What Makes a School System Successful? Study the Redwoods

column | Personalized Learning

What Makes a School System Successful? Study the Redwoods

By Jin-Soo Huh (Columnist)     Aug 7, 2017

What Makes a School System Successful? Study the Redwoods

As our team at Distinctive Schools, a school management organization in the midwest, began strategic planning earlier this year, Chief Schools Officer Jennifer Ferrari opened our planning session with the story of the great redwoods of California. These majestic trees, which can live for thousands of years and grow to well over 300 feet tall, create a rich and complex forest ecosystem that researchers are still trying to understand. Hundreds of plants and organisms rely on the canopy of these magnificent giants, whose unique attributes create a symbiotic and interdependent growing environment.

The redwood forest offers a metaphor to describe the rich and complex nature of a school system. As we strive to create a symbiotic and interdependent growing environment for students and educators alike, where a wide variety of education initiatives exist, we realized that we could take some lessons from the redwoods.

Do Not Grow Alone; Intertwine Your Roots

Despite their soaring height, the roots of the redwood trees grow to a relatively shallow six to 12 feet below the ground. However, redwoods gain their strength and sturdiness by intertwining their shallow roots that are over 50 feet in diameter, and it is this interdependence that allows the trees to stand at such tall heights.

Like the redwoods, districts need to link together their initiatives and priorities to maximize their impact by being supported, interdependent systems.

At Distinctive Schools, we intentionally intertwine our initiatives and improvement efforts to ensure that initiatives support, and not compete, with one another. So when we incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into our instructional practice, for example, we intentionally weave the strategies into the math instruction. When students get stumped with a math challenge or can’t see patterns that their peer sees first, teachers guide their kids through that frustration by employing real-time SEL strategies that strengthen and explicitly teach communication, and self-regulation.

Or, when students develop their learner profiles to articulate their goals, interests, strengths and weaknesses to inform their instruction, they are learning to communicate their needs, be good self-advocates and champions of their own best selves. This makes sure that initiatives like personalized learning and SEL are not isolated to one class or subject, but rather infused throughout the day. It also builds better buy in from schools since the initiatives are not separate entities but ones that build off of one another.

This kind of intertwining requires colleagues to collaborate and make dedicated time for professional conversation so that linkages between and among priorities and initiatives are made. When we’re all linked in our thinking and actions, we accomplish more, strengthen one another, and stand taller as an organization.

Be Adaptable, But Set and Communicate Clear Strategies

The redwood trees are susceptible to a variety of natural disasters including earthquakes, floods and even forest fires. In response to these tremendous natural challenges, they have developed an impressive set of strategies to survive—and even thrive. When earthquakes and floods change their landscape and cause drastic slopes to form, the redwoods accelerate their root growth on the sloping side to steady themselves. When fire hits, they remain undamaged with the help of their thick, fire-resistant bark. The redwoods even take advantage of the fire by allowing it to rid the forest floor of plants that compete with their newly sowed seeds that burst from their cones when they get hot.

Like the natural disasters that redwoods face, school systems experience their own share of natural challenges: policy constraints; unexpected budget shortfalls; staff turnover; resistance to change; and fear of the unknown.

As we continue to scale our personalized learning model at Distinctive Schools, we discipline ourselves to be flexible and adaptable. We utilize specific strategies to remain upright and standing tall. We recognize that teaching and learning in a personalized learning model can be frustrating, exhausting, and downright hard.

Through our growth, we also remain disciplined in our priorities. When there are multiple strategies in play, districts have to clearly lay out which ones take precedence. This strategic prioritization helps us determine where resources and funding are funneled so we can have the greatest impact on our professional growth and movement toward achieving our goals.

This also means that we have to make sure to articulate our plans and priorities to staff members so they put their energy into the right places and propel us forward even faster. Unshared, unarticulated strategy, living in the heads of leadership, is worthless.

To support our courageous trailblazers, we also realize that we have to flex and grow alongside them so that they don’t fall over in the process. We acknowledge that our teachers enter the profession with different levels of comfort and expertise, and we employ the principles of personalized learning to support them. Using a strengths-based approach, we help teachers identify where they fall on Distinctive Schools’ personalized learning implementation continuum and offer coaching tailored to their needs.

We are also cognizant that each school has its own identity with unique needs and priorities. In order to honor differences while scaling our model across a network of seven schools, we set clear expectations with specific design anchors, and then allow school teams the freedom to create and innovate to meet their needs. For example, all of our schools have flexible learning environments and spaces, which are part of our design anchors to promote intentional teaching and learning. However, we do not prescribe the layout, nor do we require uniform furniture. Some classrooms accomplish the flexible learning environment with a variety of seating options, while other may use traditional desks to create group work tables, help stations and quiet study areas.

We believe our approach, which simultaneously offers support and autonomy, promotes continuous iteration and improvement, allowing our teams to enter a state of constant, yet comfortable change. With each iteration, we strengthen our foundation and create a fertile imagination space for new ideas to grow and flourish. Each iteration adds to the greater whole and creates a richer ecosystem for educational improvement.

As we head into a new school year, think about how you can strengthen and grow your district’s initiatives and priorities by intertwining them. And then aim to be nimble and flexible as you support innovation and improvement.

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