Making Change Happen

Educators will find more than sixty strategies and reflections to help guide the success of any new or experienced school leader. Beginning with methods of assessing the organization’s culture, the book expands on ways to empower staff, students, and community members to embrace change. It is filled with creative approaches that make more out of less, work with individuals from an asset model, and assess results. This book examines the process used by one Colorado school to achieve two, five-year visions and to change its image in the community.

Once staff, students, parents, and community stakeholders “catch the vision,” programs, people and resources are aligned to promote success. As a result, the school, once slated for the financial chopping block, effectively moved from potential closure to national recognition as an exemplary program. Like its unique programs, most of the visions strategies can be replicated and adapted to any organizational setting.

For aspiring or veteran principals or school leaders.

Making Change Happen is a book about an educational change that moved Centennial High School in Fort Collins, Colorado, from the cutting block and closure to exemplary status as a national model within the span of a little more than a decade. It is the story of a dedicated group of educators and a principal with leadership skills who embraced the challenges of change and relentlessly pursued a vision until they had created a program that addressed the specific needs of at-risk youth. Narrated by the school principal, the elements of passion, planning, motivation, conflict, and compromise unfold in a series of “how to” success strategies that are shared in each chapter. The strategies may inspire others with a sense of hope so that they too can guide their own organization through the change process to the goal of success.
The Voice
I grew up in an era of change. As a ninth-grade student, I watched Sputnik streak across the night sky and I became a beneficiary of the massive changes that redesigned the country’s educational landscape in a few years. What motivated me to become an educator was the call of “what I could do for my country” as the wave of the New Frontier captured my imagination. I entered the education profession stimulated by hope and desire to make a difference, and discovered abundant opportunities and federal grant dollars to experiment with new ideas. I taught through the radical and chaotic seventies and lived with its disappointments. Soon enough, I felt the condemnation and criticism of the 1983 Nation at Risk report and doubled my efforts to make the educational system responsive to society’s needs. The nineties witnessed the advent of the charter school movement, corporate takeovers of schools, and renewed experiments with alternative education. Little did I realize my association with Centennial High School would become such an integral part of the change movement in public education.
I never wanted to be a school principal. Having earned a doctorate of arts in history at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1985, I had every intention of becoming an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in some school district in the country within the decade. I loved creating new instructional packets and possessed a real passion for assisting staff members in developing and delivering new curricula. Since 1980, I had served the Poudre School District in Fort Collins as its social studies curriculum coordinator and looked forward to the next logical step of becoming the district’s director of curriculum. As fate would have it, this never materialized.
In my youth I had been a fairly brash, somewhat arrogant “young Turk” teacher who emerged from the mid-sixties with an attack-the-system attitude and a disdain for leaders who had lost touch with cultural changes impacting America and the needs of the new generation of students. Early in my career, I had successfully sabotaged a couple of principals whom I considered managers and not leaders, individuals satisfied with keeping the lid on the program and controlling the inmates in the institution. These individuals conveyed neither a sense of vision nor mission. They wanted to make sure they did things the right way, but failed to do what was right for the changing times that permeated the American culture.
So I attacked the system, created havoc, and became its critic, making fun of what I observed but lacking the power or authority to change the way things were. In schools where I worked, the staff never considered me a candidate for the teacher of the year award. In fact, many of my colleagues asked me why I didn’t go back to where I came from, and mustered me out of their building with great enthusiasm when I decided to change schools.
Over time, as I continued with my education, training, and life experiences, I learned how to temper irreverence for the system so that my professional beliefs could be translated into palatable ideas. I realized that hitting people over the head with perceived truths did not foster change, only resentment. So I took a less obtrusive track and began to model practices that worked more efficiently, both with adults and students. As experience and maturity began to modify my behaviors, I began to earn the respect of my colleagues and district leaders as an effective instructor. When the position of social studies coordinator was posted in 1980, the superintendent of schools reluctantly permitted me to step into the role on a trial basis.
Suddenly, my job was that of a middle manager rather than the outside critic. However, the position did not entitle me to use any real power to complete my job responsibilities. I had to employ my people skills to work with all sorts of instructors’ personalities, who, by the tradition of academic freedom and contractual agreement, exercised virtual autonomy in the area of instruction, discipline, and management. What a shock it was to be the “new suit” from the central office and to be viewed by my colleagues with suspicion and distrust.
My new challenge was to help instructors create a vision for a better and more engaging way to motivate students to participate in the learning process, and to share with others the most promising educational practices for success. During the decade I served the district in this capacity, I learned many lessons. I mastered the art of personal diplomacy, effective dialogue, and compromise. I learned how to negotiate from a win-win position instead of relying on power, dedicated myself to the progress and success of the work of others, and came to realize that personal humility is one of the most effective leadership traits when a larger and more distant goal is to be achieved. I practiced more patience with the system and expanded my capacity to tolerate ambiguity. I was able to delay decisions and took time to gather key bits of information that permitted analysis and direction for essential courses of action.
Most important, I began to develop the capacity to create visions of possible futures. I developed the skills and nurtured my intuitive capability to see the big picture, formulating plans and dreams that could be accomplished. I found the words to paint a picture of each vision and to capture the imaginative potential within my colleagues to achieve that vision.
My analytic side was activated to the extent I could design implementation plans that made success possible. Furthermore, my attention to data gathering permitted me to create assessment instruments so that success could be measured and adjustments made to stay focused on stated goals. I exuded energy, passion, and charisma, and confidently became a leading force to motivate and create change in people and programs. For a decade, I immersed myself in a work of love, and one curriculum after another was successfully implemented by a cadre of teachers who took pride in what they did and how they interacted as an effective team. By the end of the 1980s, I was ready for new professional challenges.
At the same time, however, it became clear to me the opportunity to become the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction would not come my way in the Fort Collins School District. Therefore, I dusted off my resume and began applying for positions throughout the country. After my fifth “runner-up” interview ended, I began asking questions: Was there something wrong with my resume, my training, my presentation, or my portfolio? Why was I always the runner-up and not the chosen candidate? One generous superintendent shared with me the insight that the selection committee’s decision was based mainly on the fact that in all of my experience, I had never sat in the principal’s chair. How could I be an effective director of a district’s curriculum division if I had not experienced the challenges of being a building principal?
Now all of my previous disdain for principals came back to haunt me. Fate had dealt me an ugly blow. I could only think about the old phrase “What goes around, comes around.” I was determined to dismiss that notion and to return to the job market without the principal leadership experience. However, in June 1990, another opportunity presented itself. My supervisor informed me the principal of Centennial High School, the district’s alternative high school program, had taken another job in the system and I could apply for this “one-year-only” interim position to get the needed experience to place on my resume. I balked at the idea at first, but rationalized that anybody can do anything for one year, and the position could be used as a springboard to the post I really wanted. I entered the applicant pool and was selected as the temporary principal of Centennial High School.
Throughout this book, I tend to refer to myself in the third person. This is partly based on the personal humility that was drummed in to me while I developed my leadership style but it is also a way for you, the reader, to identify and interpret the strategies herein through your own personal lens. No two situations, schools, or principals are alike; each must be interpreted individually.
The School
Centennial High School occupies a two-acre space surrounded by an older neighborhood in downtown Fort Collins, Colorado. The school was constructed in 1906 and served the community as one of its original elementary school buildings. The building housed nine classrooms and an apartment for the custodian. Over time, other structures were added to the site. In the 1950s, a gym/cafeteria was built to the east of the main building, followed by a two-classroom building on the west side of campus that served as the program’s kindergarten. A one-acre park separated the kindergarten from the other two buildings. It was a small site and I felt it would be easy to supervise as a principal.
When I met with my supervisor to review the scope of the one-year-only job, I was greeted by another surprise. He informed me that my role as principal was: (1) to have a good year as they conducted a national search for a replacement, but, more specifically, (2) to use my creativity and analytic skills to make the decision to “either fix it up or to shut it down.” It seemed the function of Centennial High School had changed over the previous decade. It had served a multitude of purposes for the district. It was both an alternative high school and an alternative junior high school. It had been the dropout prevention center, had housed the adult high school completion program, and still housed the G.E.D completion program. It had been a vocational preparation center and a tutorial service. However, with the arrival of the city’s community college in the late 1980s, all of these functions had slowly disappeared over time.
By 1990, Centennial High School was overstaffed, underutilized, and quite costly. During very difficult fiscal times, the district was challenged to examine its most costly programs and asked to cut those that failed to provide the services required by the educational community and by the taxpayers. Therefore, the one-year-only job that had been thrust upon me as a means to achieve a professional goal now turned me into a potential hatchet man. I would not be embraced with welcoming arms by a staff facing loss of jobs, receiving forced transfers, and watching the demise of a program that had existed for more than a decade.
As it turned out, my one-year-only job lasted a total of twelve years. During the years of my tenure as principal of Centennial, the staff successfully moved the school from a program fated to be closed and, in the process, created several educational models that have been replicated in many school districts across the country. To achieve this end, my staff and I worked through the change process, created two five-year visions, and used data and shared decision making to foster program changes. The program captured the imagination and pride of students and their parents, improved academic performance, and increased graduation rate and daily attendance. The school helped redefine the meaning of alternative education for the community and became a model for several charter schools. By the end of the 1990s, Centennial had become a school of choice rather than a last chance for kids who couldn’t make it in traditional settings. With a great deal of pride and a clearly defined goal of meeting the needs of all students, the staff turned Centennial High School into the community’s “golden child of education.”
The Book
The purpose of this book is to help the reader identify various aspects of the change process and for me to share how to create and achieve goals that will lead to a unifying vision. Such a vision must drive the actions of employees and clients served by the education system. The book is filled with strategies, ideas, suggestions, and processes that a leader could use to enhance the quality of any system, organization, or business. The Centennial High School experience provides the backdrop for each strategy used, but could be modified and adjusted to meet the needs in any setting. The concepts and techniques discussed are powerful, effective, and simple to implement.
Chapter 1 focuses on strategies used to assess and analyze a system, to observe how it operates, and to foster credibility in a new leader so that a climate for change can be created. These techniques use data-gathering approaches as well as interpersonal activities to engage individual employees committed to the change.
Chapter 2 outlines the strategies needed to lay the foundation for change. The chapter’s central theme is how to mobilize the staff and create the momentum to move from the status quo into an uncertain but planned future. Careful preparation for change is essential in order to successfully engage participants’ heads and hearts in the change process.
Introduction – 5
Chapter 3 details the necessary steps to create an organization’s vision. It is essential, first of all, that participants define and embrace a long-range, commonly shared vision. A clearly stated vision will guide and align the direction of all the arrows of those within the organization’s culture. It is the glue that holds the organization together and becomes the centerpiece upon which yearly goals, both organizational and personal, are built. The vision drives the reason for existence and ignites the passion for activities in daily interactions. When the vision becomes the organization’s driving force, attention will be given to strategies that engage all of its stakeholders.
Once the vision and mission of the organization are clarified, they must be translated into programs, policies, and actions that define the culture. In Centennial’s case, a major shift in the program necessitated a retraining of the student population so that they could thrive and succeed in a new structure. Literally, the Centennial staff had to retrain students to modify their behavior so they could learn how to become part of the new vision. Chapter 4 identifies various program changes that were implemented to help students learn personal success.
Chapter 5 discusses the changes needed to refocus the program on academic success. Given the nature of high-risk students, the Centennial staff created programs that not only addressed district standards and expectations but also addressed the unique learning styles of its clientele.
Chapter 6 emphasizes the process of refining and creating a new five-year vision for the program. What happens to an organization when the original vision is achieved? This chapter outlines ways to move beyond celebration to embrace the next challenge. Using assessment tools, the findings of an outside evaluation team, and the knowledge and desires of employees, the discussion focuses on how to create a second five-year vision that refines the goals of a program that has successfully achieved its long-term vision for success.
Surprisingly, the same “visioning” process cannot be recycled. With the addition of new staff members and their limited sense of the institution’s history, the leader must use different strategies to create a new future. How does the leader help new staff members develop a sense of history and develop a passion for continued growth? How does the leader motivate veteran staff members to move from a position of comfort to seek greater levels of success? How does the leader help the staff redefine the boundaries of the new vision for the cultural expectations of the organization?
Chapter 7 invites readers to examine ways to engage various stakeholders in the process of creating an exemplary program. Parents may become discouraged with their students, lose hope, and give up their dreams of seeing their youngsters succeed in life. Specific strategies are outlined so other educational institutions can identify ways to build a better collaborative effort among the parents of students enrolled in school.
In addition, the district administration and community have legitimate reasons to commit to the success of a tax-supported educational program. Relationships with district officials, members of the school board, community service organizations, and individual citizens are reviewed in this chapter. When an organization undergoes immense changes, its members must be permitted to create and implement policies that radically depart from past patterns. The organizational leader must instill a sense of confidence in the system’s supervisors and community observers so that the proposal for changes and ideas for improvement can be supported and implemented. It takes a deft hand and a strong
Introduction – 6
will, coupled with effective communication strategies, to permit the organization to move forward unmolested by those mired in the concrete of organizational trappings and traditions.
Finally, chapter 8 is filled with reflections of how to court the central office, establish credibility as the organization’s leader, lead and participate in the change process, and establish oneself as the community symbol of the school program. Since change is constant, how does an organization maintain tradition and embrace movement at the same time? How does an organization prepare for continuance and improvement necessitated by a changing population of clients and changing social and economic conditions in the community? This chapter summarizes many of the lessons mastered over a decade of change and insights related to moving the organization ahead in an exemplary fashion.
This book contains many leadership strategies forged and tempered over a period of twelve years by an administrator at one school. Some of them had immediate success and produced long-term results. Others had to be modified as conditions and situations changed, only to be resurrected and implemented again at a more propitious time. This list of ideas can, and has been, frequently modified to address changing situations, and for all of us, times continue to change


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