Leading a Model School: THE POWER OF TRUST

Wondering what makes successful schools and districts tick? In this series, “Leading a Model School,” we ask principals and superintendents from across the country to share the secrets behind the recent gains and successes in their schools and districts. Find out what’s happening in Wisconsin's Fall Creek School District.

Trust building is vital to our relationships throughout life—starting with our earliest memories. When my own kids were younger I remember them frequently launching themselves from the arm of the couch. At first, I would stand a few feet away and they would jump into my arms. Before the jump they would say, “don’t forget to catch me!” As they flew through the air I would always think…“please don’t drop them, please don’t drop them, please don’t drop them.” It was a real concern for me—not that they would get hurt if they fell, but that they would stop jumping if I missed. It only takes one time for the seeds of mistrust to be planted. School district relationships are similar. Families trust us with their cherished children and expect a return on both the emotional and financial investment they make. Developing trust in what we do as educators is essential to our relationship with the community, and that remains a core focus within the Fall Creek School District. Over the past five years, my team has focused on three things to move our district forward:

Rallying Around a Theme

Go Crickets

Fall Creek, Wisconsin. Population 1365. Home of the Fall Creek Crickets. Our community comes out in huge numbers to support our athletic teams. Our gym gets loud and the sea of Go Crickets green fills the bleachers. They stand, they cheer, they feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. Our district brand is visible around every corner. From the t-shirts, hats, and jerseys to the #gocrickets on our social media feeds, signs on local businesses, and banners along the main street in Fall Creek, our community has completely embraced the Go Crickets mentality. When you enroll in Fall Creek, you get Go Crickets gear. When you start working in Fall Creek, you get Go Crickets gear. When you come to a game you may catch some Go Crickets gear that we throw into the stands. This approach gives us all something in common and becomes a theme to rally around.

Creating Trust in 30-Second Increments

As a system, we have to understand that every interaction counts when it comes to building trust with the community. Certain skeptics believed 30 seconds was not nearly enough time to impact trust within the community. So we broke it down to interactions. When someone walks through our building doors our staff understands that two things need to happen...the person is acknowledged and directed. We acknowledge them as a valued member of our school community and direct them to the place they need to go. This not only keeps our building safe, it allows our staff to connect with community members and sets the stage for conversations moving forward. One of the really fantastic unintended consequences of starting this process is how the students have reacted. They carefully observe how adults in the building interact. As a result, our students will acknowledge and direct adults when they enter the building. The connection to the kids takes 30 seconds, and adults walk away with a better sense of who we are as a school district.

Making Our Story the Community’s Story

One of the biggest trust builders in Fall Creek came when we opened our school and started sharing the work of our teachers with the world. Many people in communities have no connection to a school. They may have left school years ago and not taken away many positives. But negative memories from long ago are not a fair representation of the wonderful things happening today in our schools. To counteract this, we have begun inviting the community on the journey with us through live streams, social media feeds, and podcasts featuring the incredible work of our kids. With this new knowledge of our activities, community members can connect to what is happening in the building, even if they are not here daily. Communities want to brag about their school so why not give them the positive stories? By sharing the great work of our students and teachers we help change the narrative of the experience our community member may have had years ago.

Trust doesn’t mean we get every decision right, but it does mean we work from a place that is best for kids and the community. It means we open the doors, both literally and figuratively, to move our district forward. We love the idea of the community being able to see what’s happening across the district on a day-to-day basis through the social media feeds and connections at school events. We want them to walk through the building and be proud of what they see, hear, and feel. We want them to know that when they jump, we won’t drop them. We are all in this together. We are Fall Creek. Go Crickets.

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The Fall Creek School District has been honored in 2016 and 2017 as an Innovative District by the International Center for Leadership in Education Dr. Joe Sanfelippo will be presenting at the

25th Annual Model Schools Conference in Nashville, TN, June 25–28.

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