Focus: Personnel Management                Page 14


Shadow Days Open Eyes and

Minds of District Leaders



 Brian Edwards

Central-office leaders often move in and out of schools to attend meetings, visit classes and supervise school administrators. But how often do they spend enough quality time to see what life is like for the students they are charged with educating?

Not enough in Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr determined. So he tasked his senior staff with fanning out and spending an entire day in each of the district’s 25 high schools and one technical school to experience the school day from the perspective of a student. Starr believed the experience would be eye-opening for him and the district’s senior leaders, including the presidents of the teachers’ and administrators’ unions.

The shadow experiences were part of a comprehensive listening and learning effort by the superintendent, who arrived in Montgomery County in July 2011. He had hosted numerous town halls with staff, parents, community members and students, where he heard about what was working well and what needed improving in the district with its 200-plus schools. Understanding the complexities of student life would take listening to a whole new level and influence decisions about the future of the district, particularly with regard to student engagement.

A Nonevaluative Exercise
There was reticence at first — both among senior staff and many principals. The central-office administrators thought, “How can I find the time? What will I really get out of it? Will schools just put on a show so we won’t see anything real?” And principals wondered, “Will this count as part of my evaluation? What might my teachers or students say to these senior leaders about me or our school?”

Once most adjusted to the idea, they embraced it as a tremendous learning opportunity. Central-office staff became excited about getting to really know students. Principals were eager to show off their schools and to help their bosses realize, or in some cases remember, how challenging it is to be a high school principal today.

The logistics of planning and executing the Shadow Days were complicated. With 149,000 students, Montgomery County Public Schools is the 17th-largest district in the nation. The student body is diverse — 21 percent African American, 27 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian and 33 percent white. About 13 percent receive services as English language learners, a third receive meal assistance, and 12 percent receive special education services.

We wanted to remove any doubt that Shadow Days were in any way evaluative, so we were careful not to pair executives with the schools they supervise. Principals were asked to recommend students who were representative of our district’s population and all of the service groups. The principals also were asked to include students who were working below, on and above grade level.

In reviewing the nominations, we looked at each student’s background to craft a fairly representative group. Grade point averages ranged from 2.36 to 4.0, and extracurricular activities spanned from no participation to varsity sports, student government and music groups.

Revealing Insights
Following the five Shadow Days, the superintendent met with the 26 senior team participants, which yielded interesting feedback. Some leaders commented on how little the high school day has changed since they were in school more than two decades earlier. Others marveled at the students’ abilities to change gears so quickly to juggle seven 45-minute classes and the different demands of the teachers. They saw widely varying quality of instruction, ranging from inspiring and engaging to less than ideal.

Students showed themselves to be strong advocates for their own education, appropriately questioning the decisions of adults, and they impressed the administrators by demonstrating ownership of their education. (A video of the shadowing experiences and a roundtable discussion with the students and their administrative shadows is available at http://bit.ly/Y8uPiU.)

The shadowing experience provided many senior staff with a renewed commitment to work with principals to ensure every student has engaging and meaningful class experiences daily. Central-office administrators are working with principals to improve their skills as instructional coaches. We know if we are to get better outcomes for students, we must stay focused on the fact everything starts and ends with the interaction among the student, the teacher and the content.

Several Shadow Day administrators have maintained contact with their student hosts, sometimes drawing on the experience in their decision making. The high school principals said they enjoyed hosting senior staff; in fact, principals at the elementary and middle levels have asked when we are coming to their schools. I tell them to stay tuned. Middle schools are up next.

Brian Edwards is chief of staff for Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md. E-mail: Brian_Edwards@mcpsmd.org


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