a school system to bear, that any time frame for real innovation and implementation shorter than about three years is just too much to ask. I am not saying Ashland’s path is for every school, but it is darn important to know what is possible before we say it is not.