Eleven years ago Chris Lehmann and a committed team of educators started Science Leadership Academy (SLA), a public magnet school in Philadelphia that focuses on student inquiry through projects in a community that cultivates a culture of care. The school has been so successful over the last decade that the district has tapped Lehmann to help other schools get started or transform themselves.
“We’ve learned a lot and it’s been fascinating for me thinking about what it was like to go through the SLA process and then working with people who have different missions, different visions,” Lehmann told a room full of educators at the school’s yearly conference, EduCon. SLA is now part of an Innovation Network of eight district schools that each have their own take on transforming the traditional model of education. Throughout the process of opening or transforming schools, training staff and sustaining the work, Lehmann and others working on the Innovative Schools Network have gained some clarity on five areas that leaders need to consider for change to be successful.
1. Simplicity Matters
Often the vision and mission statements of schools are written by committee and read more like a wish list than a statement of purpose. While many of the ideas expressed in those statements are valuable, Lehmann says if the mission and vision aren’t a guiding star, they end up meaning nothing. The Science Leadership Academy mission reads: “Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.”
Every year the staff at SLA revisit these five core values to talk about what they mean in the current moment and how the staff envisions them, but “we’ve never taken a 90-degree turn,” Lehmann said. This laserlike focus on a simple mission and vision can help make sure every person in the building is focused on putting into daily practice the things the school says it values.
2. Common Language Matters
In some ways this is an extension of a clear mission and vision statement, but extended down to the level of the words used by educators in the building. Every teacher at SLA has the same understanding of what constitutes a project and how inquiry works. When education catchphrases like “personalized learning” are thrown into mission statements, make sure everyone in the building and the wider community of parents know what that means.
But Lehmann would argue the mission statement shouldn’t have a lot of jargon in it because those terms obscure the meat of teaching and learning. And because change work is hard, every teacher and student needs to know what values guide the work. “If your ideas don’t add up, if you’ve got beautiful flowery language, but it doesn’t serve anything,” then you’re doing nothing, Lehmann said. And worse, students usually see through inconsistencies like those and choose not to buy in.
3. Operations Matter
The values set out by teachers and leaders should be infused into everything the school does, whether it’s academics, discipline or school safety. As a public school in Philadelphia, SLA has a security guard, but she understands the core values as well as classroom teachers and practices a culture of care with students, too.
The values also extend to the adults in the building — inquiry, research, projects, collaboration, reflection and a culture of care don’t exist only for students. They are part of how teachers interact with one another and how they go about their work, and they are central to how leadership treats teachers.
“You’ve got to love your teachers as much as you want your teachers to love your kids,” Lehmann said. He acknowledged that much of what happens in school is a negotiation between the needs of students and the needs of teachers, and that’s fine. But he doesn’t think schools should hide that fact, and they should be transparent about how tricky that balance can be.
4. Culture, Talent and Instruction Must Align
Any great school has a strong school culture, talented teachers and a powerful instructional program that all overlap to create a sweet spot for learning. If a school has a strong culture and talented staff but no instructional consistency, then school is a place kids like to be, but they may not be learning much. If there’s a strong culture and great instructional design, but the teachers aren’t supported to do their best work, then the implementation can go awry. And if talented teachers are working with a great instructional program, but there’s not a strong school culture, then students won’t feel safe taking risks. Cultivating all three of these areas in tandem has been crucial to successful transformations in the Innovative Schools Network.
5. Startup Is Hard, But So Is Sustainability
Anyone who has started a new school or tried to transform an existing one knows that the work can take over life. Sometimes the all-encompassing nature of the work is OK because passionate people are excited at its potential and know it will end at some point. But Lehmann said the schools that have been successful in their transitions intentionally plan for the moment when the hectic startup mode turns to sustainability mode. That roadmap helps ensure staff doesn’t burn out, but maintains the urgency necessary to sustain what was started.
“What I’ve learned the most is we need time to do the work,” said Alexa Dunn, who heads up professional learning for the Innovation Network. “If we want to make strides, and we want to improve the model, and we want to make teaching and learning meaningful for teachers and students, we need time.”
All the schools in the Innovative Schools Network have staff meetings once a week and find ways to bank time to comply with union work rules. Teachers need that collaborative time to figure out how to teach in ways that can feel uncomfortable and to reflect on how their everyday practice sustains the mission and vision statements. “When adults in the building feel supported they want to take more risks,” Dunn said.
Visiting SLA and talking to teachers there, it is clear that even though they open their doors to visitors from all over the country and share their approach at this annual conference, they don’t feel finished or all-knowing. Teachers here are constantly pushing to improve, try new things, and balance the demands of school with a fulfilling personal life.
“Eleven years later we actually believe these things more than when we started,” Lehmann said. Helping other passionate people start schools that aren’t exactly like SLA has only reaffirmed that there are some core tenets of change work that must be present, no matter the model or philosophy.