Friday, October 13, 2017

Good Leaders Listen

I try to practice mindful listening.  I am genuinely curious about what people are thinking.  Which is probably a good quality for a superintendent to have since it seems a lot of people want to tell me how to run the school district. 

I wasn’t always an effective listener.  I remember developing the skill of listening with an open mind and heart when, after serving a few years as rural superintendent, I took a one-year job with the state department of education.  As in every state, there are citizens who get ticked-off at something that happened in their school or school district and they decide they are just going to go right to the top – they try to get the State Superintendent on the phone.

Often the state staff will have minimal or very old experience working in a school district.  They hate to take those calls from citizens with complaints.  Being a former superintendent, I had background in a variety of topics, so I ended up being the go-to guy for that individual who was calling the state superintendent to fix things back in his/her county.

Of course, it is easy to listen without bias when the problem really isn’t yours to solve.   Almost all issues were not within the responsibility of the state to decide.  They were a local issue, purely local control, so I would try to give them all the time they needed to run out of wind and words.  Then I would ask a few clarifying questions.  Then I would restate to them what it sounded to me was the big issue.  I might tell them why the principal might take such action or why the school board made such a rule.  Then I would coach them on who to call back in their local district and what questions they should ask. 

I only had that job one year.  I moved to another county to be school superintendent,  but I continued to develop and value the use of listening in leadership. 

Today, I learn so much about the pulse of the district and how our district efforts are having an impact in the classroom by keeping my ear to the ground.  I have monthly advisory groups of staff and students and I’m in the schools a lot.  Dropping into the staff room at lunch time can be very enlightening.  Some folks don’t want to talk shop at the time, others grab me by lapels and tell me what’s on their mind.

I encourage our district leaders to do the same.  When they go to a school, go with a question that would provide useful teacher or student feedback to your efforts.  Ask it several times.  Ask follow ups.

40 years ago it was called MBWA-Management By Wandering Around.   It still works.  Go down to the floor where the work is being done - where the children are taught to read, to prove their answer, to collaborate in solving problems, to create.  That’s the only place you’ll know what really is going on and when you know that, then you can lead them to the next level of success. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Plan the work. Work the plan.

For the first time in a long time, school will be starting after Labor Day here in Calvert County. 

We’re ready.

New teacher orientation has begun.  We have a lot of new hires, but many of them have significant experience.  They just want to be a part of Calvert County.

Buildings have been cleaned spic and span.  Summer time construction and remodeling is complete.

Good progress has been made on the installation of security cameras in our high schools, and soon we’ll be moving to do the same for our middle schools.

And, following 6 months of good work and public input, our Strategic Plan has been completed and presented to the Board of Education.   Through this process, we have identified 5 priority areas.

Equity – equitable opportunities for students, equitable distribution of resources and culturally responsive workforce.

Student outcomes – growth for all students, close the achievement gaps, enhance opportunity for high ability learners, increase college and/or career ready grads.

Climate and culture – social-emotional learning, safe and respectful school environment, enhance staff wellness and morale.

Workforce – enhance diversity, retain high quality, provide personalized and differentiated opportunities for staff to grow that will increase student success.

Community Engagement – involve families, business and community organizations as allies and partners to increase equity and access for all students.

The details of just how we plan to move forward on these priorities are in the works.  Some existing initiatives will be better supported and some new initiatives will need to find funding. 

Once plans are in place, we’ll require detailed project management from our district leaders to keep these priorities in the forefront.  We’ll be reporting publicly on our progress and holding ourselves accountable. 

Here’s to another great year for Calvert County students. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Culture Trumps Strategy

We had our 3-day summer retreat for the leadership team last week.  To get it off to a great start we brought in Dr. Bill Daggett, Founder and CEO of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).    I had heard him speak before and wanted him to address our principals, directors and supervisors.

One of his key messages is “Culture Trumps Strategy”.    I wrote it down often.

I’ve done a little research to see if he owns this phrase.   As near as I can tell, he does not.  There are some who credit business guru Peter Drucker with saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” but that appears to be an urban myth.   Still I found that lots of business people have written on the topic.  For them, it suggests that the norms of the work environment – if built on trust, if all are working on the same goal, if creativity and respectful disagreement are encouraged – are more important than the strategy to reach corporate goals. 

During the industrial age the worker fit the company mold.  The bosses in the head shed planned the strategy for increased profit.   Today technology as well as family values  are having a big impact on the work place and businesses are evolving to understand how the worker and the culture in which the worker works, has an impact on the bottom line.

So what does “Culture Trumps Strategy” mean for the schools?

First it means abandoning the industrial age factory model that we all know as school.  Eric Sheninger, a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader at ICLE and author of Uncommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids, lays out his thoughts on what it takes to personalize the learning experience, make it more relevant to the future.

He calls for using technology in such a way that it is a tool to enhance the culture of learning.  It can provide real world learning experiences that are more in tune with student interests.  It can make the curriculum more real and complement the good work that is already happening in the schools. 

What does that look like in Calvert County Public Schools? 

I think we are well on our way in some aspects of this work.  We have been a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) district for a number of years.  Our libraries have been converting into maker spaces and 1 hour flex lunches at all of our high schools and most of our middle schools have contributed greatly to a culture of independence, empowerment and personalized learning for our students.

We have supported an entrepreneurial culture allowing several of our schools to experiment with 1:1 laptop initiatives, digital curriculum and support, blended learning and project-based learning.

Calvert County Schools have a reputation for innovation and high achievement, but we cannot sit on past practices and expect to sustain that result.   It is the Principal and the teachers at each and every school that will create its culture.  That culture, if based upon a common vision for our children, will support the best instructional practices and opportunities for success and see that each child leaves with a real world skill-set and a plan for success. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

It's Been an Outstanding Year

We’re winding down the year here in Calvert County.  ‘Tis the season for end-of-year concerts and recognition assemblies.  At yesterday’s meeting of the Board of Education, we recognized our school volunteers, our employees of the month and a new local club for kids - Creative and Striving Hard to Succeed (C.A.S.H.) National Society of Black Engineers. 
Today I managed to stop in on a couple of elementary field days (one where I personally removed a snake from the field), a middle school summit for 8th grade girls and a planning retreat for our Department of Instruction.  Lots of good stuff.
Our seniors are all gone and we’ll celebrate them through four graduation ceremonies on June 7 and 8.
As I reflect back on School Year 16-17, I can think of so many things to celebrate.  First, we celebrate the accomplishments of our students.
  • Calvert County PARCC scores in 10th and 11th grade English Language Arts were the best in the state of MD.  The best as in “WE ARE NUMBER 1!”
  • We have a graduation rate of 95%.
  • SAT scores went up.
  • Numerous individuals and student academic, fine arts and athletic teams won 1st in Maryland.
Of course, we give our outstanding staff credit for the above as well, but the Calvert County employees shined in other ways.
  • Teacher of the Year Donna Miller was a state finalist.
  • Sunderland Elementary was named a Blue Ribbon School.
  • We successfully negotiated 4-year contracts with our teachers’ union and support staff union. 
  • We successfully negotiated a 2-year contract with our administrators’ union.
  • Our Supervisor of Equity initiated a new priority.
  • We negotiated a new funding formula with our Board of County Commissioners that will assure increasing revenues for the next 4 years.
And then there are some things that are attributable to our district staff and the Board of Education and the even the weather.
  • We had just one snow day and we made it up in February.
  • We broke ground for the new Northern High School.
  • We initiated an outside review of special education and transportation and we anticipate reports that will help us be more effective and efficient in those areas.
  • We initiated a strategic planning process which, when complete this summer, will set the stage for all future planning.
  • We have approved a budget that will give all of our employees a step increase and assures another step for most. 
And, thanks to all, our maintenance department announced that we have reduced its overall consumption of electricity by 17.14% since 2008 by installing energy-efficient equipment and encouraging people to change behaviors to conserve energy.
Yes, it’s been a good year.  I feel very lucky to be a part of such a good district.


    Monday, March 20, 2017

    No More Public Speaking Class

    About a month ago, I got this email from a student whose name was not familiar to me:

    Hello Dr. Curry.  This is one of the students here at Calvert Middle School. I would like to request you to come to my speech. It’s one of our class projects that we are doing in school and I would like to invite you personally. It will be in about two weeks here in the class and I have been working really hard because I think this should be heard.  Sam

    In my work, I am always intrigued by that student who reaches out and contacts me on his own and tells me that what they are working on is important to see.  I didn’t hesitate to make a commitment.

    As it turned out, I wasn’t able to see Sam’s speech when he did it in class, but I did arrange for him to present it with accompanying slides for his principal and me in the principal’s office last week.  His presentation was titled “Standardized Tests – Useful or Useless.”   He did a great job making the argument that too much time was spent on testing with too little benefit.  He was articulate, did his research, cited appropriate sources and made a compelling argument.  When he was done, he answered questions on the topic from the principal and me with confidence and maturity. 

    Although he was only in 8th grade, I immediately recruited him to be a future teacher for us – promising him employment upon college graduation.

    Fifty years ago, when I was starting high school, there was one class at my high school that was required of all who were planning on college – speech class in the junior year.  It was a full-credit year-long class focused on public speaking in a variety of settings.  How to think on your feet.  How to debate.  How to take a position and defend it from your research.  It also included poetry, reader’s theater and scenes from plays.

    Sam prepared this presentation for his English class.  We don’t have such things as a separate class for speech or communications these days for those who are college bound.  We do, however, have standards for English Class which call for the student to:

    • Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
    • Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
    • Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

    I liked speech class so much that I took Speech II my senior year.   And eventually minored in Speech and Drama in College.  Years later I returned to my college campus for the retirement of the head of the Speech Department and she asked me if I was ever able to use what I learned in college.

    "Only every day," I told her.  See the above bullets.  If that’s not a big part of the job description for school superintendent, I don’t know what is.  That’s why I asked Sam to consider being a teacher, then principal, then superintendent.

    Friday, January 20, 2017

    Strategic Planning Zzzzzzzz

    Sounds boring.  Sounds like a really thick book that sits on the shelf.

    Truth is, we don’t have one.

    Truth is, I think we need one.  Not a big book that sits on the shelf, but a real well designed, goal oriented, data driven plan that guides all of our decisions.

    Don’t get me wrong, we are doing quite well in Calvert County Public Schools.  Student achievement is great – our high school PARCC English Language Arts scores are the best in the state.  But, like any organization, there are still many areas in which we can improve. 

    • The needs of a diverse student body are growing.
    • Accountability measures are tightening.
    • Limited resources are seeing ever-increasing competition.
    • All students are not achieving at a high level.

     So, there is much yet to do.

    This time of year we are working on the budget for next year.  Each school submits its requests for money.  Sometimes they ask for more than usual for a new project.  Each department submits its request for next year’s funding and sometimes proposes a new initiatives – new textbooks, new staff, new equipment, new training, etc.  Are the new projects and initiatives aligned with the districts goals?  Are they in response to some new state or federal mandate?  Are we making sure each new expenditure is tied to our big picture plan? How will we measure its impact?  We have many choices.  Decisions need to be made from among almost limitless options.

    Richard Winwood said, “Planning is a process of choosing among those many options. If we do not choose to plan, then we choose to have others plan for us.”

    So, over the next 6 months, we will embark on a journey, guided by a firm called District Management Council, of developing a Strategic Plan. 

    This experienced consulting firm will assist us in analyzing our data.  They will conduct stake holder interviews.  Through a district steering committee they will help us define our goals, develop priorities, determine what success looks like, develop action plans, get stake holder feedback on the work of the steering committee and draft a detailed action plan.

    When all is said and done, it is our dream to have a plan that we can all point to with pride.  It will define student success for Calvert County Public Schools.  It won’t be in response to someone else’s needs.  It will be all Calvert County – a special, one-of-a-kind, no place like home school district.  

    We will refer to it frequently.  We will report on and discuss our progress regularly and we will make modifications as the environment changes.  Such a plan will assure Calvert County Public Schools will always be one of the best school districts in this United States of America.