The Entry Plan

A systematic transition to a new superintendency by ROBERT O. NEELY, WILLIAM BERUBE AND JERRY WILSON

Several weeks after accepting the superintendency in a new school district, the incoming school executive presented an entry-plan strategy to the new school board. The proposals explained why the new superintendent believed a plan of entry would benefit the district and help him to prepare for the challenges ahead.

One challenge he faced was learning about the laws and financing rules in a new state. A second challenge was the board’s interest in improving a low performance score on the state’s report card for one of the district’s schools.

The superintendent planned to interview key people in the district—teachers, administrators, community members, students and board members. In these interviews, the superintendent would look for common themes and use the discussions as a starting point for understanding areas for future attention.

The new superintendent also wanted to compare different groups’ impressions of how well the school district practiced the principles of effective schools research. He set out to interview 35 people with questions adapted from the protocol found in Sizing Up Your School System: The District Effectiveness Audit, published by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Personal Contact
With this entry plan, the superintendent hoped to model several important leadership traits: effective listening skills; data-driven analysis of problems that needed attention; and collaborations with district stakeholders to identify problems.

Because the new superintendent was not yet residing in the community, he asked the board to financially support three days in the district so he could personally contact those to be interviewed to explain what this entry plan was all about.

The board approved an outline of the proposal that called for the new district leader to connect with 7 board members, 13 members of the administrative staff, 10 teachers (including union leaders), 5 classified staff, 16 students and 14 community members to collect their impressions about the district’s operation.

The interviews lasted between a half-hour and an hour each. Board and administrative interviews were completed over the phone after the initial face-to-face greeting. Student interviews were conducted on site. In almost every instance the superintendent was able to personally meet each person before interviewing.

The superintendent taped each interview and took notes so responses to the effective schools questions could be later coded. The interviews began in April and concluded in May.

Stakeholder Divergence
The following is an example of one interview question and how the responses from each respondent group were tied to a data-driven analysis of problems.

Question: “Does the district hold the same high standards for all its students?”

The average of the responses of each group surveyed were recorded on a five-point Likert scale (with 5 as high) and showed how each group answered the same question differently. School board members averaged 4.43, while the administrators scored 4.81. The teachers rated 4.55 and the community 3.91 for an overall average of 4.42. The data suggested that the community was not as certain as the other groups that the school district held the same high standards for all students.

The analysis of the interview information took place in June. The superintendent listened to tapes and transcribed portions of the tapes that focused on key ideas. Survey responses were studied to look for areas of agreement and disagreement among stakeholder groups. In the analysis, the superintendent looked at the breadth and depth with which the concerns were expressed.

As mentioned, of particular concern was the low performance of one school on the state report card. Based on the compiled concerns, the superintendent concluded that the school should pursue a federal grant to develop a plan for smaller learning communities within the building. This idea was discussed with the principal, who indicated the school staff already had begun talking about pursuing such a grant.

The survey findings allowed the superintendent to consider short-term and long-term priorities. An analysis of the data and written comments revealed common concerns and themes. The superintendent carefully considered the best approach for sharing the information with the administration and staff. He wanted the data to speak for itself, so as not to give the appearance that the new superintendent was coming into the district to make significant changes without appropriate justification.

Objective Perspective
The report became the basis for the new superintendent’s professional introduction to the administrators and the board. It demonstrated that the community’s insights would be used, and it gave the principals a way to understand the professional objectives the new superintendent had upon entering the district. It also demonstrated that the new superintendent was an active listener.

The entry plan had the potential to give people in the district a more objective point of view than may have been held by an insider. This opportunity allowed the district to look at itself. The entry plan also offered administrators and board members a way to team with the new superintendent to examine the district with fresh eyes and to review existing practices.

Some aspects highlighted by the entry plan were as follows:

* a need for the board to focus on setting a vision;

* a need to focus on resources for the district;

* a need to improve one school’s state report card rating; and

* a demonstration of how data are used to communicate decisions.

With the anticipation of change as the result of an incoming superintendent and the opportunity to look at situations with fresh eyes, the entry plan helps people understand that business as usual is under review. It also allows the new superintendent to provide focus so that people see the district working to continually improve the program’s quality. The entry plan documents the need to balance change with stability.

Robert Neely, a former superintendent in Nebraska and South Dakota, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Wyoming, P.O. Box 3374, Laramie, WY 82071. E-mail: rneely@uwyo.edu. William Berube is the associate dean of the College of Education at the University of Wyoming. Jerry Wilson is superintendent of the Hermiston, Ore., School District.