Feature

Establishing a Framework for Quality

Using data as a basis for decision making leads Jenks, Okla., to continuous improvement and a Baldrige honor by Kirby Lehman

Can public schools conduct research that truly leads to changes in the way a school district does business? In Jenks, Okla., we believe the answer to this question is a resounding “yes!”

The Jenks School District, located just south of Tulsa, serves more than 9,000 students in nine schools on five campuses. The district applies a continuous improvement approach that focuses on academics, arts, activities, athletics and attitude, weaving in leadership, professional development, technology and data-based decision making to prepare all learners to be productive, responsible citizens.

The commitment to excellence is evident in our students’ many achievements. The district’s test scores are well above the national average in all subjects and in all grade levels tested, and our students consistently shine in athletics and in co-curricular activities.

How did we get here, and how do we continue forward? Since 1998, the Jenks School District has embraced a total quality framework based on W. Edwards Deming’s quality principles of strong leadership, continuous improvement, customer focus and a systems/process focus. These elements form the pillars of our school. Quality training, teamwork and data-based decision making form the foundation.

Data play an integral role in our total quality framework and became the basis for decision making in Jenks about 10 years ago. We conduct research projects to determine what programs, software and instructional strategies truly help improve Jenks students’ achievement, then use the data to lay the foundation for student success.

The Data Journey
The Jenks Framework for Quality, based on Deming’s principles and adapted from work by consultant John J. Bonstingl, provides a process that helps us align individual and school goals and action plans with the district’s strategic objectives, goals, pillars, core values, mission and motto/vision. A key element of this alignment is data.

Using the Framework for Quality as a foundation, members of the school board and senior district leaders — six superintendent’s cabinet members and three or four district directors — meet in a retreat setting every other year to develop or modify our district’s strategic plan and develop district goals for the next two years. They develop these goals based on the motto, mission, core values and pillars of the district, progress made toward the previous biennial goals and a substantial amount of data provided to the school board and administrators prior to and during the retreat. By reviewing the data related to key measures, administrators are able to see trends and modify their action plans as necessary.

In alternate years, we use a somewhat formal process of reviewing goals and progress that usually includes brainstorming ideas, using an affinity diagram to organize those ideas, voting, and using a fishbone-diagram process. To tackle complex issues, we sometimes use more technical and time-consuming tools such as futurist Joel Barker’s Implications Wheel.

During the retreat and throughout the school year, data enhance, formalize and expedite our decision-making process and allow the Jenks schools to maintain purpose and momentum toward continuous improvement. In addition, the senior leaders and school board members serve as role models for the rest of the district as they gather pertinent data prior to making decisions. In many ways, this use of data is what makes Jenks tick.

For example, the curriculum department organizes and conducts an annual curriculum alignment and development process focused on the curricular area being reviewed statewide that year. The curriculum alignment task force of about 60 teachers, parents and administrators review research, focus on national and state standards and select textual materials. Data are vital to the success of this process.

Another key element in the data-based decision-making process in our district is the Continuous Improvement Leadership Team. Established in 1996, this group of approximately 10 administrators helps keep the entire district focused. The team members provide training in continuous improvement and data-based decision making to all new employees and keep our feet to the fire by monitoring the progress we make toward our goals.

During the past 10 years, the Continuous Improvement Leadership Team has routinely attended and presented at the National Quality Education Conference and other quality-related conferences, conducted and updated the continuous improvement orientation program for new staff members, brought in nationally renowned speakers and researchers to help us with our continuous improvement effort and made numerous presentations to other educators within and outside the district. In short, the Continuous Improvement Leadership Team has served as a visionary catalyst for the entire district.

Shining Examples
Two programs that evolved from this model of data-based decision making and continuous improvement and that have changed the face of education in the Jenks School District are Saturday School and math laboratories.

Two years ago we introduced a Saturday School program for students in our Freshman Academy who, according to assessment data, were struggling with Algebra I. Students who were identified as potentially failing algebra received remediation for 41/2 hours on Saturdays for seven consecutive weeks. The targeted instruction made a difference. Of the 99 students enrolled in Algebra I Saturday School during 2004-05, about one-third scored limited knowledge on the state-mandated test, one-third scored satisfactory and one-third scored advanced.

We were delighted with these results as these were students who had been in danger of failing Algebra 1. Although three students had unsatisfactory exam scores, we continued to help them reach proficiency, buoyed by the documented, remediation success rate of 96 percent. It was just the catalyst to keep educators energized each day.
During the 2005-2006 school year, enrollment in the Algebra I Saturday School surpassed the previous school year, and preliminary data on student performance suggest continued success. There’s no doubt that the Jenks School District will continue to provide Algebra I Saturday School to meet the needs of struggling students.

Beginning with the 2007-2008 school year, students in Oklahoma will be required to pass end-of-course tests in core subjects, including Algebra I, to graduate from high school. To help students prepare for high-stakes math tests, we again researched best practices and programs and, as a result, initiated mathematics laboratories at our middle school, Freshman Academy and high school last year. Now students who are struggling with pre-algebra, Algebra I and higher-level math classes have the extra help they need to succeed.

Final data were not yet available for the math labs at our three secondary schools, but three-quarters of the way through the school year the number of D’s and F’s in math classes at those schools had declined.

As we researched successful math programs, we noted that in the most developed countries, except the United States, students typically take Algebra I by the end of the 8th grade. As a result, we are raising our math expectations for Jenks students so they will be better prepared to compete in the world marketplace. Beginning with the 2007-2008 school year, we will expect all students in the Jenks School District to complete Algebra I by the end of the 8th grade. We also will expect them to continue to take rigorous math classes in grades 9 through 12.

Of course, we will continue to help those students who struggle with Algebra 1 and will probably need to develop and implement new remediation programs. The Jenks mission is to “prepare all learners for success in an ever-changing world,” and that means providing a greater focus on mathematics and science skill development for all students.

Self-Reflection
This focus on data and process has benefited Jenks students and staff in many ways. Several years ago, the Continuous Improvement Leadership Team considered applying for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award but thought the application process was such a considerable undertaking that we were not ready to apply.

As the leadership team members began to examine the quality indicators that make up the Baldrige Award, however, we realized many of these concepts were already in place in Jenks. We decided it was up to us to capture the essence of what was happening in Jenks, complete the application and hope for the best.

What were those attributes that convinced us to apply for the Baldrige Award?

 

  • We had systems and processes in place;

     

     

  • We had solid evidence that the processes were used throughout our organization; and

     

     

  • We had experienced many cycles of refinement in a variety of areas.

     

    Throughout the years, we have focused on pursuing and promoting our district motto: A Tradition of Excellence with a Vision for Tomorrow. Our students and staff members have enjoyed successes throughout the years as a direct result of policies, procedures and practices that are in place in Jenks. We recognized that the Baldrige criteria, if fully applied in the Jenks School District, would enhance an already highly successful school district. It was with that in mind that we began the application process in 2004.

    Assistant Superintendent Diane Bosworth was the catalyst for completing the Baldrige application process. All administrators in the district participated by collecting data and information about their sites and departments. Then Bosworth, along with three other administrators, completed the application, a process that took approximately eight months.

    Yes, having an outside group come in and examine your institution can be risky. However, we believed that identifying opportunities for improvement would help our district grow, and that made it worth the risk. Although we did not anticipate receiving the award on the first application, we did want to continuously improve and this was one avenue with which to do that.

    The Baldrige criteria helped us review the systems and processes we already had in place; comparing ourselves to rigorous national criteria actually gave us confidence. The Baldrige criteria also helped us identify gaps in our own system — gaps we began to address during the application process and continue to address today.

    Our Baldrige Award is a reflection of the hard work and commitment of the entire district. I truly wish all 1,200 employees could have traveled with us to Washington, D.C., in April 2006 to receive the award.

    Is pursuing the Baldrige Award a valuable process for public schools across the nation? Absolutely. Will all school districts experience some successes and some opportunities for improvement through the Baldrige application process? Without a doubt. If those of us in public education truly believe in continuous improvement, then we should seek opportunities that permit us to compare ourselves against rigorous criteria. The Malcolm Baldrige process permits and promotes such comparisons. Undoubtedly, those comparisons will cause each participating school district to improve.

    What’s Next?
    As Malcolm Baldrige Award recipients, Jenks staff members have the opportunity to share our strategies, processes, procedures and best practices at conferences and conventions. We also share what directions we believe our country should pursue vis-à-vis public education. As we look ahead, the Jenks district clearly will focus on mathematics, science and language.

    As the Jenks School District continues its quest for continuous improvement, we know we face some daunting challenges: providing world-class learning, addressing population and diversity shifts, maintaining fiscal stability and integrity and ensuring the health and safety of students, staff and visitors. Data will continue to play a vital role in the decision-making process as we maintain our tradition of excellence.

    Kirby Lehman is superintendent of Jenks School District I-5, 205 East B St., Jenks, OK 74037. E-mail: kal@jenksps.org