Exceptional Leadership Blends Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships at Albermarle County Public Schools

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Exceptional Leadership Blends Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships at Albermarle County Public Schools

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This post is going to be simple; clarity breeds simplicity.  It will be about remarkable leadership and management style.  There will be those who say, “we can’t learn from a public school because they work in a different structure”, and those folks will be wrong.  There will be those who say “that district over in Charlottesville isn’t like ours; they have more advantages so it doesn’t pertain to us”.  Those folks will be wrong as well.  This is about creating clarity, pushing forward, finding obstacles, and getting around them, regardless of the type of obstacle.  Anyone betting that Pam Moran and her senior leadership team at Albermarle County Public Schools could not lead a small country if they wanted would likely lose that bet.

I asked to visit with Pam after hearing and reading about her several times.  She is Superintendent of the district where John Hunter, founder of the World Peace Game teaches, and when I met with John over the summer he told me that support for what he does goes all the way to the top.  Several authoritative authors and bloggers have mentioned Pam, including our friend Jonathan Martin who met with her and wrote about the visit in a blog that would be well worth your time. I particularly noted the story of the middle school principal whose desk sits squarely in the middle of the entry hallway because he wants to be visible and accessible to his students.  I needed to meet the boss who is happy that her principal has his desk in the middle of a school hallway.

I arrived at the appointed hour expecting a meeting with Pam; I was wrong.  I was ushered into the weekly senior staff meeting; introductions around the table, and then Pam turns to me and summarizes: “We are going to take our board to a new level of where we need to go, to shift from low orbit to deep space exploration.” They have a board meeting on Thursday night and I got to watch and listen as they honed their arguments to a fine point, distilling and whittling.  I will try to summarize and synthesize here.

They have been working at transforming learning in the district since 2002.  Board and community leaders have not only accepted, but also in some cases led, with the argument that teaching to the test is “just not right”.  They have “planted their feet on two banks of the river”, one that teaches to the standard and the other that focuses on the development of (the hated term) 21C skills.  This is a big public district.  Yes, they have a demographic that is relatively liberal compared to surrounding areas, and somewhat better funding.  But it is still a large district with many competing priorities, and they are just as beholden to standards as anyone else.  But as I listened and watched the group dynamic I felt like I was sitting in with a highly effective leadership team of a driven-to-succeed high tech for-profit, except they all are also very good educators.

Pam has the right people in the room, folks with experience in schools and from the outside world (her COO used to manage shipping and transport logistics for the military).  Not only are they clearly smart, they act like a team: fast-fire questions and response; everyone contributing and no one dominating; asking tough questions and questioning assumptions; everyone willing to say what they think; Pam ensuring that everyone chimed in before going on to the next point; cut to the chase and don’t sweat stuff that is not key; delegate and move on. They have focused on eradicating silos, on uber-collaboration, of working as a complete system.  I have heard this before; this time I believed it.

Here are the bullets of where they have been and where they are going:

  • “We have been out in front for years. We have had a board and leadership that allows us to take risks.”
  • “We will teach 21C skills and therefore the standards will be met. There is a false choice between the two.”
  •  “If it is in the best interests of the students, it can’t go wrong.” (That quote pretty much summarized the degree of confidence in the room.)
  • “Design-think has been at the core of what we have done”. They have a system of grants to support teachers to start creating new ways of teaching and learning.  It has prompted numerous nodes of creative curriculum development, and a mindset that program development is collaboration amongst teachers, students, and parents.

Now that they have done trials of many good ideas in the classroom, it is time to go to the next step, to go from organic development to scaling up. They are proposing a set of grants to allow/promote faculty to expand past the organic phase and into projects that will permeate outwards into many or all classrooms.  They felt they needed 75% of faculty to buy-in to the reasons for change. Now, after years of gathering information, piloting, and tweaking, they have it and are ready to launch the big scale shift.

How are they making the leap?  What are they taking to the board for approval?  The board has set a priority of “changing learning spaces as a key to changing student learning.”  The staff has developed a three-axis approach based on:

  • Rigor: what students need to know and be able to do.
  • Relevance: why students need to know it; what it means for jobs of the future
  • Relationships: what skills students need to apply what they know

The team prepared a great figure that shows this approach, and what they call the sweet spot where the axes meet in 3-dimensional space (or 4-dimensional if you take time into account, which you should) of the Optimum Quality Learning Experience. (Am hoping they will forward the figure to me so I can post it; very clear and useful.) “If you say you want to change in order to prepare students for their futures, everything we do has to tend towards that sweet spot of the Optimum Quality Learning Experience.”  It is a whole system approach; the subject for this week for their board is the physical spaces component.  Staff wants the board to think about how the use of physical space needs to change in order to tend towards the sweet spot; they will do the same with pedagogy, curriculum development, student assessment, and professional development.  When it comes to how the buses are running, they will align buses in this framework (this actually came up; I told you they think as a complete system).

As I was leaving, running out the door in order to get to Richmond in time for my afternoon meeting, they showed me the list of talks, posters and conversations submitted by their own faculty for their upcoming “Day of Teachers Making Connections”. Here is the link; the topics are too diverse and numerous to even touch; I think there are 163 on the list.  I really suggest you download the event program and just check out the titles of what the teachers have come up with to share with each other.  It would make a great PD outing for schools interested in what others are thinking about. Every teacher in the county is going to attend and be able to share on a breadth of ideas that most teachers won’t hear about in a career.

I could have stayed there for a week and learned more and more; the energy in that group is infectious.  I want to know more about why this public district can embrace innovation in a way that is inconceivable for so many others.  It is not just that they have a bit more money than some others. It is not just that they have had good boards.  It is not even just that they have Pam and her team. Is it serendipity that they have all of those and others do not?  Is this the critical mass that is needed for a public district to cast off the anchors that we know are holding us back, meeting common standards while still embracing radical innovation in the classroom?  I will be revisiting Pam via phone, Skype or another visit if she will have me to drill down on this question in a place that is rich in answers.

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