Leveraging Schools That Lead to Solve Problems
When I started as principal of Inborden Elementary STEAM Academy, I wanted to save the world, accomplish great things, and solve everyone’s problems.
You see, making a difference at Inborden Elementary was important to me. It’s been a part of my world my whole life. I went to elementary school there, my mother taught there for 40 years, and my father was the principal of a sister school in the county. This is my community.
And as part of rural Halifax County, Inborden Elementary is part of one of North Carolina’s most troubled school districts. We face several learning gaps – and many issues that need to be addressed.
But that first year as a manager, I didn’t know much about troubleshooting. I was like a frozen computer. Do you know that wheel spinning on your screen, buffered? It was me. Buffering.
A new perspective
I’m now in my fifth year as a principal at Inborden Elementary – and second year with Schools That Lead (STL), a non-profit educational organization that brings together networks of educators to advance the resolution of problems. Time, experience, and exposure to the science of enhancement with STL has taught me one thing that has totally changed my thought process: the problem you see is usually not the real problem.
This change of perspective changed everything.
The problem with the problems – especially in schools – is that they are complex. So if you want to fix the problem, you need to investigate first and see if there is anything underneath. You need to peel the onion, peel some more, then keep peeling until you find what the real The problem is. And when you find it, there’s a good chance the solution will be included.
Let me explain how it works. My first year, if there was an attendance problem, I would look at the number of days a child was absent and then send an attendance letter to the parents. Maybe after that I would also do a home visit. And that’s all.
But by the time I encountered another attendance issue in my fifth year – when kids weren’t showing up online during the pandemic – my thought process had changed. I knew I needed to ask Why.
I sent out a survey to parents asking them, “Is there anything stopping you from putting your child online?” It quickly became clear that what started out as an attendance problem turned out to be, for many families in this rural area, an Internet connectivity problem. We kept hearing, “You gave us a neighborhood hot spot, but it’s not working.”
We had to peel the onion. And when we did, we got to the real problem. This is how the most problems in educational work. So don’t waste your time trying out solutions to the wrong problem – peel the onion first.
Repair the rim, not the tire
Many educators who haven’t participated in programs like STL don’t realize how important this is. They are looking for tools to help them fill in the learning gaps, but what they really need is a change of perspective.
This is what I mean. The whole nation is talking about Plan-do-study-act (PDSA) – but if you don’t understand the science behind it, you’re not going to do it right.
Think of it this way. You wake up one morning and get ready to get in your car and realize you have a flat tire. You think, “I must have passed over a nail.” You replace your tire. Problem solved. But soon you get another flat tire. You replace it by asking yourself, “How can I keep running on the nails?” But then you get another flat tire.
You were so convinced that you kept riding on spikes that you never checked your tires for them. If you had, you would have investigated and realized that something else was going on – you had a damaged rim.
Anyone can do a PDSA or attack a problem, but that doesn’t mean they find an effective solution. You have to change your thought process. Otherwise, you can’t even start making lasting changes. So peel your onion first. Then start your PDSA. And whatever it is, be prepared to deal with it in a scientific way.
You may even find that this process allows you to resolve multiple issues at once. If I can solve an attendance problem, I can also begin to fill in the learning gaps along the way.
It may be incremental growth, but it is real growth.
My experience with the STL has not only changed my thinking process – it has also changed the way I lead my staff. I ask them: “What do you think?” and encourage them to think outside the box, to try new things and to take risks.
I am still blown away.
They’re excellent staff who go above and beyond what researchers expect – and because of their dedication, Inborden Elementary has had the highest composite growth score in eastern North Carolina. We went from a C school to a B school, seeing the kind of growth that typically takes three years to happen in a year.
And while I don’t expect my staff to think the way I think they do, I’ve noticed that they quickly grab hold of my thought and run with it. My change of perspective also made the wheels turn. We are all changing together. And this kind of change is contagious.
All the moments count
As things slowly return to normal, we have a lot of work ahead of us. Our learning gaps have been magnified by this pandemic – and now there are new gaps that need to be addressed. Our children are all at risk now. We know the only way to move forward is to commit to working on it together.
Above all, our staff are committed to continuing to live up to our motto: “All students matter; all moments count. As part of this mission, we recognize that every child is different – and we will do whatever it takes to help them succeed. Whether they want to go to college, develop a talent, or learn a trade, we’ll celebrate that – and we’ll do whatever it takes to get them there.
Not everyone believes that good things still come from Halifax. But we do. And we know that if we are committed to caring for each individual researcher, and if we join forces to solve complex problems together in a scientific way, we can change Halifax. And we can change the world.