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Guiding Questions for Successful School Transformation

This week, our guest blogger is Dr. Bill Hughes, the Chief Academic Officer for Seton Catholic Schools in Milwaukee. Bill has been engaged in K-12 education policy and leadership for over thirty years and is the former superintendent of Greendale School District in the Milwaukee suburbs.

After 30 years of leading and working in high-poverty and privileged public schools and districts, I now find myself as Chief Academic Officer of Seton Catholic Schools in Milwaukee. Seton was a startup in January 2016 and is emerging into the largest network of Catholic K-8 urban schools in the United States.

One thing I learned after 16 years as superintendent of a suburban Milwaukee school district, and my time in leadership development at Schools That Can Milwaukee and Alverno College, is that everyone can get better and learn from one another. When school and policy leaders work cross-sector, innovation and kids come before politics. Too often, in too many places, the status quo passes for good education.

We need better schools cross-sector—public, charter, and choice; rural, urban, and suburban. The best school leaders and education reformers are working with each other to devise better child development and education systems along with family support services and innovative pathways for career development for all educators. In our case, we are doing this within the Catholic parish school model, which serves as a cornerstone in our neighborhoods.

Kids' and families' lives and futures are at stake. On the back stretch of an education career of more than thirty years, I am ready for what is possible in education, not just in the future, but today.

Here are some lessons learned from the work with Seton Catholic Schools—some of which I had to relearn after years of school and district leadership and education policy work, while others are part of the joy of a startup.

Seton Catholic Schools is part of a growing movement of private management organizations building successful, high-performing schools in challenged neighborhoods and communities.

Every management organization or school network requires a clear focus, an educational model that works, and a talent strategy that is the differentiator for why the best and brightest working in high-poverty schools choose their network. With the addition of an operations focus that moves money directly and efficiently to student learning and teacher growth, a new movement in schools is developing.

The Seton Catholic Schools academic team is composed of educators that have proven their abilities in successful urban and suburban schools. Using an educational model based on proven programing, teaching strategies, assessment, and the prudent use of data creates high-performing educational programs that are working in Milwaukee. I like to call them "A players" in education. Working together, we have developed a model that is guided by clear outcomes—action over talk and simplicity.

Every successful school network or system needs an educational model that works, and if it does work, to stick with it. Seton Catholic Schools uses proven strategies and learning materials, many of which are open source. Our model shows promise, with early success indicators on the State Forward Exam and the State School Report Card. We practice a transformational educational model that is focused solely on creating high-performing Catholic schools in Milwaukee. We are learning that talent development focused on creating effective educators—teachers, school leaders, staff, and engaged parish priests—will quickly change schools for the better.

Good work, though, needs to be questioned constantly to get better. High performers ("A players") constantly question their work and those around them. For that reason, "A players" are the ones to work with because they are working to continually improve.

Our academic team uses the following guiding questions to measure the probable impact of our team's work, action steps, and decision-making process to help us get better.

Evaluating Our Commitment

  • Has our team focused on its lowest performing schools and set specific two-year transformation goals, such as improving student achievement to the current high-poverty averages in comparable schools with similar student demographics?
  • Does our network have a plan that gives us confidence to deliver on these goals?
  • What evidence is there that our network is taking the necessary steps to accept its responsibility to ensure that students in our lowest-performing schools have access to the same, or better, quality education found in our high-performing, high-poverty schools?
  • Does our network have adequate funding, and does it deploy that funding solely for the transformation strategy?

Evaluating Our Strategy

  • Does our network have a transformation strategy for failing and low-performing schools that requires fundamental changes that are different from an incremental improvement strategy? Do our network team leaders believe in fundamental change over incremental change?
  • Does our network constantly revisit the educational model to ensure it is working and constantly getting better based on student achievement data—by student, classroom, grade level, school, and network?
  • Does our network provide our schools with an effective set of transformation services and polices so that schools actively want to gain access to required new operating conditions, regulations, resources, and educational programing?
  • Does our network provide the student-information and data-analysis systems schools and network team members need to assess learning and personalize teaching by classroom and school?
  • Does our network provide school leaders that are hitting their goals and learning targets with sufficient authority over staff, schedule, budget, and program to implement the educational model? High-performing leaders need some autonomy and flexibility to lead their schools. Low-performing leaders require perceptive direction and tight management of all aspects of the educational and operational model.
  • Does our network provide sufficient incentives in compensation and working conditions to attract and retain the best possible staff and encourage them to do their best work?
  • Does our network have an effective talent strategy; recognizing that transformation success depends on talent recruitment, onboarding, development, and multiple career paths and retains strong leadership teams and teachers?

Leadership and Funding

  • Does our network have a strategy to develop partner relationships with organizations with the expertise needed to provide intensive transformation support, or are we going it alone?
  • Does our network collaborate with other groups, such as higher-performing school networks, universities, non-profits, and foundations, to provide effective support to our work? Work with anyone interested in creating successful schools—cross-sector.
  • Does our network deploy the required authority, resources, and accountability to lead the transformation?
  • Does our network have a focus on building a counter-cultural force to transform our schools, the Archdiocese and our city? Does every member of our team believe it and want it bad enough?

Seton Catholic Schools is in its second year serving 12 Catholic K-8 schools in Milwaukee. While there is early success, we know the work has only begun as we build a transformational educational system to overcome social and academic challenges to help students, educators, and families reach their full God-given potential.

Dr. Bill Hughes

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