4 Big Questions One Innovative District Answered on Its Transformation Journey

Go R.O.G.U.E, that’s our motto. R.O.G.U.E. is an acronym that stands for Raising Our Goals and Uniting Everyone. It’s simple, it’s catchy, and it serves as a constant reminder that, together, we must surpass the status quo and find new solutions for old problems. 

What made us shift our thinking and Go R.O.G.U.E.? It wasn’t one action or one person. It was a collection of actions and people who were brought together by great leadership.

In order for a school district to get to a point of transformation, honest answers have to be provided for difficult questions, and a clear plan must be developed to improve upon weaknesses. A plan, not excuses.

So let’s start with the questions…and the plan.

Does your school or district have a clear plan for the future?

No, not a lofty vision statement—a plan that is actionable, understandable, goal-oriented, and that was written specifically to fulfill the needs of your school or district, not the requirements of a grant. Nothing against those required plans, but, in my experience they are written out of obligation, forced into a difficult-to-understand template, and designed to collect lots of dust on the shelf.

We had plenty of those required plans, but we didn’t have our plan for the future. The first step in writing our Strategic Plan for Improvement was to identify people from the schools and the community who genuinely wanted to help our schools improve. Committees were formed and the committee members were the ones who identified focus areas and established time-bound goals. Each year, our superintendent releases a report on the status of our progress towards meeting those goals to the School Board and the public. This is a time when we take ownership of both our successful and not-so-successful endeavors. This is crucial because successes should ALWAYS be celebrated, and we have to be honest with ourselves and those around us for positive change to occur. If we don’t acknowledge our weaknesses, they grow and eventually become excuses that define us.

So what’s that one excuse that always stands in the way of change for your school or district? Student demographics? Geographical location? Salary?

For us, it’s salary.

Salary is one of the areas in our Strategic Plan for Improvement that is painful to discuss. Across the board, our salaries are below the state average. That gap gets even wider when we’re compared to neighboring school districts; the ones we actually compete with for teachers. On average, 25% of our teachers leave each year for higher paying jobs. As school and district leaders, we can’t increase salary (that’s a feat for the Board), but we can shower our teachers with appreciation and pray that this makes them stay! So that’s what we do.

Do your teachers KNOW they are valued?

John F. Kennedy once said that “the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” Saying you appreciate the work of your teachers is not the same as showing them.

After each district assessment cycle, our superintendent hand-delivers medals to the teachers whose classes showed significant growth or achieved high proficiency levels. Even though the students are the ones who took the assessment, we know that teachers are the driving force. The awards take a while to organize and entire days to hand out, but every second is time well spent! Not only does it build stronger relationships with our teachers, but we’ve also seen a rise in assessment scores. I honestly don’t know who finds this more rewarding—the teachers, the students, or our superintendent.

As you can imagine, our celebration for state assessments is even grander. Despite our struggles with high turnover, we have several loyal teachers who are absolute rock stars in the classroom. We even have several brand new teachers who shine just as bright. In the past, schools were only looked at as a whole when state test scores arrived, and pockets of excellence went unacknowledged. Not any longer. If you want to know who the rock star teachers are in Pointe Coupee, just visit our central office. Before you even make it to the receptionist, you will see our Teacher Wall of Fame. This is a wall that displays plaques with the portraits and accomplishments of an elite force of educators. In 2016, our inaugural year, eight teachers met the criteria for induction. In 2017, eighteen teachers were inducted! The criteria for induction have not changed. This is simple proof that people work harder when they are shown that their work is appreciated.

The Pointe Coupee Parish School District Teacher Wall of Fame.

What do you do to build capacity in your teachers?

Our teacher support structure is a bit different from many districts. In lieu of having a professional development (PD) coach or master teacher at each school, we have three district-level PD coaches who support all six of our schools. Despite being based out of central office, they primarily serve schools where 75% of their time is spent working directly with teachers. Teachers know that when the coaches enter the room it is to support them, not for a punitive evaluation. This has resulted in a great amount of trust between our teachers and coaches.

The PD coaches also plan and deliver discipline-focused trainings throughout the district that are designed specifically to meet the needs of our schools. Many of these sessions bring content-area teachers together from across the district for a day filled with collaborative learning and planning. Our centralized approach to building capacity in our teachers has allowed us to have a laser-like focus on improving teacher quality and supporting teachers in their craft.

Is your district keeping up with the times?

Technology. The students are using it. The teachers are using it. Some administrators are using it. Let’s be honest. If a teacher sent you a Google doc for comment, would you know what to do?

Although designed for the classroom, we use Google Apps for Education for just about everything in Pointe Coupee. It is the communication and collaboration backbone of our district. Remember those awesome PD coaches I just told you about? I forgot to mention that they are part of the I.T. Department. This unique placement has catapulted our communication and collaboration methods into the 21st century in the most beautiful way! Imagine the barriers that will crumble when the heart of your instruction has a direct connection to the stuffy I.T. Director! (By the way, I’m the stuffy I.T. Director). When evaluating your school or district’s technology, do not ask if you have the most cutting-edge technology. Instead, ask if the technology that you have is used in the most cutting-edge way.

What about social media? Do you regard it as the root of all evil, or have you embraced it and made it work to your school or district’s advantage? Social media can be a scary place for any school or district, but it’s time to face your fear! There are great things going on in your schools every day, and people aren’t going to find out about your successes unless you brag about them on social media. It’s true. The paper newsletter that takes you hours to put together is probably going into the garbage after a quick glance. Save yourself a lot of time and start posting to social media. Besides, if you don’t flood social media with positive information, someone else will flood it with negative information. Which would you prefer?

We post to social media more than most 14 year olds! We have a district account and each school has an account, so the feeds are always full of POSITIVE information about our schools. Positivity is contagious, and it spreads like wildfire on social media.

I know what you’re thinking...rumors spread like wildfire on social media, too. You’re right, but keeping away from social media is not going to shield your school or district from this. Always be prepared with enough positive information to drown out the negativity.

Technology, professional development, strategic plans, medals—these things have not transformed our district. Not yet. We are just in the transformation process. We still have many of the same struggles we did years ago. What’s different now? The difference is that we are no longer allowing ourselves to be defined by these things. We aren’t using them as excuses to sit out of difficult battles. Instead, these things have become our fuel, our motivation for change! #GoROGUE

Join my Pointe Coupee colleagues, along with 5,000 of your peers and thought leaders from ICLE, at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24–27 in Orlando. You’ll be inspired by innovative strategies for strengthening your school or district’s teaching and leadership practices, and will take away an action plan for positive change.