Professional Learning Communities

A story of five superintendents trying to transform the organizational culture by Scott LaFee

It’s said that to survive, a shark must always keep swimming, moving forward. School districts don’t generally conjure up images of sharks. Schools of fish are more like it, albeit with at least one particular distinction: In districts, the fish invariably head in different directions.

Maybe it’s the nature of the beast. A typical school district is composed of hundreds, even thousands, of personalities—and that’s excluding the students. From the superintendent and board of education to the teachers, counselors and custodians, most district personnel have at least some idea about how to effectively run a district or their part of it.

The common goal may be to educate students, to prepare the next generation, but how that’s done has always been a matter of vigorous debate. In education, there can be as many opinions or agendas as there are people, with the unfortunate consequence that sometimes nothing much happens. Tradition and the status quo prevail because they are the least objectionable or at least already in place.

The converse is more often true of corporations, some of which actually have been likened to sharks. Smart companies are able to move, adapt, evolve. They can’t merely survive. They must thrive. In recent years, several models based on such business practices have been advocated for education. The fit hasn’t always been good. Education is a business unlike any other.

Cultural Transformation
Still, like the shark and the aggressive corporation, education must move forward. Where there is no improvement, there is stagnation and, inevitably, decline. Across the country, a growing number of school superintendents are paying more than lip service to that idea. They are striving to develop and foster professional learning communities in their districts.

It’s an idea that goes beyond raising achievement standards or test scores. It involves transforming the organizational culture, changing the way participants interact, allowing greater freedom to explore and pursue new ideas for educating students without threat from the usual villains of bureaucratic inertia, self-interest and the status quo.

It is hard to define exactly what a learning community is. It is even harder to create one.

“Organizationwide learning involves change in culture and change in the most basic managerial practices, not just within a company but also within a whole system of management,” says Peter Senge, an organizational management guru, author of The Fifth Discipline and co-founder of the Society for Organizational Learning. “I guarantee that when you start to create a learning environment, people will not feel as though they are in control.”

The following are the stories of five superintendents who have successfully created—or at least have begun creating—learning communities in their school districts. They come from diverse backgrounds and places. Their experiences are different. But the lessons learned and the messages are the same.

Les Omotani
West Des Moines Community School District
West Des Moines, Iowa

For Les Omotani, there is no such thing as an organization that learns.

“Organizations don’t learn, people inside that organization do. But if an organization supports learning by its people, it can become a learning community,” says Omotani, now in his eighth year as superintendent of the 8,700-student West Des Moines Community School District in Iowa.

“I’ve tried to embrace the idea of birth to grave, that school districts have a vested interest in everybody, from very young children to adults to the elderly. How do you make learning a vital force in the lives of everyone who constitutes the community?”

The obvious answer, he says, involves creating a shared vision of the future and what needs to be done to get there. Ensuring success means getting personal.

“Members of a learning community take positive action because they are truly committed to the mission, purpose and growth of the system,” Omotani says. “Shared visioning is a process that honors the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all members. It encourages members to openly share their thoughts, beliefs, desires and feelings.”

Nurturing Commitment
A learning community, according to Omotani, is a collection of people who genuinely care about one another, who are committed to strengthening relationships and families through learning and the practice of certain guiding principles, most keyed to questions like these: What are our core values and beliefs? What are we trying to create? How do we honor our children? What matters most of all?

“A learning community is a system whose leaders build the community by nurturing commitment among its members and severely reducing the role of compliance obtained through fear and punishment. Its members make choices and act according to what is in the best interest of the entire system. A learning community is saturated with caring,” the superintendent says.

Pretty rhetoric indeed, but Omotani insists staffers practice more than they preach. He emphasizes communication, letting others know exactly where you stand before looking for the common ground that will lead to a shared vision.

“It’s not about everybody being nice to one another, but about having honest conversations where disagreements and diversity are embraced,” he explains. “There is respect for others’ knowledge and experience. We build trust between people. We have dialogues without the responses becoming personal attacks or the usual debates.

“The system is about having everyone understand that we are all trying to do the right thing. We look for commonalities. Almost by definition, this requires us to be cohesive. In traditional business organizations, strategic planning ignores cohesiveness. It’s a lot of show but not much substance. People tend to get egocentric.”

A key aspect to avoiding destructive self-centeredness, says Omotani, is making sure that every face has a name—and a story.

“In the same way that organizations don’t learn, organizations don’t know people. People know people. Individuals know individuals. If we individually make the effort to ensure that each child is known in our system, our organization will be a caring learning community that knows and lifts each child.”

Specifically, teachers and administrators are asked to make lists of students they know and to share those lists with colleagues. Are certain kids missing? Somebody overlooked by everybody? If so, staffers are expected to seek them out, learn their stories and bring them into the fold.

They also are encouraged to randomly ask students: Who knows you? Who cares about you and for you? Who lifts you?

“Taking the time to ask these questions will allow you to know one more child,” Omotani says. “And then you will care for one more child.”

Sherry Immediato, managing director of the Society for Organizational Learning in Cambridge, Mass., applauds that thinking.

“Pragmatically speaking,” she says, “creating a learning community is a process of asking adults to do what we ask of children. We want adults, from teachers to bus drivers, to focus on critical thinking skills, lifelong learning, teamwork. If you think about it, kids learn more from what they see than from what we say. So if they see adults doing these things, they’re more likely to follow suit.”

Ironically, working with adults makes the process no quicker. Progress comes slowly. The job, says Omotani, is never finished.

“Some people even now have problems with the language of what we’re trying to do, but I think we’ve reached a critical mass in this district where people like the change in our district culture and are comfortable with focusing on trying to function well within a system that emphasizes relationships.”

Senge’s Expertise
Omotani regularly reinforces the message of community learning by bringing in experts. Senge, for example, twice has visited the district for extended stays. The visits, which include both keynote addresses to large assemblies and work with smaller groups, take a lot of time and preparation. “We usually start talking to Peter about visiting a year before it happens,” Omotani says.

But the effort pays off.

“Peter brings credibility and an incredible knowledge about the subject. He has been doing this for more than two decades. He has a personal presence that works well whether he’s talking to thousands or to a single person,” says Omotani.

He also counts on other learning community experts such as Nelda Cabron-McCabe at Miami University of Ohio and writer Janis Dutton, author of Schools That Learn.

“We’ve still got a ways to go,” says Omotani. “It’s not easy work. People started this effort because it was the right thing to do, but it’s not fully realized yet. It’s not to the point where we see good things everywhere. But you can see real differences between the past and present. Principals openly share with students about themselves. Teachers make home visits. In the high school, they stand outside the doorways to their classrooms, greeting students, remembering things about them. Even the bus drivers go through Character Counts training.”

(The Character Counts program is sponsored by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Marina del Rey, Calif. The program offers public and private training emphasizing six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, fairness and citizenship.)

Collective Credit
Omotani claims only partial credit for the improvement. He says it was starting to happen well before he arrived in 1995. And besides, he insists, it’s not really about the individual but the individual in the system.

“Being a superintendent in a learning community is not about ordering change, but being a part of something larger than yourself. Everybody has to look at the vision and see things in it that are important to them.

“We’ve had enough years of sustained effort in doing that that I don’t see us ever going back to arbitrary strategic plans, or goals and statements that didn’t mean anything to anybody.”

Joni Burgin
Grantsburg School District
Grantsburg, Wis.

If trust is critical to creating and fostering a learning community, Joni Burgin knew she was starting last year nearly from scratch. As superintendent of Grantsburg schools, a rural district of about 1,000 students in northwestern Wisconsin hard up against the Minnesota border, she confronted a fractured and fractious staff.

“I acted out of need,” says Burgin, who joined Grantsburg in 1997. “The last round of bargaining with teachers was rough. In Wisconsin, there are stringent laws about teacher salaries and a lot of politics involved. The teachers here were among the first to negotiate a new contract in the current environment and they felt they needed to carry the flag. As a result, things got pretty militant and nasty at times.”

The school district and the teachers’ union eventually reached and ratified a new contract. The next step for Burgin was picking up the pieces and rebuilding a structure of trust and mutual understanding.

“The way I see it, a learning community is teachers, professional staff being learners themselves,” Burgin says. “It’s about how we keep up to date with standards, research, how we don’t become stagnant, entrenched. We learn and grow. We problem solve. We work together.”

It’s a point well taken, says Nelda Cambron-McCabe, a professor of educational leadership at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “School districts should not try to simply build a learning community that has as many definitions as there are people defining it. The emphasis should be on restructuring how people work together. That’s what ultimately has an effect on the classroom.”

Widespread Buy-in
Burgin wanted to base her rebuilding efforts on where the district was still strong. She found the perfect tool, she says, in StrengthsFinder, a program developed by the Gallup Organization. The StrengthsFinder program, based on 30 years of research, emphasizes developing areas of expertise rather than focusing on trying to improve areas of weakness.

“There is widespread belief that people can do anything well if they learn enough or try hard enough,” Gallup explains in its promotional packet. “Training and development programs that attempt to teach ‘steps,’ ‘habits’ or ‘behaviors’ ignore the fact that everyone’s steps, habits or behaviors are different—and should be different if people are to use their natural talents and strengths.”

In a nutshell, the StrengthsFinder program consists of a self-administered test, taken at home or work, consisting of roughly 180 questions. It measures four principal talents: working with people, influencing people, working hard and working smarter. Individual test results are immediate.

Burgin thought the approach sounded valid and suggested to her top administrators that they try it out. “They did and bought into it,” she says.

“The results are really enlightening. StrengthsFinder reveals innate talents and where one can grow most. It’s a complete paradigm shift. Most administrators search for weaknesses in employees, focus on trying to improve them. If it doesn’t work, the employee is gone, which can be very disruptive for everybody.

“StrengthsFinder is affirming. It values what a person brings to the table. With tenured people, you’re not going to get rid of them, even if they have a lot of weaknesses. Dismissal is almost impossible and very negative. So why not focus instead on identifying their maximum potential? Don’t waste time trying to fix what cannot be fixed. Help them instead to be better at what they already do well.”

Results Ahead
All of Grantsburg’s teachers have since taken the StrengthsFinders’ test, Burgin says. “We’re halfway done. Now we’re forming informal groups to go over the data, to find ways to use it.”

She says the endeavor has been collaborative and encouraging.

“My goal by the end of this year is for all of the staff to have gone through the process. They’ll know better what they do well and how to improve those strengths.

“People are feeling better about things now, which is good because I firmly believe that if you don’t have a healthy organizational climate, teachers and staff won’t be focused on what they’re doing, which is making sure students learn and achieve. This has been a year of awareness and healing. Next year, we’ll produce results.”

Vicki Phillips
Lancaster School District
Lancaster, Pa.

Like Joni Burgin in Grantsburg, Wis., Vicki Phillips took over a school district with trust issues in the summer of 1998.

“At the time I came, there was a well-meaning set of improvement strategies that had not always been implemented very well,” she says. “The staff felt they lacked some of the tools and training to do what was being asked of them. They felt that when they asked questions, the administration, whether it meant to or not, viewed those questions as opposition.

“As a result, teachers became increasingly resistant to district programs. It wasn’t that they opposed the vision or goals, just that they felt there wasn’t any support for helping them do their part.”

Phillips moved quickly to remedy that perception.

The 11,500-student district dramatically boosted the amount and quality of curriculum resources and instructional materials for teachers. Professional development programs were expanded with summer courses covering content instruction, teacher forums and study groups and consultants brought in to introduce new ideas and ways of doing things.

“We allow teachers to do site visits to other places so that they can get a better image of what’s being asked of them. There are teacher networks for virtually every subject: math, science, music, health. Schools have been restructured so that some schools have smaller schools within them. We have a cadre of more than 100 teacher-leaders who are available to help. Every school has an instruction facilitator to help with training and follow-up.”

Relationship Building
The goal, of course, is producing students who are well-taught and well-prepared for college and the world. Doing so, says Phillips, involves a delicate balancing act.

“You want everyone to agree upon certain standards of practice or curricula. You want everyone targeted at the same goals. But once that’s agreed upon and well implemented, you want to give people some leeway around the edges.

“It’s like something I heard from a CEO once. He described his business as discipline at the core, creativity around the edges,” Phillips says. “I think it works in education too, as long as there’s a culture of trust.”

Keeping that trust is something the superintendent says she has worked hard at. “When we don’t have strong relationships at all levels, we work on them pretty deliberately.”

She also is deliberate in reaching beyond the district, to incorporating the larger community into the learning community. “There’s no point in playing a blame game, such as complaining that parents aren’t adequately involved. You have to purposefully reach out to them. We do that in a lot of different ways because there’s no single thing that works in every situation.”

For example, the district has been an active participant in economic development activities and civic events in its central Pennsylvania community. It has pushed hard for greater access to early childhood development opportunities for 3- and 4-year-olds, better health care and social services for students and their families, work programs for older students and employer incentives for students with good conduct and high achievement.

“We also hold things like poetry, literacy and math nights for parents to help them understand what we’re doing and how they can participate. In the past, before we did many of these things, a school might get 25 or 30 adults to a function. Now it gets 300 to 500.”

In less than five years, Phillips says with justifiable pride, the district has come “a long distance.” Others agree. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell asked Phillips to be Pennsylvania’s state education secretary, a post she assumed in January.

“Now,” she says, “I’ll get a chance to see if what worked in Lancaster can work elsewhere.”

Scott Staska
Rocori School District
Cold Spring, Minn.

Scott Staska is getting his chance as well to test ideas in new places.

In October 2002 Staska became superintendent of the Rocori School District after serving for two years in a similar post at the Yellow Medicine East School District in Granite Falls, Minn.

“The districts are in some ways a lot alike,” he says. “There are high expectations and a climate that advocates excellence. I couldn’t have made the move if that weren’t the case.”

In his two years at Yellow Medicine East, Staska did much to create that atmosphere of excellence and learning. “One of the first things was we used the mission statement to define and refine what the district was all about. We made it a walking, talking document. Its themes were incorporated into all academic programs.”

There were three basic areas of focus: high student achievement, meeting Minnesota’s stiff graduation requirements and professional development. The latter was perhaps the most difficult because it is the hardest to measure. Staska says the board of education and school district attacked the issue in several ways.

First, the board expanded the number of dedicated days for professional development activities. It actively pursued summer academies in which teachers could sign up for intensive training in subjects like writing strategies or using technology in the classroom.

In the elementary schools, teachers formed staff literacy circles. An educational text was selected and read by staff who then met to discuss relevant ideas and how they might be implemented at that school.

“It’s a good peer process,” says Staska. “It encourages people to think, communicate and challenge the status quo.”

In all of the schools, staffers are required to develop annual self-improvement plans. They can collaborate with others, if desired. The idea, he adds, is to keep people focused on getting better.

“The thing that I’ve always tried to emphasize—at Yellow Medicine East and now at Rocori—is that you’ve got to be committed to lifelong learning, the expectation that improvement is continuous.”

Richard DeLorenzo
Chugach School District
Anchorage, Alaska

Thanks largely to its geography, the Chugach School District confronts issues unlike those of almost any other school district in the United States.

For one thing, it is astoundingly large, encompassing 22,000 square miles of south-central Alaska, an area greater than the combined states of Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Much of this territory is exceedingly rugged, accessible only by small plane or boat.

Scattered across this sprawl are just 231 students served by 30 school district staff, nine of them teachers. The logistics of offering even the most basic education here are daunting, and until quite recently, local educators struggled to meet the challenge. The average student was three years below grade level in reading. Standardized test scores were the lowest in the state. In 19 years, only one Chugach student had graduated from college. Annual staff turnover exceeded 50 percent.

Lacking Reflection
In 1994, Richard DeLorenzo arrived as superintendent. It was his first superintendency, but he had a long history of education experience in Alaska, beginning 24 years earlier as a special education teacher.

“I had seen plenty of inadequacies in the classroom, how the system was mired in tradition, a lack of reflection on how to get better.”

DeLorenzo was determined to not merely improve Chugach but to transform it. The school district—all 22,000 miles of it—would become a giant learning laboratory.

“Creating a learning community is a very nebulous thing,” DeLorenzo says. “Who is the customer? What are you trying to do? Too often, districts muck around, trying a little bit of this or that, tweaking minor pieces of the puzzle. Business does this too, the difference being that if that’s all they do, they eventually go out of business. Schools just wind up with permanent mediocrity.”

DeLorenzo wasn’t interested in mere tinkering. He wanted wholesale, fundamental change. And over the course of several years, he and district personnel achieved just that.

They junked the old system of credit hours and grade levels (after getting a state waiver) in favor of an approach that focused on individual student achievement. Each student was evaluated in 10 areas of academic performance, from reading and math to science and career development. Students advanced at their intellectual pace. Once they were midway to graduation, they received a wireless laptop computer. Some students progressed quickly, reaching high school proficiency levels by as early as age 14. Others met their final requirements at age 21.

Teacher compensation rules were upended as well. Instead of salaries based strictly on seniority, compensation and pay raises were linked to research-based evaluations of teacher performance. With input from the teachers’ union, the system was amended so that the scores of all teachers would be averaged and each would get an equal share of whatever increase was earned.

The district also increased staff training days to 30, double the state average, and created a professional development fund offering up to $1,000 per teacher for outside training.

The result: Standardized test scores in reading rose from the 28th percentile in 1995 to the 71st in 1999. Math jumped from the 54th percentile to the 78th, and language arts from the 26th to the 72nd. In the last five years, several Chugach students have graduated from college.

Vent, Then Create
DeLorenzo is justifiably proud of these measurable accomplishments. He is more so of the cultural change within the district itself. After a rough beginning, he sees a unity of purpose.

“One of the first things you have to do is let people vent. It’s a very fragile thing because it’s always easier to tear down something than to create. But once people have shared their frustrations, what is getting them down, then you can move on to actually solving them,” the superintendent says.

A strong leader armed with clear objectives is essential. “You need someone able to turn the battleship,” DeLorenzo says. But real transformation requires involvement from everybody.

“I’ve started a lot of discussions with questions. I didn’t tell people what to do. Instead, I asked what was the right thing to do. Once we were all agreed upon that, we could start discussing possibilities.

“There were no mandates or forced issues. You have to empower staff to act. You make them feel valued. You listen to their ideas, like what we did in creating the performance pay system. You give people the latitude to implement new ideas, even if some eventually prove to be mistakes. The ideas that work, those you systemize.”

Steve Thompson, an educational consultant based in Cincinnati and past president of the Institute for Development of Educational Activities, agrees with DeLorenzo’s approach.

“It’s easy for most of us to think about how other people should change. It’s much harder to look first at yourself. That's inherent in the notion of a learning community. It takes a lot of different factors working together, including showing others you can learn, too. That can be difficult for a superintendent because it means he or she isn’t necessarily the smartest person on a subject. But it’s essential to do if you’re going to create a culture where it’s safe to admit needs and shortcomings so that they can be addressed and resolved.”

Unfinished Business
In 2001, DeLorenzo and the Chugach School District were named as one of the first two school district recipients of the Baldrige Award, named after Malcolm Baldrige, the late U.S. secretary of commerce who insisted on quality over quantity. It was a remarkable honor, particularly for such a small and isolated school district.

DeLorenzo says the job is not finished.

“I know change is real when kids can articulate what’s happening to them. They can tell you who they are, where they’re going. Kids own the system. It’s theirs, and they will always be able to tell you what’s right and wrong, what needs to be changed.

“It took about five years before I felt we had really turned a corner, that kids were beginning to think and say that the system was working for them. But the process never ends. There is no single mountain to climb. At the top of one peak is another just beyond.”

Scott LaFee is a staff writer with the San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: scott.lafee@uniontrib.com