Educators Speak Out: What Does it Mean to be a “Leading” or “Significant” School?

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Educators Speak Out: What Does it Mean to be a “Leading” or “Significant” School?


Pizza always helps thinking!

What is your school’s aiming point? What do you want for your school in the future?  Have you had this discussion? Does your community know what the words you use actually mean?  If not, how can you aim at, and intersect, a distant target?

Many schools use words like “great” and “outstanding” to describe who they are or what they want to be. I have found that often the people tasked with living the mission, of meeting the target, have never discussed what those words actually mean.  If that sounds like your school, this is a really important post; read on, and listen to a short audio file of what this group of educators unwrapped yesterday!

A few years ago I posted a blog about two very different schools: Ortiz Middle School in Santa Fe, NM, an underperforming school serving a poverty-dense set of families, and Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, CA, a high-performing school serving one of the wealthiest communities in the country.  I made the point, with the agreement of the forward-leaning principals of both schools, that, while no one would disagree that PA High is a “great” school, and no one would disagree at that time that Ortiz was not a great school, I felt that Ortiz was a “leading” school and PA High was not. Simply, Ortiz was willing to take some real risks to change the lives of of their students, while Palo Alto High was happy, and perhaps rightly so, with their current success. Telling that story, and prompting that thinking a few weeks later amongst a group of school leaders in Philadelphia, the word “significant” was added to the discussion, leading to a tremendously insightful debate amongst high school students about the difference between “success” and “significance” in educational systems.

Yesterday I reprised this discussion as i kicked off a series of workshops with principals, vice principals, and learning coaches in the Val Verde Unified School District in south Riverside County, CA. I have written previously about some very exciting directions the district is taking (reminder: this is a very working-class district; majority Latino and African-American; estimates are that about 10% of parents have a college education.)  I asked table groups to brainstorm indicators of what “good”, “great”, “leading”, and “significant” might mean for a school in the future, and then to anonymously vote for which of these would be their personal target for the district.  The only votes were for leading and significant, so we focused on those.

The following audio file is the unedited report-out of the differences between what it means to be a leading or a significant school.  This is the first time I have ever done this particular activity, but I sure am going to do it again!  (The clicking you hear between comments is applause via rapid Greenwich Village-style finger snapping!)

  • “Leading is a model of excellence for the current system. Significant is something that is rare and difficult to replicate.”
  • “Leading is continuous; when you reach a point of significance, something will change. You have to lead again”
  • “Leading is a light on the hill.  Significant is changing the world.”
  • “A leading school knows why their students are successful or not; a significant school also has an impact on the world.”
  • “Leading is being at the pinnacle of current systems in place. Significant is going beyond those current systems and creating change.”

These are remarkable insights that articulate what a group of educators WANT their schools to be.  What if the district has this discussion with all of their educators and students, and then with parents?  What if there are equal levels of buy-in from others about a common aiming point, and if those stakeholders have the chance to also wrestle a bit with what it means to aim high?  How much better to lead a school into the future this way than allowing one person or a small group to craft a mission statement that no one remembers because no one understands what the words actually mean? What better way to spend 20 minutes in a faculty meeting next month?



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