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Starting Strong

Before Day 1 of his new superintendency, the author launched a systematic plan for listening to a wide array of perspectives while infusing a new spirit of community engagement

BY JOSHUA P. STARR

A leadership transition can be an exciting time, full of hope and possibilities. But it also can be a period of anxiety and disruption. These feelings often are amplified when a new superintendent is hired because there is so much passion attached to education and so many constituencies to serve.

For parents, nothing is more important than the education of their children, and they want to make sure a new leader is going to attend to the needs of their kids. Teachers and school-based staff, for the most part, are passionate and mission-driven, so they want to know where the new leader will take the organization. Principals and central-office administrators want to hear about new programs or practices that are coming and worry the new superintendent is going to come to town and start “cleaning house.”

And then there are the school board members, employee associations, local and state political leaders, businesses, nonprofit organizations and others, all of whom have specific interests they want to promote.

Joshua Starr
During his year of listening and learning as the new superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., Joshua Starr solicited views from an array of classroom teachers.

Executing a Transition
With all of these competing demands waiting for the attention of a new superintendent, it’s important to draw up and execute a transition and entry plan before your first day. While each superintendent faces a different set of circumstances when starting a new job, the need for an entry plan is universal, regardless of the size or location of your school district.

In April 2011, I was hired as the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, which is located just outside of Washington, D.C. With 151,000 students, it is the nation’s 17th-largest, and as such represented a new set of challenges for me. I was coming from the Stamford, Conn., Public Schools, a district that, similarly, was racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse but had about one-tenth the number of students. I was not taking over a school district in crisis. Montgomery County had a well-earned reputation as one of the nation’s best school systems, and my predecessor, Jerry Weast, had led the district for 12 years, an exceptionally long tenure for a large-district superintendent.

The size and the success of MCPS, as well as the stability of its leadership, made the need for a robust, transparent entry plan even greater. I spent my first year getting to know the district and the community and allowing parents, staff, students and community members to get to know me. Using a mix of traditional and nontraditional engagement methods, these entry activities fostered honest conversations that set the stage for the decisions I am making today.

The goals for my entry plan were simple — meet with and listen to as many people with as many different perspectives as possible, show the community that I was a capable leader who could take our system to the next level of success, and foster a new spirit of community engagement and support for our schools.

Knowing the District
Even before my first day on the job, I asked a team of insiders and outsiders to spend some intensive time reviewing the major components of MCPS, specifically around teaching and learning, operations and culture/context. The theory of action was clear: If this team did its work well, I would begin the school year with a solid understanding of the district’s strengths and challenges. The transition team consisted of current and former employees, superintendents from other districts, leaders of educational organizations and others. Some of the external team members were people I had worked with in the past and who knew me well and would tell me what I needed to hear.

The transition team met for three months and reviewed a large amount of data; met with employees, parents, local governmental leaders and community representatives; and studied the work of MCPS in the context of current research and best practices. The group produced a detailed report, identifying strengths and challenges, as well as specific short-term and long-term goals in each area.

The report, which was publicly disseminated, provided a strong foundation for the rest of my entry activities at MCPS. It also sent the message that, while I respected the work MCPS had done in the past, I was interested in areas for improvement.

Of course, the best way to learn about your district is to spend time in the schools, watching teaching and learning take place and talking to staff and students. This has to be more than a token classroom appearance and a few words at a staff meeting. You have to spend significant time observing instruction and listening to what teachers, principals and support staff are telling you about their school and their district.

In the end, much of what I learned from the “Transition Team Report” was reinforced during my school visits and other entry activities, allowing me to consider thoughtful changes that would improve what was an already successful district.

Listening and Learning
The first year of a superintendent’s tenure is a time for listening. There are a lot of issues and ideas that parents, staff, students, and community and political leaders want to share with you. For that reason, many of your entry-plan activities must be an opportunity for constituents to talk and for you to listen. This includes one-on-one meetings, small gatherings and large community events.

In the fall of my first school year in Montgomery County, I hosted 17 “listen and learn” sessions — 10 for the community at large and seven for staff. The events were well-attended, attracting an average of 120 people to each community meeting and 80 to each staff meeting.

I spent a few minutes at each event sharing my background and initial observations about MCPS with the audience based on the transition report and what I was learning in my travels across the district. And then I spent the rest of the time listening.

Many issues that were raised were in the “Transition Team Report” — the imperative to narrow the achievement gap and improve interventions; concerns about the social and emotional well-being of children; the need for more professional development around the curriculum; and worries about budget cuts and class sizes. If I was asked a question, I did my best to answer it, but I made it clear my goal was to listen.

To be as transparent as possible, we taped and posted many of these sessions on the website (www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org) for those who could not attend, and we produced “The Listen and Learn Report,” which highlighted the broad issues raised at each event. The input I received at these listen-and-learn events was integral in the development of my first budget and my strategic priorities going forward. 

READ MORE:

My Transition Plan: Knowing Where to Find Help

A Superintendent’s Twitter Connections

Additional Resources

Sharing Strengths
One key to a successful entry plan is making sure you “play to your strengths.” While I am comfortable delivering a speech or doing a traditional Q&A, I really enjoy forums that foster conversations. Therefore, it was important for my entry plan to include opportunities for me to engage staff and community members in an ongoing discussion about education.

I held three Superintendent’s Book Club events during my first year. Each centered on a recently published work with a strong educational theme: Mindset by Carol Dweck, Drive by Daniel Pink and The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner. More than 300 people participated in the book clubs as part of the live studio audience, and hundreds of others watched the events live online and on TV, sending in questions by e-mail or social media. The events not only engaged staff, students and parents in a conversation about education, they also enabled me to share my beliefs and values in a way that I was very comfortable.

In addition, I held several student town halls in our high schools. We held each event during lunch and streamed it over the Internet and broadcast it on our television station so that students across the district could watch. We even invited students to submit questions by e-mail or social media and answered them on the air. Not only did I learn a great deal from the students, I also was able to dispel some misconceptions from time to time about the school district. The events went so well at the high school level that we added middle schools in my second year.

Twitter is an outstanding engagement tool that allowed me to share items of interest with thousands of people at one time. If I saw instruction in a classroom that I thought was really powerful, I’d snap a picture or take a video and tweet it. If I read an article that raised interesting points or captured an important issue, I’d send it out to my followers. I’d also use Twitter as a way to let people know what I was doing each day, whether it was school visits, a sit-down with a state or county leader or a visit to a local community organization.

Through my Twitter feed, my followers — many of them parents and staff members — were able to learn a little bit about me and what I value in education. Many of our principals, teachers and staff now have joined Twitter, creating a lively, ongoing conversation about MCPS and education, in general.

A Vanguard Position
As I begin my third year, we have truly begun the work of improving an already excellent school district. This includes the adoption of a new strategic planning framework aligned to the skills and knowledge our students will need in the 21st century — academic excellence, creative problem solving and social and emotional learning, which means attending to the hope, engagement and well-being of kids. I believe our new framework will put Montgomery County in the vanguard of national education because of our strong focus on skills beyond academics.

We’ve had strong community support for the framework and other initiatives, and I know that is, in great part, due to the work we did during my first year to engage and listen to our students, staff and community members. We will continue to employ many of the same strategies used in my entry work to communicate with our stakeholders. Together we will build a strong future for our students and be a national model for preparing kids to be successful beyond graduation.

Joshua Starr is the superintendent in Montgomery County, Md. E-mail: joshua_starr@mcpsmd.org 

 

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