Adventures in Bullet Journaling

When I started my current job just over two years ago, I made the decision to go paperless.  The idea was to completely minimize the physical objects I needed in order to do accomplish my work.  I removed all of the file folder cabinets that welcomed me in my new office.  I opted for a desk without drawers.  I used the job transition as an opportunity to experiment with some of my personal systems for organization – and I was eager to go as completely digital as possible.  I started using Evernote and Reminders as my software programs of choice to manage notes and daily priority lists.  I purposefully chose programs that synced seamlessly across my devices – and to a large degree these systems have worked incredibly well.

Fast forward to a few months ago as I was revisiting some of my productivity practices.  I had successful gone paperless.  I’ve avoided paper inundation in my office, and I carry access to virtually everything I need.  For the most part, my colleagues have figured out that they shouldn’t be offended when I pass back their handouts at the conclusion of a meeting.  I’ve taken pictures, annotated documents as necessary, and am ready to move on.

There was only one problem.  My digital notes were boring and uninspiring.  Sometimes I would find my mind wandering to other pressing tasks in the midst of a meeting without anything concrete to keep me tethered.  Despite accessibility, minimal stuff, and fantastic search capacity, my electronic organization system was leaving me cold.  Maybe the decision to abandon all of my tactile productivity tools was too hasty.

So, a few months ago I started doing a little research.  In the end, the blogs and Pinterest posts had me convinced that I needed to give bullet journaling a try.  So I bought myself a notebook and a set of markers and started to experiment.  I thought I might occasionally share some of these bullet journal adventures – which truly have brought me nothing but joy.

The Daily Log

12 Sept 17 - Adventures in Bullet Journaling

Probably the most utilitarian of my page formats.  It’s nothing more than a list of reminders.  I use a square checkbox for tasks, and I use a circle checkbox for events or meetings.  When I first started, I also left space for a daily reflection or gratitude.  While often insightful, the daily reflections have proven difficult to sustain.

Shareable Notes

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I spend a lot of time in meetings where information is shared that would be helpful to other people who, for whatever reason, are not able to attend.  I’ve gotten into the practice of taking pictures of a completed note page and either texting or emailing it as a summary sheet.


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IMG_4388Perhaps the single most useful aspect of my journal is how easy it is for me to stay focused on the content of a meeting or presentation.  I’m in deep listening mode all of the time because my brain and hands are engaged in capturing the most important information to integrate into my notes.  For example, every principal in our school district prepares and delivers an hour-long data-summit that provides an overview of past performance and outlines future goals.  These meetings are incredibly important, but mentally, when you’ve attended a few dozen of them, it can be hard to stay completely focused.  I started taking notes of the presentation and it has been incredibly helpful in sustaining my attention – plus I have a easy reference to each school’s major initiatives and challenges.


Our Journey to the XQ – Inception to Selection

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It was almost exactly two years ago when we first learned about the XQ SuperSchool competition.  I remember getting a few messages from friends and former colleagues in the charter school world, who were buzzing about a new player on the education reform block.  That organization, the XQ Institute, was putting up at least 50 million dollars to “rethink high school.”  In other words, they had an ambitious agenda to transform what we believed could be possible in a high school education.  We would just have to convince them that our team and design was worthy of their attention and money.

Of course my friends encouraged me to start a team “on the side.”  That meant continuing my job during the day as a district administrator with Santa Ana Unified, and reserving my evenings and weekends to put together an independent proposal for XQ funding.  While that invitation was intriguing, I deeply believe that innovation and ambitious thinking are nowhere more needed then within our school districts themselves.  It felt deeply hypocritical of me to publicly profess a belief that districts can and should innovate and lead the charge in accelerating student learning while then opting to innovate elsewhere when the opportunity presented itself.  Of course I still give myself the freedom to change my mind should evidence strongly suggest it, but I felt strongly (and still do) that districts can carve out a meaningful space for innovation.

In any case, I decided to pitch the idea to my boss, then Deputy Superintendent David Haglund, who gave me the green light to pursue the idea.  So we started to host a series of design sessions – with students, administrators, community members – really, whoever wanted to participate.  The purpose of the sessions was to elicit participants’ best thinking about the assets and values of our Santa Ana community, as well as get input about the programs and structures that would best meet the learning and developmental needs of our future students.  From the very beginning, I had a strong sense that whatever the design, it would need to be a reflection of the history and values of our community.  We figured that if we authentically connected with our community, the design for the school would emerge.

And emerge it did.

During a short 3 month period, we met with over 2,000 of our SAUSD high school students around the city.  We designed a unique input-gathering process where we showed up with 30 packets of multi-colored tickets at each of our high schools.  With the principal’s help, we would identify 30 students who each received a packet of 10 tickets each, and tasked them to share with their friends and acquaintances.  These were no ordinary tickets, either.  Each color represented a different “type” of student within broad categories – the athlete, the artist, the nerd, the rebel, the model student, etc.  We wanted to try to get something of a random sample of students who wanted to be there and were intrigued with the strange invitation.  The invitations culminated 2 days later in 200-300 students assembled around tables in the gym, where they used their phones to vote on discussion topics and to give us the feedback and insight we would need to design our Super School.

We held somewhat similar design sessions for both administrative staff and community partners.  Using a modified design-thinking protocol, we sent pairs out to interview each other, capture the most important design elements they heard from their partners, and then brainstorm how those design elements would translate into school programs and practices.

After a few of these sessions, some fundamental design principles started to emerge.  The school needed to be authentic, giving students opportunities to be “real” with each other and with their teachers.  The school needed to feel supportive and safe.  The school needed deeper connections to the working world and the people in it.  The school needed to be more respectful of student opinions and perspectives.  The school needed to do a better job getting our students access to college and other post-secondary opportunities.  And of course students wanted better food.

We collected countless pages of input.  Often that input was in written format, but we also encouraged participants to sketch whenever it felt appropriate.

I clearly remember the day the circles started showing up.  The city of Santa Ana had graciously donated the use of a spectacular room at the top of the Santa Ana Train Station, and we had used the opportunity to invite community partners and organizations to engage in a design session with us.  We had a nice cross-section of organizations, from the Bowers Museum to the Santa Ana Business Council to nearby universities.  When the session concluded, we spontaneously gathered in a circle to reflect on the experience.  Several participants smiled as they unveiled sketches of a school in circular format.  A school where kids were talking to one another.  A school where kids felt included.  A school where community and business partners felt integrated and welcome.  A school that wasn’t boxed in by gates and bells.

And that’s the process that gave birth to the idea of Círculos.  Over time, several of the participants in these design sessions just kept showing up to discuss and collaborate.  Our team came together organically in this way, a mix of district and school staff.  Each founding team member brought with him or her a unique set of skills, experiences, and purposes for contributing.  For Matt Cruz, the principal at one of our alternative high schools, Círculos became a place to imagine how every student might have powerful, meaningful relationships with caring adults.  For Mark McLoughlin, board president of High School, Inc. Círculos represented a way to build upon his ongoing work to more deeply integrate the local business community into the education of the young people of our community.  For Madeleine Spencer, a local community advocate, Círculos would be a way to connect young people to the organizations pushing for a more integrated and responsive community.   Of course those are just a few of the many people who have brought their best energy and thinking to this initiative.

We submitted our designs and supporting materials at each benchmark of the design year, which stretched almost an entire calendar year.  We were thrilled to advance through each stage of judging, making it all the way to the finalist stage as one of the final 50 designs that were still in competition.  We even had a visit from a film team from New York that had been contracted with XQ to document the journey of teams around the country.  We interpreted this visit as a positive omen that big things might be headed our way.  As the final deadline approached, we eagerly anticipated what it might feel like to be chosen for the big prize.

And then we weren’t chosen.  It was very difficult to read the letter indicating that we hadn’t been selected as a Super School winner.  It felt like somehow we had let our community down.  And yet, just as we were working through our disappointment, I sense a new determination to keep pushing and to bring elements of the Círculos design to life.

And so we kept working.  We mapped out possible places were we could pilot the flexible learning environments we had envisioned in our design process.  We kept up development of our competency-based dashboard.  We started experimenting with the circle pedagogy in our team and department meetings.  By January, we were in full program development stage, working with a team at Century High School to develop a school-within-a-school we were calling Century Flex that drew heavily on the design concepts of Círculos.  We were in the midst of expanding our dependent charter school, Advanced Learning Academy, to open high school grades and to similarly experiment with flexible learning opportunities for our students.

And then, unexpectedly, we got a phone call in May that the film crew wanted to come back to document our progress.  You can imagine my mixed emotions.  We certainly wanted to celebrate and document the progress we were making, but I was worried that somehow we might be the token “sad team” in the documentary that came so close to victory but then fell short.  It makes for good television, but I didn’t necessarily want to set up our team for that.  Despite our reservations, however, we agreed to be filmed.

When the film team come out, they spent an hour or so getting footage of us together working on design plans in collaboration with students.  At one point, they asked us to go outside to get some footage of us practicing a circle discussion.  When we came back inside they had set up a monitor, and told us to gather around for an important message.  A few moments later, Laurene Powell Jobs and Russlyn Ali were on the screen, asking us about our work.

Then they told us they wanted to contribute 2.5 million dollars to help us build our Super School.

There were tears, and shouts of joy.  Certainly we were (and are) incredibly excited.  But what was even more meaningful in many ways was what they shared next.  They expressed their appreciation for our perseverance and tenacity as a team, and commented on how, of the many applications they had reviewed over the previous two years, ours stood out for its heart and passion.

And that is really the core of our core values.  We deeply want this for our kids and our community.  We aspire to rewrite and reimagine what is possible in a high school education.  And we’re doing it right here in Santa Ana.


Nail the Vision Speech

Vision SpeechPractically ubiquitous with the start of the school year is the vision speech.  It’s that moment when everyone is officially back together after summer vacation.  There is a palpable excitement in the room – and some anxiety – considering that the first day of school is right around the corner.  The superintendent or principal or organization figure-head has the mic and the floor and the mandate to inspire and set direction for the coming school year.

Arguably, we all put too much emphasis or faith in the content and delivery of that speech.  Certainly we know that the success of an organization depends on many factors and variables that go deeper and further than speeches and storytelling.  Yet, the vision speech persists as an essential component in the toolkit of leadership skills.

But why so much emphasis on one declaration of purpose and direction?

Perhaps it is because education is such a deeply human endeavor.  After all, learning brings with it a range of new relationships, conflicts, experiences, and struggles.  It is deeply social in nature.  From academic discourse to high expectations, our learning trajectory is plotted amongst the relationships and interactions we have with other human beings.  Not surprisingly, education is deeply emotional work.  We wade through triumphs and tragedies because the outcomes we seek are not physical products.  We seek learning, transformation, and strengthening of the human lives around us.

In my current district, the superintendent’s vision speech typically comes on the morning of the annual leadership symposium.  That was just over a week ago, and our superintendent did not disappoint in her acknowledgement that this would be a key moment in defining her leadership.  She launched with a short film tailor-made for our community, referring to the stark contrast of poverty that most of the families in our district experience with the incredible wealth of surrounding neighborhoods and communities.  Indeed, Orange County California is well-known for it’s wealth, sunshine, and beaches.  It should probably be as well-known for it’s degree of economic and racial/ethnic segregation.   Our superintendent captured the sentiment with reference to A Tale of Two Cities.  Like Dicken’s novel, or John Edward’s stump speech of the Two America’s, the message was designed to reinforce our urgency to accelerate student learning and break down barriers to access and opportunity.

The moment got me thinking about some of the elements that make for a powerful vision speech.

Authenticity is key

It doesn’t matter what you say or how convincingly you say it, you have to convince your audience that what you are saying represents the real you.  That can be tricky, since those you lead have plenty of data points from months if not years of interaction that either corroborate your vision or stand in contrast to it.  Even more than your speech, you are your vision.

As leaders, we all have strengths and weaknesses.  When it comes to the vision speech, you can put your foot on the accelerator when talking about what you know you do well and what there is ample evidence to support.  On the flip side, a powerful vision speech will take time to honestly acknowledge and reflect on those areas where there is either real or perceived weakness.  Glossing over your deficiencies is a dangerous practice and only fuels the fire of your biggest critics.  Of course you don’t want to perseverate on your weaknesses, and nobody wants to hear a downer speech of confessions and second-guessing.  But you have to walk that fine line between confidence and arrogance, and much of that happens in the space where you share some of your more authentic reflections.

In our superintendent’s speech to launch the school year, for example, there was ample time dedicated to highlighting accomplishments and improvements over the past year.  The speech was celebratory.  Yet, for me at least, the most powerful moment came as the message shifted into a reflective tone.  We just experienced a layoff and budget reduction process that was painful.  There were times when leaders within the system felt frustrated and angry.  Our superintendent acknowledged how she had not always attended to the human element of leadership, and recommitted to engage in both listening and attending to human needs within the system.  It resonated strongly and opened up ears to other elements of the speech that came later.

It’s Never Enough

In any relationship, if we only hear about what is wrong with us or what we need to do better, then it won’t be long before we check out.  We can only handle so much critical feedback before we get defensive.  In fact, most adults struggle with any negative feedback at all.

So start with the sweet stuff.  Acknowledge improvements and gains.  Call out exemplary effort and intention.  Publicly reinforce the behaviors, attitudes, and actions that match what you are looking for in your organization.  It’s not a gimmick.  It represents a recognition of the good work that is happening in the organization – wherever that may be.

But you can’t stay celebratory too long.  You don’t want to neutralize the even more important message of urgency around equity of student learning.  We’re not there yet.  Far from it.  Especially for our most marginalized students and communities, we have to be willing to sit with the discomfort of knowing that we are falling short – that our instruction can and must be better.  The vision speech has to push hard on any sense of complacency.

Symbolic Leadership

If there ever were a time for a heavy dose of Symbolic Leadership, this is it.  Yes, leading an organization requires the creation of purposeful structures, strategic management of human capital, and insightful political maneuvering.  But the vision speech gets at human emotions and motivation – this is the time to inspire.  As Bolman and Deal describe it, Symbolic Leadership is the acknowledgment that organizations are messy and often ambiguous, and that creating shared meaning and purpose are essential to the practice of leadership.

So, remind us why we do the work we do.  Tell us what is at stake.  Convince us we’re the right people for the task.  Paint the image of new possibilities and show us the way we are going to get there.

Leadership vision can be inherently dangerous in that it explicitly calls out what you think the organization lacks.  It’s a public statement that important things are currently missing.  There is a gap, if not a gulf, between the current practices and outcomes and what you envision as possible. Mustering the energy and faith necessary to successfully bridge the uncertain space between current conditions and your version of the future is the central purpose and challenge of leadership.  You must convince your organization that what is on the other side is worth the risks and losses that the change process inevitably will bring.

Clarity & Delivery

Good delivery takes practice.  Sometimes it requires a lot of practice, and everybody knows when you are reading a script.  Really, this is one of the most important speeches you give in your professional life, so take the time to practice.  Memorize it if that is what it takes.  It should come across as natural – part of who you are.

And if you are going to make this a multi-sensory, multi-media experience, then make it look good.  Get the graphics right.  Make it visually appealing.  In our superintendent’s most recent vision speech, it was clear that the accompanying slide deck had been given a lot of attention.  The color schemes were consistent.  It was error free. The videos she showed had been thoughtfully curated, and they generated the desired effects – laughter & emotion and a sense of deeper human connection.

Hire someone to help if you need it – you are putting your vision out there, and these are the things that will stay with people over time.  In the case of our superintendent’s vision speech, there are countless Twitter and Facebook images out there sharing elements of the vision beyond the immediate administrative and managerial staff.  I imagine that many of the graphics and images will be recycled and reused throughout the year to reinforce the vision and remind people of our priorities.  It’s an investment worth making.

In some ways, I can catalogue my leadership experiences and (hopefully) impact through the vision speeches I’ve given throughout the years.  And while I know they are important, even I get surprised when someone comes back a few days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years later, and reminds me of something that I shared that has stuck with them in a meaningful way.


Our Journey to the XQ – Key Design Elements of Círculos

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I have at least a few blog posts to write now that our Círculos concept has officially been granted super school status by the XQ Institute.  We’ve actually known for a few months that this was coming, so you can imagine how hard it has been not to share.  Obviously, there are some good stories to tell about how we got here, and about the amazing team members and collaborators who have made it possible.  But I thought it would be nice to start with an overview of some of the key design elements of the program.

Community Values

It would have been easy to respond to the invitation to “Rethink High School” with a Jetson’s-like school of the future.  Instead, we wanted a school that could blend state of the art instructional practices with an authentic connection to the values and identity of our community.  From using a Spanish name to integrating community partners to incorporating circle discussion practices and protocols, Círculos is a school that reflects the tremendous assets of our Santa Ana community.

Our Manera de Ser, or “way of being,” outlines the habits of mind and cognitive skills that we envision for all of our graduates.  These ways of being are defined by the 6 C’s – Courageous, Critical, Capable, Creative, Curious, and Communicative.  We aspire to develop students who go on to the college and life with a broad set of skills and a growth oriented mindset that will allow them to pursue their goals, learn from their mistakes, and persevere en route to success.  These are the types of skills that help define what it means to be a santanero.  We want students who are deeply proud of their identity and heritage – and that sense of belonging and inherent

Our Signature Pedagogy

The name of our school captures the spirit of our endeavor – the circle.  We take our inspiration for the circle discussion from a variety of sources, from the well-known classroom practice of Socratic Seminars, to the emerging role of circles in establishing Restorative Practices on school campuses, to the discussion protocols of some of the most prestigious private schools in our country.  We want academic discourse, and we want a lot of it.  We want authentic connection between teachers and students and community members every single day.

Every morning, the day begins with a circle check-in.  This practice, common in some schools that practice daily advisory classes, allows students the opportunity to check-in physically and emotionally for the learning of the day.  Students and adults alike share their triumphs and challenges, and offer support and solidarity.  The morning circle is also the time to make public commitments to learning goals for the day, giving students a chance to articulate what it is that they will be focusing on.

Every afternoon following lunch, students gather for another circle, this time to break down a shared text.  This daily commitment to textual analysis and academic discourse will deeply root students in literacy practices that will prepare them for the rigors of college coursework – a heavily text-dependent learning environment.  In essence, our students engage in a socratic seminar every single day.  You can imagine their level of comfort engaging in sustained academic discourse after four years of daily practice.

Ambitious Place-Based Learning

Círculos will have no central campus.  This is the statement that brings the ambition and unorthodox nature of the school into sharpest focus.  School no longer occurs primarily within a building we call a school.  We take the community and world around us as our canvas for learning.  Círculos aspires to offer one of the most ambitious place-based learning environments in the country.

Imagine the first day of the semester, coming together to hear Mentor Teachers pitch the project they are planning for the coming semester.  One mentor intends to investigate the factors that drive homelessness in Orange County.  Another mentor is interested in understanding the development of urban farming and sustainable food production practices.  A third mentor indicates her intention to learn more about community health and the systems that potentially lead to improved outcomes for the community.  Students listen intently, because after hearing all the overviews, they then have to rank-choice vote for their top selections.  And the project they choose will dictate the physical location of “school” for the next semester.

Each project will be the home for a circle of 25 students.  Students studying the factors and impact of homelessness might take up residence in a City of Santa Ana office.  Those interested in understanding sustainable food production might spend their semester studying at the urban farm plot at the Orange County Heritage Museum.  The group looking at systems to improve community health may spend most days at Latino Health Access downtown.

A-G Aligned Curriculum & Robust Intervention Support

Academic rigor is at the heart of our Círculos design.  Our students will continue to work to meet the requirements of an A-G aligned curriculum through a flexible learning program that integrates blended learning into whichever physical space our students find themselves.  In other words, technology allows us to turn any physical space big enough to accommodate a circle of students into a classroom.  A portion of every day will be dedicated to supporting students as they progress through their A-G aligned coursework, supported on a digital platform.

To ensure students receive the targeted content learning support they need, we’ve developed what we refer to as “intensive” days.  Intensive days refer to the targeted support and tutoring that comes as students leave their normal project homes to meet up with mentor teachers who can work with them specifically within areas of struggle.  For example, a student struggling to make adequate progress within an Algebra class, could spend one or two entire mornings during the week working closely with other students and a mentor teacher who focuses on developing their algebra content knowledge and skills.  In this way, students experience a deeply personalized approach to helping them pace through their A-G coursework.

Professionalism at its Best

Sometimes people equate blended learning or place-based learning with veiled attempts to undermine the role and importance of certificated teachers in classrooms.  Círculos assumes exactly the opposite.  At the heart of any genuine shift towards personalization is the need for powerful, caring relationships between teachers and students.  We even add the word “mentor” in front of teachers to reinforce the sense that teachers are more than content delivery agents – they are a critical component in the development of young people.

In fact, anyone familiar with the design and management of a flexible learning space will likely tell you that the complexity of the work calls for increasingly skilled teachers.  So much so, that a major element of our Círculos design calls for the creation of a comprehensive training and professional learning component for our staff of mentor teachers.  Imagine the degree of competency required to support students as they move through both an A-G aligned curriculum plus engage in such ambitious project and place based learning.  To that end, we are developing what we call the Codex – an interactive learning space for teachers that reinforces our professional values, builds instructional capacity within our signature pedagogy and other key strategies, and highlights the skills and mindsets embedded within our Manera de Ser.  It’s an ambitious professional learning agenda, and it absolutely relies on highly skilled and motivated teachers.

An Unflinching Commitment to Equity

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Last week, I sat in a room with Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City.  It wasn’t the first time I had enjoyed the privilege of listening to Canada’s message and experiences.  He is a major figure amongst education reformers.  He was early to the most recent wave of reform, and is perhaps most easily associated with his no-excuses vision for what is possible in the lives of our most marginalized young people.  He is also a man of tangible grace, class, and notably, humor.

But Canada’s vision for kids is deadly serious: All kids go to college.

He is resolute in this vision.  It doesn’t matter how poor, how disabled, or how challenged the young person – Canada is adamant that college is the pathway out of poverty and struggle.  He’s been at it in Harlem for 30 years now, and much of his success is also surely due to his longevity in one place.  He describes the power and impact when graduates come back to the community and mentor and teach the rising generation – fueled by a deep belief that college is possible for EVERY SINGLE STUDENT. They know it is possible because it is the story of their lives.  They’ve already lived it.

That deep belief in what kids are capable of really is at the heart of the struggle for leadership in our schools.  For Canada, he knows what is possible because he has lived it. He opened his discussion referring to the fact that all but two of his childhood friends have already passed on.  At the age of 65, most of us from a middle class upbringing wouldn’t expect that high a mortality rate amongst our childhood friends.  For Canada, the impact of poverty is stark – how is it that something as seemingly simple as learning to read and write and gaining access to post-secondary options could have such an outsize impact on something as fundamental as life expectancy?

I love watching the room when Canada speaks.  His stance is not an uncontroversial one. “But what about (insert student name) who has (insert list of challenges)?  Surely we can’t expect him to go to college.”  Yes we can, and we must.  He told story after story about kids who should have been the college-going exception, who somehow made it.  For some of them, the struggle was daily.  Canada’s recommendation?  Do what it takes to move that student forward for that day, and be grateful for it.  Days string together into weeks, and months, and then years.

I was particularly interested in the way the topic of race was discussed.  Again with the wisdom and grace of someone who has been doing this work for an entire generation, Canada had a very compelling perspective.  “We’ve found that race is not a predictor for who will be our top performers in the classroom.  Our country currently needs and will continue to need white teachers who teach students of color.  But they have to ‘get it.’ They have to hold deeply the belief that the kids are capable of college.”

Canada doesn’t discount the struggle.  For leaders, you have to work consistently to get everyone in the organization to believe that it is possible – all our kids go to college.  You have to work consistently to help families catch the same vision.  And if the leader doesn’t belief it, then nobody else has to.  You have to imbue the organization with your expectations.

Has every graduate of the Harlem Children’s Zone made his or her way to a college degree?  No.  But those exceptions are just that, unexpected exceptions – and the system isn’t afraid to own the failure.  They hold themselves accountable for the outcomes – even when doing so might seem unreasonable or unfair to your run-of-the-mill observer.

Can you expect a school system to ensure that every single student makes it to college?  Canada’s response is constant – we can and we must.  He knows the questions that follow, the furrowed brows and insistence on defensible exceptions.  Despite his touch of humor and warm smile, Canada doesn’t seem terribly interested in salving the disappointment of adult educators in the room who may want to rationalize the inability of their students to get to college on poor student choices or insurmountable life challenges.  It’s an unflinching commitment to outcomes that immediately exposes what we truly believe is possible for our students.

The Triumph of Leadership

Triumph of Leadership

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.

“Hagdog” – Lessons from a Mentor

HagdogThis is the last week of school in Santa Ana.  Along with graduation and the end of a school year come transitions.  We experience the end of something old and the beginning of something new.  Often, impending transitions bring a certain sense of uncertainty – and yet at the same time we experience the rush of new possibilities and adventures.

That’s how I’m feeling about the departure of Dr. David Haglund, who is leaving his post as the Deputy Superintendent here in Santa Ana to take on a new challenge as Superintendent of Pleasanton Unified up in the Bay Area.  Beyond some Bay Area jealousy, I’m feeling sadness to be losing a friend and mentor.  David will always be the one who took a chance on me – hiring me straight from a charter school system and empowering me to bring a fresh perspective to our shared work.  On paper, he called my position “school renewal.”  In practice, my hiring was a call to challenge the status quo and agitate for a system that could more authentically and effectively prepare students for the very uncertain world in which we all find ourselves.

While I learned a lot from Dr. Haglund – “Hagdog” as some like to call him – there are a few lessons that he seems uniquely qualified to share.  They are concepts that have deeply shaped my own leadership perspective and practice.

The Skunkworks

David is one of the most gifted strategic thinkers I’ve ever worked with.  His mind kneads situations in different ways and directions until possibilities arise.  And he’s patient.  He knows the danger of unnecessarily pressing an issue when it isn’t “ripe.”  He waits for that moment – the opening – when things come together like pulling a common thread all the way from beginning to end.  It seems effortless when it finally comes together.

All the while David worked the backchannels.  Sometimes, the backchannel was a concrete feature, like during a leadership meeting when he encouraged people in the room to text their “in the moment” thoughts and responses to what they were hearing up on a big projector screen.  Sometimes the backchannel took the form of informal conversations – in parking lots, on the sidelines of football games, and during impromptu encounters in the hallway.  He was constantly priming stakeholders.  He was always planting seeds, with the faith that the moment for germination and growth would come – even if it took a little time.

My approach is often the opposite – to burst through the front door with new and well-funded initiatives and programs in hand.  Sometimes I would get frustrated when David would kindly but firmly redirect my thinking.  He constantly talked about the need to encourage distributed ownership.  He was always afraid that if we didn’t allow people to figure things out for themselves – to grind a little – that initiatives and programs would disappear when the money dried up (which, in public schools, it often does).  He wanted to get the work into the marrow of the organization, and not settle for pretty adornments.  He always took the long view.

Access & Pathways

David’s path to educational leadership hasn’t always been strait forward.  He likes to tell students about his own circuitous path in life, including dropping out of high school for a time.  Honestly, it makes me cringe a bit each time I hear it.  But it is genuine.  It is the story he tells because it is the story of his life.  David’s story  fuels his passion for opening doors and pathways for students – even when it comes in unconventional ways.

David has been a champion of our educational options schools – alternative schools filled with students whose own pathways simply don’t conform to the traditional educational experience.  Under his direction, our district has added a night program for students who would rather work during the day.  He revamped our community day school, recruiting talented site leadership who brought a new vision to the learning opportunities for our most troubled and challenged students.  Two years later, what was once a school only spoken about in hushed tones is now rebranded as REACH Academy, and will be moving into a new campus as possibly the first and only WASC accredited community day school in the state of California.  There is no doubt in my mind that Santa Ana’s success raising graduation rates well-above state and county averages has come, in part, due to David’s focus on the pathways for students who just a few years ago would have opted to drop out.

One of David’s largest achievements has been giving the students of Santa Ana access to the digital world that defines our economy and modern society.  Prior to his arrival, the district had about 8,000 electronic devices serving a student population of over 50,000.  David quickly set to reverse this trend, introducing an Access for All campaign that has put “learning devices” and digital access in the hands of every student.  Now the district has more devices than students, along with a robust wireless backbone that permeates the district.  This system-wide commitment was not borne out of a belief that a Chromebook and internet connection would magically transform the learning experience in classrooms.  Rather, it stemmed from a belief that we cannot even predict all of the ways that young people will access learning when they have the right tools.  Yes, there was a pedagogical purpose behind integrating technology into instruction, but the real motivation was much more about the simple belief that our students should have access to the same tools and opportunities as others.

Connecting with Kids

Ask anyone what is unique about David’s leadership and they will likely answer that it is the way he connects directly with students.  It’s not something he does as a leadership strategy.  For David, it comes from a much more personaI desire to interact with and offer individual mentorship to students.  It’s something that David feels he must do.

And that makes sense.  While the rest of us are running around talking about student-centered schools and personalization, David embodies both in his day to day practice.  He doesn’t make the assumption, as many education leaders do, that improving the systemic outcomes is sufficient.  Yes, David is committed to the improvement of quantitative outcomes in a broad sense.  He has pushed for higher graduation rates and levels of English Learner reclassification.  He brought us MAP testing and growth percentiles.  But incremental gains aren’t enough for David.  He recognizes that he has been blessed with a tremendous amount of privilege and power, and that it is incumbent on him to share his social capital with the students and community around him.

That means picking up the phone and calling a university that isn’t sure about admitting a student.  That means buying an instrument for a student who can’t afford a replacement.  That means hosting dinners with alumni in any city he finds himself just to check-in and make sure students know they have support.  He’s the fan base for many individual students who are engaged in the heroic and exhausting struggle of overcoming intergenerational poverty.  He knows he alone can’t get to everyone.  But he tries to model what it can look like and set an example for the other leaders and adults in the system.  He envisions a school district where every employee takes a personal interest and makes a personal investment in individual students outside of what they are “paid” to do.