The Balancing Act of Managing Disruptive Change

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2019

If dissatisfaction is the prime motivator for school change, as Lower Merion, Pa., Superintendent Robert Copeland suggests, then the dramatic changes in California’s Lindsay United School District over the past decade should come as no surprise.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the impoverished district in the central part of the state, 60 miles north of Bakersfield, was struggling mightily with some of the state’s lowest test scores. Teachers were ill-equipped to teach the growing number of English language learners, and gang violence traumatized the community.

The district began making changes that improved matters — incrementally. Then, in 2007, with the community still clamoring for major change, the 4,100-student district initiated a pivotal two-day meeting with 150 diverse stakeholders. The gathering resulted in a new mission statement and 10 guiding principles that led to a wholesale transformation in Lindsay’s conception of teaching and learning.

Moving to a personalized, performance-based approach across all grades was anything but easy, particularly for teachers, who had to go through a dramatic shift in their outlook and daily practice, says Nikolaus Namba, the district’s former director of 21st-century learning. Managing such a dramatic overhaul was a huge challenge, which the district handled in part by being as transparent in its outreach as possible, both inside and outside of the schools.

“It’s a very, very different mindset,” Namba says, “and you have to work on building the culture across your district or your site or even your classroom.”

Recasting Restiveness

Marla Ernest, a veteran learning facilitator — which is the Lindsay district’s lingo for teacher — at Lindsay High School has seen the process unfold at the grassroots level. She says the district’s inclusiveness and transparency helped recast the community’s restiveness into a strong, resilient base of support.

Even so, it was tough going at first, with many teachers unable or unwilling to make the leap. At her school, she says, 40 percent of the teachers departed.

“Change is hard,” Ernest says. “You have to go into it with a really open mind and know that there’s going to be moments when you feel like you’re failing, when things aren’t working and you have to adjust.”

In Virginia’s Cumberland County schools, Superintendent Amy Griffin has used a more incremental strategy in an attempt to spur lasting change, incubating innovative approaches apart from the mainstream to provide room for development.

“We pilot small things, we try it and see how it is, and then we try to expand it,” she says. When a new approach finds success, she reasons, other students, teachers and parents will notice and want to adopt it too.

Incubating innovations to develop and fine-tune transformative approaches is often an effective strategy, says Tom Arnett, a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute who studies disruptive innovation. That’s true so long as those approaches eventually make their way into the mainstream rather than remaining niche programs.

A Careful Pace

In Compton, Calif., the key factor for Principal LaKeyshua Washington is finding the right balance between surging ahead and moving cautiously in a school community confronting myriad challenges.

“You have to say, ‘This is the direction that we’re moving in, and we’re here to offer support to those who are moving in that direction,’” she says. “You can’t not move and wait for people to come along before you move.”

But you can’t move too fast, either. Washington is eager, for instance, to turn her 520-student middle school into a STEM magnet school. But more and more of her students are arriving with mental health and trauma issues, and addressing that crisis has to come first.

“The world is becoming a more complex, more toxic place in some ways, so there is a rise in mental health challenges that people face,” she says. “That needs to be a part of the dialogue of what 21st-century schools are. We need to bring the social-emotional piece right up to the forefront with academics.”

Namba agrees that social-emotional learning is sometimes overlooked but should be a vital piece of school transformation. In retrospect, he believes it should have been emphasized earlier at Lindsay.

For Marla Ernest, one of the biggest lessons learned in Lindsay’s transformation is that districts won’t succeed with systemic change by using a cookie-current approach.

“Every single school district is different and has a different need,” she says. “Not everyone can copy what we do and make it work. It needs to be a conversation with all the stakeholders in that community. It’s hard work, but the hard work is worth it.


Paul Riede