The district where I work is big. 50,000 students big. In fact, my motivation for coming to Santa Ana is tied to both a desire to have a broader impact on students and to learn how school improvement happens at scale. The size of the organization defies linear cause and effect. Yes, sometimes A does cause B, but often it splinters out and causes C, D, and E.
One of the most challenging adjustments has been getting my leadership optics right when it comes to accountability. Let me explain.
In my previous role as a charter high school principal in a small 3-school system, accountability felt natural and organic – and it was typically tied to clarity about job roles and responsibilities. For example, as the principal of the school, one of my primary job responsibilities was recruitment and enrollment. Yes, I had support from our central office in the form of an enrollment coordinator, but it was always crystal clear that if enrollment dropped, I would be held accountable. That accountability was rarely, if ever, my supervisor coming down hard on me. It wasn’t a stern talking to. It was much simpler than that. If we lost enrollment, I had to let someone go. If numbers sagged, we lost programs for kids. If I failed or underperformed, I was the one having the hard conversations.
I worked my tail off to sustain a strong enrollment system. Of course my primary strategy was to build a strong academic program that got results for kids. But there was a lot more that had to happen. I taught myself graphic design, I mapped out all of the recruitment events, I personally visited every middle school in San Francisco – with school logo emblazoned mugs filled with candy in hand. We walked streets. We filled phone banks. We strategized and agonized.
So it was with just about every task. We were so small as an organization that I always felt vulnerable. One misstep, one lawsuit, or one negative PR blowup could have tremendous consequences. Nobody had to remind me of this or reassert their authority. Accountability was the context of the work.
In Santa Ana, there is still tremendous accountability. In some very concrete ways, there are layers of public transparency that charter schools simply don’t have to meet. There is clearly a different standard.
Yet while accountability still plays a substantial role in the governance of a large school district, it doesn’t always operate in natural or predictable ways. For example, we’ve been experiencing year over year enrollment declines for virtually a decade in Santa Ana. Yet even if we lose 1000 students in a year, that might only pan out to 10-20 fewer students per school. As a teacher, I might only see one fewer student in my classroom. I probably wouldn’t notice at all.
So for the teacher, and even the school site administrator, accountability isn’t experienced naturally. The district office has to simulate the accountability. We have to explain a phenomenon that site employees don’t necessary feel in their day to day work. Even when a school loses enough enrollment to justify a reduction in staff, it sets in motion a complex set of negotiated terms that often means the person who ultimately loses their job probably doesn’t even work at the school in question. When the reduction in force notice comes, it doesn’t come from the person responsible for enrollment, it comes from the Human Resources department.
That’s all to say, a big part of my learning curve has been making sense of the way districts operationalize accountability – compliance. We work within a complex web of accountability regimes – board policies, ed code, administrative regulations, and negotiated contracts. It creates a context that is ripe for tension and conflict – perhaps as any public institution is inevitably prone to experience. A union invokes a grievance when action is out of line with the contract. The legal system reinforces Ed Code.
For the rest of it, accountability shifts to the relationship between a supervisor and his or her direct reports. But that’s a balancing act too. There is a real leadership puzzle in building motivation and morale and momentum when I’m also responsible for invoking the controls of the system to ensure we are accountable to the public.
This has been a rocky shift for me. We’re a public institution governed by an elected body that sets policy. We need financial controls. And yes, we need compliance. But we also need energy and momentum and something inspiring to draw out the best in each of us. I’m actively trying to find the sweet spot of leadership that successfully navigates the two.