Leading for Acceleration

July 26, 2021

4 Keys to Recovery and Beyond — and What They Look Like in Practice.

“This is my opportunity to really shift our focus towards developing our teachers and our content, and developing myself and our students.” - TS Hoard, Principal, Excellence Boys Charter Middle School (EBCS-MA), Brooklyn, NY

As we plan for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create the kind of schools our students truly deserve — schools that fully honor their intellects and identities, make the most of their time, and that genuinely keep students on track towards future success. While the challenges we now face are extraordinary, so is the sense of openness to re-imagine how we go about addressing them.

At Relay GSE, we’ve had the privilege of learning from leaders who’ve done just that. Through our Follow the Leaders project, we tracked some of the strongest school and district leaders we know to see how they would stay focused on student learning and well-being in the face of challenge. Throughout the past year, we’ve shared their stories — and their tools and practices — on our Follow the Leaders website.

As we look ahead to the 2021–22 school year, these leaders remind us to keep four objectives top of mind:

  1. Prioritize rigorous instruction for every student, every day.
“What we put in front of our kids has to be rigorous, right? It just has to be!”— Dr. Brandi Chin, Founding School Director, DSST Middle School at Noel Campus, Denver

As school leaders chart their recovery from the pandemic, the list of items to address seems endless: assessing unfinished learning, offering social-emotional supports, and helping students re-acclimate to the routines of in-person school. Efforts to elevate the rigor of instruction could easily get lost in the mix. Every leader’s top priority should be making sure all students are engaged in grade level work — every day.

Dr. Brandi Chin offers an example of how to keep a laser-like focus on rigorous learning amid increased complexity. Rather than lower the bar during the pandemic, the founding director of a Denver charter school doubled down on efforts to increase depth of learning. She allowed that every topic the curriculum might not get covered, but was adamant that all instruction develop students as independent thinkers. You can read how inSupporting High Expectations for Student Learning, No Matter What.

Heather Haines shows how to keep the same focus from the district level. In planning for the 2020–21 school year, the Regional Instructional Leader at Denver Public Schools created a 90-day plan with a handful of goals and actions to align everyone from the regional office to the classroom level. The plan centered around a clear vision for equity: “In 90 percent of all lessons, all Black and brown students engage in grade-level, curriculum based tasks.” For more, see Narrowing the Focus: Honing a Plan to Close Equity Gaps in Instruction.”

For another example of prioritizing rigorous instruction, see: “Seizing the Moment to Create the School You’d Want for Your Children.”

2. Develop a Shared and Sharp Vision for Excellence.

“The more teachers know and understand now, the less anxiety they will have about what it looks like and feels like. As their confidence levels build, their excitement will also.”

— Jeanine Zitta, Network Superintendent, St. Louis Public Schools

The most supportive thing leaders can do for their teams is to help them understand what excellence looks like. Teaching all students to higher levels, and amid so much unfinished learning, will require substantial adjustments to instruction this coming year. For that to happen, leaders will need to be clear about the essentials of effective instruction and effective instructional leadership and provide lots of opportunities for modeling and practice.

Jeanine Zitta illustrates how a network superintendent can support that kind of clarity across a district. Early in the pandemic, the St. Louis Public Schools leader recruited some of her most expert teachers to create digital instructional materials to guide high-quality online lessons, and then train their colleagues how to use them. She used a similar strategy to later help build a shared understanding of effective hybrid teaching. See Improving Quality in Virtual Teaching Across a Networkand Ensuring Equity in Hybrid Instruction”.

Another example of transformative instructional leadership is TS Hoard, Principal of Excellence Boys Charter School Middle Academy, in Brooklyn, NY. Hoard made extensive use of modeling and practice to bring about more high-level student discourse throughout his school. Through new meeting structures he and his team enabled teachers to deliver more intellectually engaging lessons. See Transforming Teaching and Learning through Modeling and Practice and Making the Time to Lead a Schoolwide Transformation.”

For another example of developing a sharp vision for excellence, see: “Ensuring Deep Mastery for All Students through Skill Building.”

Below: TS Hoard models for staff how to create a positive online learning environment on Zoom.

3. Closely Monitor and Respond to Gaps in Instruction.

“We just needed to go watch classes and see what’s happening, and then really ask ourselves ‘is this meeting the vision’?”— Ashley Johnson, Principal, Henderson Collegiate Elementary School, Henderson, NC

Making the most of students’ time means giving teachers the specific instructional support they need as soon as they need it. That requires getting a frequent and accurate pulse on the state of teaching and learning across a school. And it means having a mechanism in place to quickly respond to identified trends and individual needs. A tight system for instructional improvement will be critical to accelerate student learning in the coming year.

A demonstration of such a system comes from Ashley Johnson, Principal at Henderson Collegiate Elementary School, Henderson, NC. In the first weeks of the 2020–21 school year, she translated her weekly instructional coaching cycle for the virtual world. Using a new “Zoom Through” protocol, she and her instructional leaders were able to efficiently collect and compare observational data from across the school and agree on the highest leverage action steps to improve student engagement. See Moving the Needle on Remote Instruction”.

Brandi Chin provides another example. After committing to elevate the rigor of instruction during the pandemic, the Denver charter school leader instituted a system to periodically audit the level of rigor shown in teachers’ lesson plans and in student work. She and her instructional leadership team used the information to provide teachers with individual feedback, and to plan targeted schoolwide professional development. See Monitoring and Responding to Close Equity Gaps in Rigor.”

For another example of monitoring and responding to gaps in instruction, seeNarrowing the Focus: Honing a Plan to Close Equity Gaps in Instruction.”

4. Make Sure All Students Feel Seen, Heard, and Valued.

The past year of isolation has reminded us all just how important strong relationships are to our wellbeing. And the national reckoning over racial injustice has forced important, overdue, and often difficult conversations about the reality of systematic racism. To truly create the schools our students deserve we must find new ways to connect with them and lift up their voices — even if doing so gets us outside of our comfort zone.

Kimberly Grayson offers a truly remarkable example of how a school leader can empower her students to change their world. The principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Early College in Denver orchestrated a transformative experience for a group of Black students that led them to successfully lobby their school and district to embed Black History throughout the curriculum. It’s a powerful story of empowering student voice, and creating future leaders. See Empowering Students as Equity Leaders: Creating the Spark.”

Laura Garza and Aaron Aguirre-Castillo also refused to let the pandemic keep them from tackling hard questions about race and mindsets in their district. The two network leaders in the Dallas Independent School District kicked off 2020–21 with a virtual conversation with principals to build a new understanding of equity as centered around making sure all students feel welcomed, honored, and understood. See “You Can’t Wait”: Building a Shared Vision of Racial Equity.

For an example of affirming and acknowledging staff, see: “Building Professional Community through the Written Word.”

Below: Kimbery Grayson’s students address the Denver School Board.

Taking it Back to Your School

As you work to clarify your vision for the next school year, identify key priorities, and develop implementation plans that will lead to accelerated learning for students, we encourage you to leverage the resources sourced from some of the strongest leaders we know.

The suggested protocol below can help you and your team use the Follow the Leader resources to kick off planning for the year:

1. Starting with the first of the four priorities above, team members individually review the three paragraphs of text and pick one of the referenced FtL pieces to read (most are 5–7 minutes reads).

2. Then, team members jot down answers to three questions as they relate to the priority:

· What’s our vision?

· Where are our greatest gaps?

· What actions must we take now to close them?

3. As a group, the team reviews responses, discusses them, and creates a unified response to each question.

4. Repeat steps 1–3 for each of the next three priorities.

Thanks to Bklompus



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