How Understanding Small School Districts Can Help the Larger Ones
Like many of my colleagues in education, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced me to think, act, and react in very different personal, professional, and contextual ways.
From a personal perspective, I have tried to be more patient with others . . . embracing Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit:
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
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From a professional perspective—and as a consultant to school districts across the country—I have (re-)learned that:
“Surviving a crisis first requires assessing the situation and the availability of resources, then making decisions based on the principles of prioritization, triage, and the probabilities of success. . .
While recognizing throughout that “success” looks different during a crisis—that our “definitions of or criteria for success” must be adjusted to the conditions at-hand.”
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Finally, from a contextual perspective, our personal, professional, political, and ecological connection to “the world”—now, literally—has been devastatingly reinforced. It is amazing how something so small (i.e., a molecular virus) can affect so many lives (physically, emotionally, socially, educationally, economically) in so short a time.
[And for those who have lost loved ones, I truly am sorry for your loss.]
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The Anatomy of a Small School District
When I was a “little school psychologist,” my first job—in Western Massachusetts—was as the only psychologist for a district of 1,000 students with four elementary schools and a junior-senior high school.
Professionally, as a consultant, I still work with innumerable small school districts. Some of them, in fact, enroll far fewer than 1,000 students, and some of them are housed in a single kindergarten to Grade 12 school—with only one teacher per grade level.
Critically, these are not all rural districts. Some of them are “suburban”—in states where your “small town is your small school district.” And some, indeed, are urban—in cities that carve up their districts like pieces in a dysfunctional puzzle.
And, during this pandemic, the plight of the small school district has weighed on my mind. This is because these districts need to address the same crisis-driven needs as the larger districts, but they are doing it with fewer staff, fewer school and community resources, and less (per pupil expenditure) money and degrees of (statutory and state procedural) freedom.
And so. . . crisis response and survival takes on a different form, function, and meaning here.
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Management Truisms versus Leadership Realities
As a Blogger myself, I am also a “student of blogging.”
That is, I receive about ten to twelve e-mails per day that alert me to many others’ work in education, business and management, strategic planning and organizational development, and political commentary and personal growth.
And during this pandemic, it has been particularly interesting to read others’ work on how to apply leadership principles to crisis management.
And while these principles are usually generic enough that any reader can apply them to their situation and context (kind of like a Rorschach test), I believe that—if they can be successful with our small school districts, then they can be universally used with all school districts.
Take, for example, Joel Garfinkle who published a piece this past week on “9 Actionable Ways to Lead with Transparency in Uncertain Times.”
In this piece, his nine actional “ways” (with minor editing to apply them to education) included the following:
- Don’t try to minimize risks. Many employers aim to ease employees’ fears by delivering a fairytale version of reality -- one in which only the best-case scenario is possible. That always backfires, however. Your employees are smart people; that’s why you hired them, right? They’re deeply concerned about the risks you’re all facing, which they know are real, so don’t downplay them. Your team will read right through any sugarcoating of the situation by senior management.
- Highlight the pathway forward. Rather than minimizing risks, focus on the scenario that is most likely to happen if everyone does their part. Drive toward that goal, emphasizing how everyone plays a role in that process. Give each person specific actions they can take to bring your whole team closer to that goal. . . (G)ive everyone a sense of control over the situation, and thus, a sense of optimism about the future that keeps morale high.
- Hash out a communication strategy. Create talking points. . . so you’ll deliver a cohesive message to employees across the organization. Make sure your talking points are grounded in reality, provide real direction, and speak to employees’ top concerns.
- Establish a cross-functional team. Assemble a team of people from various functions to determine your course of action as you continue to navigate the changes ahead. . . Knowing that a trusted peer is working on this ad-hoc committee and giving them personal updates will boost transparency.
- Create backup plans. As Deloitte suggests in a March 2020 report, create temporary succession plans for your organization. Individuals may become unavailable for shorter or longer periods of time, so create contingency plans for how to fill critical roles within various scenarios. Develop clear decision-making structures that address different potential scenarios so you’ll always have a backup plan.
- Seek input from everyone. Deliver a survey that asks employees about their fears and primary concerns, so you can determine how to alleviate them. Gallup has created a free pulse survey that you can use to gage how you’re currently doing with gaining your employees’ trust during the coronavirus crisis.
- Communicate key priorities. Your organization may need to regroup and reprioritize due to the changes you’re experiencing. Having a hierarchical list of key priorities will help staff know what to focus on, adapting as needed, especially if current roles fluctuate.
- Create a video from the CEO. Since the CEO can’t talk to all employees at once, record a video message in which the CEO speaks directly to the whole team. Knowing that top leadership has taken the time to respond to their concerns will assure employees that they are important and valued. At critical moments like this, an inspiring message from a top leader can unify the team and provide an excellent morale boost.
- Ask for help. Mobilize people to take action in specific ways by directly asking for their help. They’ll feel invested in navigating the changes ahead by finding novel solutions when you empower them to take action. Affirm their strengths, present the challenges you need solutions for, and ask them to put their heads together to decide how to best handle them.
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As a student of both Blogs and crisis management, I love these suggestions.
But as a realistic consultant who has experienced many professional crises (e.g., the Challenger explosion, Desert Storm, Columbine, 9-11), I know that no small district superintendent can do all—or even most—of these.
Indeed, most of the small district superintendents that I work with have no assistant superintendents. . . and most of their offices have a secretary and a part-time book-keeper—with no administrator in charge of finance and operations, and no full-time technology person.
Most have one or two school administrators, and they are former teachers who also have families and their own children to support during this pandemic.
And most live in communities with few businesses with relevant, supportive resources. . . indeed, their school district is the largest employer in town.
These superintendents’ key priorities right now are about feeding students, paying staff, finding computers, connecting virtual networks, and then encouraging teachers to develop and distribute instructional packets (because many don’t have enough computers or connectivity).
And their “back-up plans” are more about how to transport students to school when it opens. . . and when “social distancing” will require fewer students per bus run and, thus, more buses or bus runs.
Relatedly, these plans necessarily include how to retain bus drivers (never mind teachers) right now, and how to decide what grade-levels will return to school (when that occurs). . . when, how, how often, and under what instructional (and social-emotional) conditions.
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A Blueprint and the Pandemic Power of Three
The Bad News is. . . that most small district superintendents (in fact, most superintendents) don’t have is the time to create (or even research and find) a blueprint or check-list to help identify and organize the different pandemic-related areas that they need to be concerned about.
The Good News is. . . that I needed to do this for the superintendents that I work with, and that I have a few suggestions.
One roadmap, that is being continually updated to help superintendents deal with current organizational and systemic issues related to the pandemic, was published by the74.
[CLICK HERE for article and Link to Resource]
Titled, “Education Leaders Must Act to Keep Teachers, Students and Families Safe From Coronavirus. Here’s a Road Map for Them to Follow,” this article provides a “when to do what” framework of strategies that will help districts continue to address current pandemic issues (through the end of this school year) and potential school re-opening issues.
Some of the issues here involve how to:
- Mitigate an outbreak of COVID-19 cases within district and school settings;
- Facilitate the early detection of new infections; and
- Create systems that support data collection, monitoring, and communication that address the now-fully developed pandemic.
The roadmap also suggests approaches to address additional issues like the:
- Access of staff, students, parents, and others to district and school facilities—including what parts of those facilities;
- The monitoring, screening, and triaging of students, employees, and stakeholders;
- Precautions for and the control of existing, new, and asymptomatic infections; and
- Communication with and education of staff, students, parents, and others in the community on relevant policies, practices, and procedures.
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A second roadmap, with links to an incredibly helpful website, also was published by the74.
[CLICK HERE for article and Link to Resource]
Titled, “Reopening Schools Will Be a Huge Challenge for Education Leaders. Here Is a Road Map to Help With Their Planning,” this article helps to answer some of the following questions:
- How do we begin to assess students’ academic, social and emotional health?
- What protocols need to be in place to project enrollment, given the uncertainties of students returning to school?
- How can we begin to create master schedules without understanding social distancing in a school context?
- What can we do now to keep the classes of 2020 and 2021 on the path to postsecondary success?
- What are the cleaning protocols for buses?
- What key messages should we communicate to parents regarding what the school experience may be when classes restart?
- What will the procedures be on the first day of school?
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The roadmap focuses on actions across seven organizational areas: governance, wellness, instruction, postsecondary, facilities, school operations and technology.
Below are examples of recommendations in these organizational areas adapted from the the74 article:
- Governance: How to integrate return-to-school and pandemic response activities into existing committees at the district and school levels.
- Wellness: How to prepare and implement activities to evaluate the mental health status and needs of all students.
- Instruction: How to evaluate for and set realistic goals so that all students are on track for academic and social, emotional, and behavioral success by the end of the 2022 school year.
- Postsecondary: How to prepare the Class of 2020 for their post-secondary “lives” relative to college and career.
- Facilities: How to acquire the necessary materials and execute effective protocols for cleaning, disinfecting, and preventing spread of disease while on the way, at, and after school.
- School Operations: How to respond to any changes in food and food service requirements based on state and federal guidance.
- Technology: How to develop, implement, and evaluate procedures for the return and inventory, and the repair and sanitizing of district-owned devices.
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The Pandemic Power of Three
If you are a superintendent, I hope that you will consult these two resources, and generate a list of the most important elements in each of the seven areas that you, your colleagues, and your district needs to address.
If you are a teacher or related service professional (school psychologist, counselor, social worker, nurse, etc.), I make the same recommendation. . . but put the recommendations in each area into your context and scope of services and supports. In addition, think about how you can support your Superintendent, other district staff, and your school administrator(s). Indeed, you may have areas of expertise and contributions that will add value to their perspectives and hard work.
After all, we are all in this together.
But beyond the content embedded in these two roadmaps and resources, think about the processes that will most help small district superintendents to accomplish their post-sequestration needs and goals.
Here is where I would like to introduce the Pandemic Power of Three.
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When the pandemic began and I realized that I would be sequestered at home, I purchased and completed a business management course developed by Tony Robbins and Dean Graziosi.
One of the success strategies that they suggest is to wake up each morning (or, better, before retiring each night) and identify the three things that you MUST get accomplished that day.
They then suggest that you “plan and execute accordingly”. . . that you make the completion of these activities your Number 1 Priority over and above any other priorities that are important—but less important—or that “pop up” without warning that day.
My friends, understand one reality of crisis resolution:
If all you do in a crisis is respond to the effects of the crisis, you will never solve the crisis. Planned time must be devoted to actually solving the crisis. . . even if it means some casualties still occur.
Thus, if you are a small district superintendent or school leader, here is just one example (use your own modifications) of how to adapt Robbins’ and Graziosi’s suggestion.
- Take the organizational areas of the second roadmap, and organize them across your week as follows:
Monday: Facilities and School Operations
Tuesday: Instruction and Wellness
Thursday: Technology and Postsecondary
Friday: Evaluation and Next Week Planning
- Identify three specific and measurable actions, activities, or steps in each area—(a) one to address an essential and current need, (b) one to address an essential and short-term need, and (c) one to address an essential and long-term need.
- Given the schedule above, on Monday, for example, you will have three priority activities or goals in the area of Facilities, and three priority activities or goals in the area of School Operations.
- Delegate (as appropriate), Proceed, and Complete all of each day’s activities or goals—Evaluating them both at the end of each day, and on Friday.
- Then on Friday, establish the next week’s priority agenda to build on the successes of the week just completed.
The ultimate goal of the Pandemic Power of Three is to accomplish small but important steps that will create the momentum to cumulatively prepare you for the “next phase” of the pandemic. . . when students return to school.
For small district superintendents, completing three concrete steps in each organizational area each week is realistic and do-able.
For larger district superintendents with more personnel and resources, they can use the Pandemic Power of Three with Assistant Superintendents, Supervisors, and Building Principals—magnifying the number and speed of the needed outcomes.
For all school leaders, the Pandemic Power of Three will successfully keep you “out of the whirlwind”—as symbolically represented in the brief clip below.
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Recently, Jean Sharp discussed the “4 Lessons About Supporting Students in Need” [CLICK HERE for this article]. I would like to adapt her four lessons—applying them to superintendent-staff interactions, especially now during the pandemic.
The four lessons are:
- Relationships Matter
- Meet Staff Where They Are
- Go Slow to Go Fast
- Give Them Hope, and a Future
In this Blog, I discussed the challenges facing the small district superintendent, suggesting that organizational and management strategies that work for them—in addressing and preparing for the “next phase” of the pandemic. . . the re-opening of school—should work similarly for superintendents in larger school districts.
Critically, there are approximately 13,000 school districts in this country, and nearly half of these districts serve fewer than 1,000 students.
To assist our superintendents and their districts, I discussed the following things:
- “9 Actionable Ways to Lead with Transparency in Uncertain Times.”
- A Roadmap (with resources) for Education Leaders to Keep Teachers, Students, and Families Safe from the COVID-19 Virus
- A Roadmap (with resources and seven organizational areas) for Education Leaders to Help Plan the Re-Opening of their Schools
- How to Use the Pandemic Power of Three to Make Demonstrable Progress relative to Current, Short-Term, and Long-Term Pandemic and School Re-Opening Goals
In the end, crisis management and survival is not satisfactory for our students, staff, and schools. We must take this unprecedented situation and thrive—eventually succeeding well past where we were when school was disrupted six or more weeks ago.
This can be done. . . regardless of the size of our districts.
But for the smaller districts, you will succeed. . . as you have in the past, so will you in the future!
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I appreciate, as always, the time that you invest in reading these Blogs, and your dedication to your students, your colleagues, and the educational process—especially in the face of the challenges we all have recently experienced.
Please feel free to send me your thoughts and questions.
And please know that—even during this time when most schools are closed for the rest of the year—I continue to be available to you through Zoom calls. . . if and when you need me. Contact me at any time.