Courage: The Key to Improving Student Outcomes

Wf926907 Shaped 2019 Courageinschools Hero 2

About 40 miles west of Boise, Idaho, sits Wilder, a small farming community with under 2,000 people, 25 percent of whom live in poverty. The Wilder School District—with one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school—makes up the town’s public school offering. 

Despite the district’s small size, it had developed some large issues. By 2007, the elementary school had cycled through seven principals in 14 years and was one of the worst performing schools in the state. While the middle and high schools also struggled, they had the benefit of sharing a newly renovated building. The elementary school, on the other hand, was in disrepair. 

The Courage to Innovate

When Jeff Dillon was named principal of the elementary school in 2007, he was met by rightfully frustrated educators, certain that he—like the others—would fail to make improvements and leave within a couple of years. Thankfully for the school’s educators, students, families, and larger community, Jeff Dillon was different. The first thing he did was win board approval to build a new elementary school. He also made instructional and staffing decisions to improve math, reading, and language tests in three years. Yet as a district, they were still struggling to meet the needs of a student body so diverse in those needs. In 2012, the elementary school principal also assumed the superintendent role, serving a dual post in the district. Mr. Dillon’s vision for Wilder School District went far beyond test scores. He was determined to transition the entire school district to one that focuses on the needs of the kids, a full competency-based and truly personalized model.

This transition was a necessity, not an option, to Mr. Dillon. In a migrant farming community, a large portion of Wilder’s students leave and return to school throughout the year. Mr. Dillon saw it as a failure of the district if they could not find a way for these students to pick up where they left off. A personalized, competency-based approach, where students are expected to master content, was implemented through technology integration, flexible scheduling, and mentoring.

Technology Integration

The use of flexible learning apps and iPad devices provided great hope to students who might spend half the year away because of migrant farming patterns, or move in and out of the community because of the challenges of poverty and low-income rental homes. These students now feel much more motivated and welcomed to re-enroll in Wilder when they return—again and again. Instead of being expected to somehow catch up, they pick up exactly where they left off.

Flexible Scheduling

Can you imagine having no bell schedules or set grade levels? Mr. Dillon can. He shifted the mindset of not only staff but also the kids, allowing them to set their own schedules so they can take ownership of their coursework. If they want to take two classes at a time in order to reach competence, fine. If it takes longer to “finish” the curriculum for one student compared with another, no problem. They make it work. Student stress levels have decreased as they work with their mentors to develop their learning goals.


Teachers are known to students as “mentors.” That’s right; there are no “teachers” as we typically know them. They mentor students toward their goals and support them along the way. Of course, this has been a big shift for teachers, so Mr. Dillon lobbied the local school board for an early release one day per week. Students leave two hours early on Wednesdays so teachers can engage in customized professional learning.

With Risk Comes Reward

Rethinking the role of teachers and no set schedule was a risk that not only benefited the students, but also resulted in Mr. Dillon becoming the superintendent (while also keeping his principal role). He was tasked with replicating the success he had across all schools. Today, all three schools operate on a competency-based, personalized model. All schools have steered away from the typical period-based schedule and toward one that is flexible and fluid and changes based on students’ evolving needs.

Last year, Wilder School District was named one of the nation’s 25 most innovative districts as part of an AASA-Successful Practices Network study that I had the honor of chairing. Thanks to districts like Wilder, we are seeing that there is another way. These districts are creative, imaginative, resourceful, incredibly hard working, and devoted to students.  

In studying all 25 innovative districts, though, I credit something else—another commonality among them all—for driving their dramatic and sometimes radical transformations and progress. I credit their courage. Bold plans matter. But they have only as much potential as the leaders and educators who implement them have courage to persist in the face of inevitable setbacks.

The students at Wilder School District are more engaged in their learning than they’ve ever been. Discipline issues have dropped dramatically. Academic outcomes continue to improve. Where once families were leaving the community because of the district’s poor reputation, they are now choosing to send their children to Wilder’s schools.

Every Student Succeeds

Yet, to Mr. Dillon, this still was not enough. Migrant students were not achieving the same gains as their peers. While the district made returning to school after entire seasons away much easier for them, Mr. Dillon was still searching for a way to give these students every advantage. So, the school adapted its calendar to make room for these students—and all students—to continue learning throughout the summer and make up for lost time.

Yet this still wasn’t enough. Migrant students simply need more time to complete all requirements and eventually graduate from high school. Mr. Dillon is lobbying state legislators to allow students four-and-a-half years to graduate high school without stigma or penalty.

Where Mr. Dillon—and all the leaders in the 25 most innovative school districts—sees a setback, he’s undeterred. Where he sees any need or possibility for student success, he finds a way to meet it. This is because he believes educators have one mandate and one mandate only: to provide every student a rigorous, relevant, and future-focused education that will prepare them for successful lives. 

Through my work, I have the privilege of talking to educators all over the country who also know that our industrial model of education must change. They know that today’s students are fundamentally different from students of even one generation ago. They know that our students are facing a mental health crisis and that we must adapt schools to teach social and emotional skills and promote wellbeing. So many educators have the right intentions and hopes but feel overwhelmed by how to undertake such change. 

Dr. Bill Daggett at Leadership Academy 2018

The missing piece is courage. It is the courage to imagine another way and conceive a plan to realize it. It is the courage of conviction to do whatever we can and whatever we must for our students’ successful futures and wellbeing. It is the courage never to lose sight of why we must be courageous in the first place—our students.

When this kind of courage is coupled with a plan to systematically remodel teaching and learning to meet the needs of today’s learners, then you, too, will lead innovation that will help evolve our education system. You, too, will be unstoppable and undeterred.

Leadership Academy: Lead with Courage

The 25 most innovative districts have something else in common: they took the long view. These leaders know big changes are needed. They have been very methodical in their approach and smart with pacing their innovations in a way that won’t overwhelm educators or students.

At the 2020 Leadership Academy, we will inspire courage in every leader and educator who joins us. We will also guide you to develop a plan to methodically transform your districts and schools for truly rigorous, relevant, and future-focused teaching and learning—and at a pace that will encourage buy-in. We will unpack how to use data to reveal student needs and identify the most effective instructional approaches to meet them. We will discuss how to leverage social and emotional learning as a tool of student growth and evolving education. And we will build instructional leadership capacity to meet the needs of all learners.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Join us at Leadership Academy: Lead with Courage on February 4–6, 2020, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and leave with a bold plan in hand and the courage to remain undeterred as you realize its greatest potential.

Be the first to read the latest from Shaped.