Learner-centered leaders effectively engage community

This post is part of a series connected to the podcast Shift Your Paradigm: from school-centered to learner-centered. My colleague, Randy Ziegenfuss, and I will be sharing our learning and thinking along the way and cross-posting to the Shift Your Paradigm site.

Lynn Fuini-Hetten and Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D
In Episode 10, we had a conversation with Mesa County School District 51 superintendent, Steve Schultz. We discussed engaging community to design the “what” and “why” of system transformation, the importance of providing the space and time for community to shift mindsets, and the value of “walking the talk.”

Key Competency

The idea of community ran as a thread through the conversation. Steve includes what we would traditionally call “stakeholders” in the community – students, teachers, leaders, board members and community representatives such as newspaper reporters and Chamber of Commerce leaders. Learner-centered leaders leading a system transformation, effectively engage community. In Mesa’s work over the past 18 months, community has been engaged to develop a model of proficiency-based learning that best serves the unique context and needs of Mesa County.

Key Takeaways

Mesa County was strategic in how it engaged community. Board members were engaged in the question, “What does personalized learning look like?”

Community members visited model programs around the country. After being inspired by what they saw, Mesa County community members engaged in conversations about what it could look like in their own unique context. In a large system of 22,000 students, buildings have been given autonomy in terms of implementation and time.

Mesa County listens to the community to inform the change. This can be a challenge because everyone is an “expert” in the system by having merely processed through it. Encouraging others to suspend previous opinion about what school school be can be a challenge.

Transformation takes time and close attention to pacing. It cannot be forced. Leaders need to provide the time for community to struggle through the shifts in mindset required. Not everyone understands the detail, but people are asking constructive questions. The transformation is growing throughout the system through engagement and transparency.

Implementation of the vision is through demonstration schools across the system. Mesa County is hiring people with experience in the work and creating the infrastructure of tools necessary.  Mesa County has had to push back on aspects of the traditional system: organization of central office (learning to be a more agile and responsive organization). High school has been the most challenging. Grade levels will not be abandoned until the system is ready.

Although the demonstration schools are implementing specific components of the vision (piloting a LMS, etc), all stakeholders across the organization (and even community organizations) are focused on development and growth mindset through this process.

Leaders need to shift their practice: practice what you preach; realize there are many ways transformation can happen – be open to listening to others; developing partnerships in the community is necessary and a long-term investment; transformation requires courage.

Connections to Practice

We followed a similar process of developing a shared vision. We engaged multiple sets of stakeholders and are now working to shift mindsets as we implement the transformation. We have also realized that this takes time. We had hoped to spend 2016-17 building a common understanding of language, but now realize this was not enough time to engage everyone and to build the understanding.

We have begun to identify areas of the system that need to be challenged: grades at some levels, agency as ownership, and use of time. Additionally, we understand we need to enroll our stakeholders in conversations about what is possible, and why we need to shift our thinking.

Questions Based on Our Context

  • How does what we have learned in the Pioneer Lab help us manage those of a dissimilar mindset?
  • How can we look at community differently? What can we do when engagement and commitment is low?
  • How do we help our board understand the distinctions of personalized learning?
  • What are the behaviors/competencies we need to articulate for each grade span/level? When is appropriate to begin this work?
  • What structures of “school” will we need to re-evaluate and change for better implementation? Are there areas that need support but don’t currently have enough?
  • As leaders, what personal areas of development can we focus on to fuel the transformation?

Next Steps for Us

  • Help our leaders, teachers, board members and students understand the processes shared in the Pioneer Lab to engage community.
  • Make engaging students in the conversation around transformation a greater priority this school year.
  • Engage in conversations around behaviors/competencies for teachers, leaders and learners.
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