Last summer, I was part of a team that put on a professional learning workshop for school leaders who were interested in rethinking the way they use space to reinforce their vision for instruction and learning. We called it Curation by Design. By the end of the 2-day institute, participants had mapped out their plans for improving and re-designing their learning environments. We brought in members of different departments at the district level – budget, construction, educational services – all with the hope that our school leaders would have the information and determination to see their projects through to completion. These projects ranged from designing more welcoming front office spaces and procedures, to large re-design projects for entire school layouts.
I distinctly remember one of the principals raising his hand towards the end of our time together. When I called on him, he responded firmly and honestly. “We appreciate this learning opportunity. It’s been inspiring and informative. But why would you get us excited about leading these types of projects when the district always makes it so hard to actually do them?” The principal spoke from a place of genuine frustration – why can’t you make this easy?
I’m the first to decry the rigid nature of bureaucracy. We’re not as flexible and nimble as we could and should be. I know from firsthand experience how challenging it can be for a principal who is simultaneously trying to run an effective school while mapping out a vision for the future with a robust strategic plan to make it a reality. We often do make things harder for ourselves than they need to be.
But that’s not the entire story.
Perhaps we can blame some of the feet dragging to the realities of representational democracy – speed in decision-making is compromised when you make it a matter of public record and public voting. That’s the beauty and burden of democracy. Compromise takes time. As a public school district, we navigate a complex web of legal codes that often deliberately slow down timelines for decision-making. So yes, sometimes we make it very hard. We have to get state approval to ensure our facilities meet higher standards for safety. We have to go through public bids for services. We have to honor due process. We have to navigate the bureaucracy.
That’s why leadership and vision are so critical. That’s why it is so satisfying to see teachers, administrators, and school teams who break through the roadblocks to deliver new possibilities and increased outcomes.
I had one of those moments this afternoon as I stood in the recently unveiled makerspace at Jefferson Elementary. What was once a uniformly drab space is now alive with color and learning possibilities. The entire design, from the selection of furniture to the games and learning tools available in the space, has had an explicit focus on building student agency and ownership of their learning. It’s a place where students can gather, play, and learn together.
The principal, Dr. Fernando Duran, took an inclusive approach to his design process. He brought parents and staff to visit other school sites that had recently reimagined some of their learning spaces. He made detailed observations of student routines and habits to better understand their preferences and needs and how they might better utilize space to accommodate those needs. Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Duran was persistent. At times, it may have seemed that the district actually didn’t want him to transform the space – continually bombarding Dr. Duran with questions about funding accounts, vendor contracts, and delivery timelines. Even at the very last minute, with volunteers in the queue to paint and arrange the space, there was a very real threat that the project would be delayed or worse.
Your takeaway from this story might be that districts are inefficient. You won’t get much of an argument from me. Yet please keep in mind, as stewards of public funds, we have a different level of responsibility to ensure that purchasing guidelines, contracts, and procurement rules are observed – and many of the hard questions stem from these public accountabilities. My wife worked for a luxury hotel design firm and enjoyed regular meals at the swankiest nearby restaurants. I get called on the carpet if I eat a Subway sandwich on the district dime.
As I walked through the newly designed space at Jefferson, I noticed some student writing scrawled on masking tape, clearly identifying ownership of the board games in the room. “Student lounge.” The irony and beauty of elementary school students declaring ownership of their student lounge did not escape me. My takeaway is to celebrate the triumph of leadership. In this case, a determined principal and a team of dedicated staff and community members who came together to bring a vision to reality and deliver newfound possibilities for students.