Harold D. Guthrie

Cultivating Fertile Ground for Others’ Inspirations by Jay Goldman

In his lengthy tenure as an educational leader, Hal Guthrie never has been afraid to admit he doesn’t have all the answers. So when a teacher confronted him recently about bilingual children not learning quickly enough and complained, "What are you going to do about it?" it was only natural for Guthrie to reply, "Well, what are you going to do about it?"

As superintendent of the increasingly diverse Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston, Texas, Guthrie has developed a model system that provides site-based teams of parents, teachers and support staff with the resources to craft their own imaginative approaches to student learning and child development. This means that Spring Branch’s campus advisory teams have the authority to experiment with school staffing, scheduling practices, brain-compatible teaching strategies and student uniforms without interference from a district-level authority.

"I’ve always questioned the wisdom of the central office making every decision that’s important in a school," says Guthrie, who’s in his 24th year as a superintendent, the 12th in his current locale. "If people don’t have some influence...and some ownership, they’ll not own the results."

The district’s mission statement reflects Guthrie’s profound commitment to the effective schools research proffered by consultant Larry Lezotte. Believing in the potential of all children, he says, is never more important than in an urban district like Spring Branch, whose minority population and free-lunch qualifiers have more than doubled during his tenure.

Guthrie first seriously applied decentralized decision making in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was superintendent from 1983 to 1986. There, small groups of teachers and parents examined the academic performance of students in each school on a disaggregated basis so they could devise strategies to raise the sagging performers.

"Each campus had a different problem and a different plan, all hanging around a district framework," he says.

In Spring Branch, which has 31,000 students at 36 school sites, Guthrie is quick to admit, "One size doesn’t fit all." Only a decade ago, the district was dominated by upper-middle-class white residents of Houston, but today it is home to natives of more than 100 countries and just over half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Asked for hard evidence that site-based decisions have improved student outcomes, the superintendent concedes he has none. "But the attitude and feeling of ownership has improved," he says.

Yet outsiders have recognized Spring Branch as a district worth emulating. The U.S. Department of Education has cited 15 buildings as Blue Ribbon Schools, and the Texas Education Agency asked Guthrie and his staff to share details of their campus-based approach. Ultimately, this testimony served as the basis for statewide legislation requiring site-based management. The district also is attractive to external funders, such as the Annenberg Challenge for Public School Reform, which is investing $100,000 at one school.

Guthrie says he takes "a liberal approach at entertaining ideas" for school improvement that bubble to the surface from members of his cabinet or campus advisory teams. At the same time, he exposes staff to other reforms worth considering. Last winter, he brought to town Chris Whittle, founder of the Edison Project, to give a presentation.

"I’m trying to create fertile ground so people will look at the best practices," says Guthrie. "You can’t improve without doing that."

In one of his most ambitious undertakings, the superintendent arranged for all 4,300 employees of the school district to participate in a three-day study of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The sessions, conducted at each worksite by Covey-trained facilitators, took place in January, funded principally by the Spring Branch Education Foundation.

Guthrie believes the Covey training is the next logical step to build vertical teams--all part of the journey toward becoming a learning organization. "We need to invest in our people, to build their capacity for what the new workplace requires and for what children will need to live in the 21st century."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: