This article originally appeared in Educational Leadership magazine. The magazine also publishes a "digital edition" with the features of the print edition
Two years ago, principal Tihesha Guthrie noticed a change at Arlington Woods Elementary in Indianapolis: More and more students were coming to school with severe behavioral problems linked to trauma. The preK–6 school serves a high-needs population; 81 percent of the roughly 500 students receive free and reduced-priced lunch. "We had students who would run around the building, cry, tear up the classroom, and curse out the teachers," reflects Guthrie. There were regularly 30 or more students in the behavior room, and too many pupils were chronically absent. At the same time, teachers were grappling with new, higher academic standards, and they barely had time to collaborate or discuss new approaches. Teachers were deeply unhappy, and the school's academic scores and school climate were suffering.
To address such challenges, many school leaders end up tinkering around the edges—adding more hall monitors or trying a new classroom management technique. But instead, Guthrie and her team learned how to do strategic school design—in which they looked deeply at how they organized talent, time, technology, and programs, and then realigned those resources to meet their students' needs. Although every strategic school looks different, school leaders can adopt some aspects of strategic design to better organize their schools to address the particular challenges they face.
In 2015, the Indianapolis school board and district superintendent Lewis Ferebee proposed "reinventing" the district to address the challenges of uneven student performance, declining enrollment, and tight funding. A centerpiece of the plan was to grant schools more autonomy in exchange for more support and greater accountability for results. "The status quo has not worked," Ferebee announced as he unveiled the district's new strategic plan, which reflected the belief that "teachers and principals control and are accountable for what happens in their schools, and should have the power to make decisions in the best interest of the students they serve."
During the 2015–2016 school year, Guthrie applied to join a pilot cohort of six autonomy schools. The pilot was designed to test what flexibilities and support schools need to make meaningful, research-informed choices about their budgets, staffing, schedules, and instructional models. This required changing existing policies and practices at the school and district level, as well as infusing new ways of thinking about how schools could be designed to transform student learning and enhance teaching practices. The Indianapolis district worked with Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit education organization that we work for, to support school leaders in creating their multiyear school design plans. At Arlington Woods, the school redesign unfolded in the following four steps.
To do this work, Arlington Woods formed a design team, which included Guthrie, an assistant principal, an instructional coach, and several teachers. To begin, the group focused on clarifying its vision for the school. In the past, Guthrie says, school leaders would start with known problems and then jump right to finding solutions. But this time, they asked, "What do we want the experience to be at our school for students and teachers? What do different types of kids need to be successful?" The team decided they wanted their students to become responsible decision makers and to be more socially and self-aware. The educators knew that they had to address students' behavioral needs before students could fully attune to learning.
As with many planning processes, the team then consulted data, which reinforced what the educators already sensed. In the previous year, the school had had 579 suspensions and 785 referrals to the behavior room. Only 44 percent of K–2 students were at the benchmark level on DIBELS, a teacher-administered assessment of reading skills. On the ISTEP (the most recent, and more rigorous, state assessment), English language arts scores had decreased by 10 percent from the previous year, while math scores dropped by 19 percent. These numbers helped frame the problem.
But what to do about it? Arlington Woods and the other cohort schools assessed their use of resources, comparing it against best-practice metrics from schools that were dramatically improving student performance, using a self-assessment tool called School Check. For example, they looked at whether their teachers had enough time and expert support for collaborative planning; whether struggling students received sufficient time in core subjects to catch up; and whether students got enough small-group or individual attention tailored to their needs. This process opened school leaders' minds to resource strategies they might not have considered.
Principal Guthrie and her team focused on planning time, noting that teachers only had 30 minutes each day for individual planning, and only one 30-minute period every other week for collaborative planning. This was far below the best-practice standard they had studied. The self-assessment also prompted the team to think about school culture and relationship building—for example, whether every student was deeply known by an adult in the school, and whether time and staff were allocated to develop and support shared school values. The team agreed that this was an area of concern for Arlington Woods.
Next, the school leaders moved from assessing resources to choosing solutions—taking advantage of their new flexibility over staffing, scheduling, and budget to consider outside-the-box ideas. For example, some design team members weren't sure at first how to find more time for collaborative planning or how that time would help them with instruction. The Arlington Woods design team watched videos from high-performing schools, reviewed sample schedules, and looked at protocols and meeting agendas for collaborative planning meetings to create their own plan and success metrics. In this process, the team explored ways to dramatically change the use of time and staff in their school.
Guthrie and her team settled on several priorities and design changes that formed the foundation for future growth. They wanted to provide the following:
Now, the Arlington Woods team needed to create a plan to allocate resources toward the identified priorities. One issue was the need to free resources for new teacher roles. The team considered choices and trade-offs and decided that they would raise class sizes by 3–5 students in most grades (still keeping class sizes under 25), so they could free funds for an SEL teacher and a math specialist. The team added two more "specials" periods—one for the SEL teacher to teach a course on social and emotional skills, and one for a combination of SEL and media skills.
Adding these new specials periods meant that core subject teachers could meet for more collaborative planning time. But how to accomplish this without also reducing instructional time? After analyzing the schedule and current practices, the team realized that they could recapture instructional time they had always had. Officially, the school day was supposed to start at 9:30 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m., but teachers had been starting at 9:45 a.m. and ending at 3:30 p.m. to accommodate students' late arrivals and early departures. To reclaim this 30 minutes of instructional time each day, the team devised a communication plan to make the start and end times clear to parents.
With the extra time and staff, Guthrie and her team were able to adjust the schedule to include 50 minutes of teacher planning time four days a week, plus a 100-minute block every week for collaborative planning. This increased total collaborative planning time from nine hours each year to 60. The new math specialist and other content experts (such as teacher leaders) were assigned to run collaborative planning time, supported by protocols and agendas to help review data and plan instruction.
Principal Guthrie and the team made a final staffing change—they transferred a classroom teacher who excelled at student relationships into a "behavior specialist" role. In this role, the teacher counsels students who are having behavior problems in class, runs social groups to teach appropriate behavior, and works with students in special education. This decision was based on a careful analysis of the skills and interests of each teacher, as well as available funding sources (such as special education funds).
Of course, this first year of implementation has not been perfect. Behavior is still a challenge, and effectively utilizing new collaborative planning time took some adjustments. But the data show improvement. The school is on pace for a 60 percent reduction in suspensions; student attendance in January 2017 was 99.4 percent compared with 93.2 percent the year before; and the number of students absent 10 or more days has fallen by 60 percent. As far as academics, 41 percent of students are showing "high growth" on the Star 360 reading assessment relative to their assessment at the beginning of the year; 19 percent of students in grades 3–6 are showing high growth in math.
In terms of student behavior, students are actively using the skills they learn in the SEL course to calm themselves down. Guthrie recalls pulling aside a student who was angry and about to explode in the hallway. She asked him what he had learned in the SEL class that might help him. "Ms. V. taught us belly breathing," he exclaimed, and relaxed as he demonstrated the technique.
Guthrie has observed changes in school culture among her staff as well. She has seen veteran teachers get excited about new lesson techniques, and during walk-throughs, she notices that teams are following through on the strategies they developed in collaborative planning time. Her 3rd grade team engaged in professional learning around vocabulary, and now she sees all 3rd graders doing vocabulary chants and other new activities.
Guthrie says that the best part of this process was creating a team of learning leaders—not only the school team that worked on school redesign, but also all her other teachers. She felt that the infusion of new ideas and support from an outside coach helped the team gain new perspectives on their school, their resources, and the possibilities that exist. Guthrie sees the changes as only the beginning of what they can accomplish over time by continuing to leverage their flexibility to develop a school design that matches student and teacher learning needs.
To be sure, a school system plays a key role in supporting schools to succeed (see "How School Systems Can Support Strategic Redesign" below). But as Principal Guthrie's story shows, school leaders don't necessarily need formal autonomy to use their resources strategically. Sometimes it's a matter of seeing new uses for existing resources: for example, making full use of all available time; tapping teachers' individual skills; aligning schedules so that teachers have time to collaborate; ensuring that each team is led by a teacher leader or instructional coach; and using data to assess challenges and monitor results. These are the hallmarks of strategic school design that any school leader can use.