A Smooth Drive Depends on Your Entry

by JOHN KINLEY

The transition into a new school district can be challenging, especially for a first-time superintendent. In an effort to learn more about my new district, I prepared an entry plan that would allow me to gather information and perspectives from various school stakeholders.

I first used this approach when I started a principalship in a previous district and felt the process was extremely helpful in meeting people and learning about strengths and the tough issues I might be facing in the months ahead. When I interviewed for my current job in the South Hamilton Community Schools, I told the board that if selected I would implement an entry plan.

Here are the steps I followed:

I drafted a plan and shared it with the board at its last regular meeting prior to my official start. I asked for their suggestions and for a short list of their expectations for my first year. I also solicited from them names of parents and community members whom I could invite to a special conversation later in the summer.

I composed a letter of introduction and welcome, which was sent to all district staff on July 2, 2001, my first official day. In this letter, I told of my desire to learn more about the district and invited each person to stop in to my office to visit or to drop off their written responses to five questions:

* What are South Hamilton district’s greatest strengths?

* How can our school program be improved? What concerns exist within the district? What barriers inhibit South Hamilton from becoming the best school system it can be?

* Envision the South Hamilton schools in 5-10 years. What long-range picture do you see in your “mind’s eye?”

* What are your expectations for your superintendent? How can I help you become the best that you can be?

* Is there anything else I should know?


Extensive Feedback
During July and August, and even after the start of school, I met with or received written input from 30 staff members. I took notes during our conversations and compiled a summary of their ideas, suggestions and perceptions. In mid-August, I met with 19 community members and parents as a group for two hours of discussion addressing similar questions. During the first week of school, I invited seven high school students to the boardroom to give me their views on the state of their school.

I organized all input from these stakeholders in separate summaries. In September, the board and administrators held a special work session to discuss goals for the year. I asked two consultants from our regional area education agency to facilitate a discussion among board members and administrators on the same questions. Only after this was complete did I share the information collected from staff, students and community members. The process allowed the board and administrators to identify some specific emerging themes.

I found this information valuable in building upon the district’s strengths and in pointing to specific targets for improvement.


Positive Outcomes
Several positives resulted from my entry plan.

Staff feedback was tremendously upbeat. I had a chance to meet many teachers and community members informally and they had the chance to get to know me. I was able to put names and faces together much more quickly as the school year began.

The discussions gave me a springboard into targets and topics to address as the year progressed. The community conversations, billed as “Coffee and Conversation With the Superintendent,” continued throughout the entire first year. These informal gatherings focused on school-related issues such as the district’s annual report on student achievement, future planning conversations with neighboring districts, a new initiative being considered by the local school foundation board and plans to expand high school curriculum offerings. They also gave me a forum to address the hottest topic of the year--the local impact of statewide budget reductions in mid-year.

My entry plan allowed me to hit the ground running in my new school district and community and gave me immediate support and confidence in my ability to meet the challenge.