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6 School Districts Begin Action Plans for Strategic School Design at Scale

ERS hosts the first ever Summer School Design Summit

Every district has some great schools. But how can school systems ensure that every school succeeds because of the system not in spite of it? 

In July, 50 school and district leaders from six large, urban school systems gathered in Boston for the 2017 ERS Summer School Design Summit. Over three days, these cross-functional teams identified and began to work toward a set of key actions necessary in their district to scale strategic school design to ensure that every school succeeds for every student. They heard from practitioners, tested new tools and resources, met peers from around the country, and spent many hours visioning, planning, debating, and listening to each other. Access tools and resources from the Summit here. 

Four big takeaways emerged from the summit:

1. We need to make huge shifts in how schools are designed so they better serve students. For systems to effectively support these shifts, they must first define them. For some district teams, this meant identifying a few structures and practices to implement with excellence at every school. Others defined a more comprehensive set of “design principles” that serve as guideposts for principals. A key realization was that even in environments of principal autonomy, defining big shifts is a necessary step to focusing district support and clearing barriers. Our paper Designing Schools that Work defines the six common design essentials around which we’ve seen high-performing schools organize.

2. It is critical to deliberately identify the “district enabling conditions” that support big design shifts.These are the system-level resource patterns, processes, and policies that support strategic resource use in schools. Since these enabling conditions touch so many different parts of district operations (e.g. contracts, human capital policies and practices, professional learning offered to teachers and leaders, funding policy, and portfolio structure), it takes incredible alignment to work on them rigorously and deliberately. Participants were excited about a new ERS tool that summarizes the 15 enabling conditions which support strategic school designs.

3. Districts noticed a fundamental tension between organizing to support “the basics” of effective schools across the board (e.g. high-functioning professional learning systems) and organizing to support “shoot for the moon” innovations that shape schools in ways we’ve never dreamed. Great systems must do both.

4. There is an incredible amount of work to do, but there are a few key places to start:

    • Bring together cross-functional teams to work toward greater alignment. Every district team that participated in Summit felt that it was transformational to work deeply and cross-functionally on these issues, and also a huge departure from the way the work is typically done. Teams appreciated the opportunity to learn together, share perspectives, and build trust that will underpin all their future work.
    • Create systems for professional learning. Many teams focused on creating effective professional learning systems in schools as the first “big design shift” to work towards. Decades of research within the United States and in high-performing countries highlights how important it is to support strong teacher teams that review student data and prepare instruction together. ERS’ research into professional learning demonstrates how systems that get results invest in professional learning.

We asked a member of each team to tell us what they learned, and how they plan turn their experience at the ERS Summer Summit into positive change in their districts.

Shelby County Schools

Sharon Griffin, Chief of Schools

What’s one thing you learned at the Summit that you can’t wait to share with your colleagues at home?

I’m eager to share what I learned about “district enabling conditions” – in other words, how does the district set up the conditions for schools to be strategic. A large part of that is getting the right people in the right seats. Relationships mean a lot, but if we’re not doing the best thing for kids, we have to be courageous and make the decision to do something differently.

What were some of your favorite tools you learned about at the Summit?

I really liked the District Enabling Conditions summary and self-assessment. We graded ourselves against best practices and discussed the results. I was also struck by the video of how an assistant principal in one school district shadowed a student for a day.  When you look through the lens of a child, you realize what’s really important.

Shelby County School district team members collaborate during 2017 ERS Summer Summit

Denver Public Schools

Amy Keltner, Deputy Chief of Schools

What's one thing you've discovered during your time here that you can't wait to share with your colleagues?

I came to this summit thinking that we were going to focus on the school planning processes and support.  The big “aha” moment was when I realized that it’s more powerful to think about strategic school design, not just strategic school planning. That means making intentional connections between the decisions schools make and then the support they need from central to make those a reality. For example, we’ve been working on teacher leadership structures at the central office. But it would be more powerful to look at teacher leadership as a design element, and how it supports other design elements in the school. That way its promise is realized more, and it supports the central goals of the school.

What is your favorite school design tool or resource? How can you or do you use it?

We really liked the tool that Indianapolis Public Schools shared, called the Complete and Coherent School Planning Process. It showed a comprehensive picture of the school planning process, and the roles each person or department plays. I also really liked the District Enabling Conditions rubric – that’s what gave me that “aha” about the importance of connecting planning to strategic school design.

Spring Branch Independent School District

Bryan Williams, Principal at Spring Branch Middle School

What's one thing you've discovered during your time here that you can't wait to share with your colleagues?

One of the things I learned was how to advocate from a principal level to get the central office to understand the challenges that principals have while doing innovation and design work. For example, we have lots of autonomy around scheduling and hiring, but we don’t have a lot of autonomy around funding. Our staffing allocation is fixed; we can’t trade positions. We know that that can be a potential obstacle to our design work. Another challenge was not having a centralized operational calendar, aligned with central office departments. I enjoyed learning from and using the calendar from another district at the summit as a starting point, then making it our own.

What’s your favorite school design resource or tool?

The scheduling and staffing tool will be very helpful in creating a schedule and making the best staffing decisions that support my school design priorities. We’re creating a “micro-school” within our school this year, so the project-based learning tool was also really helpful.


Oakland Unified School District team members collaborate during the 2017 ERS Summer Summit

Oakland Unified School District

Preston Thomas, Network Superintendent- High School

What’s one thing you learned at the Summit that you can’t wait to share with your colleagues at home?

We dove into deep conversations about the concept of empathy and grounding that in school sites and what school sites need from the inside out. We want to support schools, but when we did the diagnostic, we realized that some of our supports weren't resonating with people. I'm really excited about bringing that framework back and improving what it means to be in service to schools in Oakland.

What were some of your favorite tools you learned about at the Summit?

We went through the School Designer process before when we worked with ERS. [School Designer is a tool that integrates districts’ planning and budgeting processes so that key resource decisions, including those related to a school’s schedule, staffing plan, and budget, are tightly aligned with its needs and improvement strategy.] It was really powerful to revisit this process. 

TulsPublic Schools

Andrea Castañeda, Design and Innovation Officer

What’s one thing you learned at the Summit that you can’t wait to share with your colleagues at home?

I am excited about the intersection of rigorous conceptual thinking and practical takeaway tools. Once we go back and spend a little bit of time growing, we will be ready and armed with the tools we need to take a big jump to the next step.

What were some of your favorite tools you learned about at the Summit?

I liked School Check and the Readiness Rubric for assessing ourselves on how we compare to school design best practice and how ready we are to make change. They stood out because they are concrete tools that can be easily modified to a local context but give us the tremendous benefit of not having to design indicators from scratch. We started to use them here and will use them when we return to Tulsa.

Indianapolis Public Schools

Christine Collier, Principal 

What’s one thing you learned at the Summit that you can’t wait to share with your colleagues at home?

Most powerful to me were the essential elements that you need in place to make things work. We talked about how we need to honestly analyze them from different points of view within the district and from different roles.

What were some of your favorite tools you learned about at the Summit?

In our school, we currently use the ERS buildings block profiles - a series of strategies or options effective schools use to organize resources to meet different types of student need. We ask ourselves, “What is the student experience? What is the teacher experience? What is the building block? What do we need in supports to make it a reality?” Playing that out makes you articulate your thinking and your plan. You could have a great idea, but if you don't sit down and think about the logistics of that plan, then in the long run what does that mean for students?

6 School Districts Begin Action Plans for Strategic School Design at Scale
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