Tools of Improvement Science – Systems Mapping

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If you are having a conversation with an Improvement Science aficionado, it won’t be long before the conversation shifts to a discussion of specific practices and tools that are closely associated with helping organizations or individuals improve.  The common mantra is that Improvement Science helps us “get better at getting better,” and the mechanism for continuous improvement can be found in the application of a set of tools and practices Improvement Scientists have identified and tested.  Empathy interviews.  Journey Maps.  Systems Mapping.  PDSA cycles.  Fishbone diagrams.  There are actually quite a few of these tools, and each one is designed to illuminate a different aspect of the improvement journey.

My personal favorite is system mapping.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a visual learner.  Systems mapping is an attempt to create a visual overview of a process, outlining explicitly the relationships and sequences that we assume are the part of any given system.  In essence, we are lifting the hood to take a look at how things work together (or as is sometimes the case, are not working together) and then represent those relationships in a visual map.  A systems map takes a flow chart one step further as it seeks to identify the weak points in the system that are leading to underperformance.  The map then serves as a launching point for determining potential interventions that we want to test to improve the system.

I find systems mapping to be incredibly illustrative.  It can become apparent very quickly that a room full of organizational leaders who thought they had a common understanding about how something gets done actually possess very nuanced and incomplete views of what happens in practice.  It’s like putting together a puzzle where everyone has a different piece to contribute.

At work, for example, I’ve recently been using systems mapping to help improve our process for approving substitute teachers for professional development.  You might think the process would be fairly straight-forward.  You need subs.  You ask for permission to get subs.  Permission is either granted or denied.

You would be very wrong.

For starters, we are in the midst of a serious, if not severe, substitute shortage.  There simply are not enough quality substitute teachers to fill our vacant positions on a daily basis.  Despite efforts to continuously recruit and hire good people, attrition is high and the best substitutes get snatched up – as they should be – for long term gigs or as full-time classroom teachers.  That puts a daily cap on how many subs we have available.  To add to the challenge, we have a lot of competing interests for professional development.  Of course that is a good problem since we want our classroom teachers to have opportunities for quality professional learning.

That all adds up to a simple equation of supply and demand, which means there are ALWAYS more requests for subs than we have the capacity to meet.  That drives a scarcity mindset, and when people start hearing “no” with regularity, it puts increasing pressure on a system that only worked moderately well even in the best of times.  Admittedly, my leadership responsibilities have little to do with substitute requests, but when everyone I am working with and trying to support is constantly referencing a system that is causing distraction and even spreading mistrust, it’s hard for me not to get involved.

Where do you start when you are trying to improve a system that you don’t know a tremendous amount about?  You start asking a lot of questions of the people who are closest to the work – and you begin to develop a map of the system.  So that’s what I did.  I started by putting my initial assumptions on paper, and then learning more by investigating the details of the system.  Committing those details to a visual map allows us to make our assumptions explicit, and develop shared meaning and understanding about the system.

Fast forward several weeks to today, and we’re still very much in the process of working through our new system.  One of my tasks today is to update our system map to reflect where things stand as of today.  The intention is to not only use the map to help us continuously improve the system, but to make that system transparent to its users.

 

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On Being Principal – Defining Moments

2 Nov 17 - Defining Moments

Most of the time, I emphasize the importance of consistency and alignment over time as the primary strategy for realizing an organizational vision.  In other words, you have to play the long game, accumulating small wins over time.  I’m a big fan of continuous improvement, and that defines my core practice as an administrator.  But sometimes, principals face moments that present special opportunities to define themselves as a leader and truly impact the culture of the organization.  Often, those opportunities come in moments of crisis.

One of those moments came for me at the end of my first year as principal.  Our leadership team, and entire staff, had battled throughout the year to strengthen the school culture as one that embodied mutual respect and pro-social behavior amongst our students.  We latched on to the idea of the Warm Demander, a conceptual framework for building strong, respectful relationships between students and teachers.  In essence, being a Warm Demander means your students know you genuinely love and care for them, and that you will kick their butt if they don’t live up to their potential.  Our instructional leadership team embraced the opportunity to engage staff in conversations about what high expectations of student learning looked like in classrooms, hallways and shared spaces.

Over the course of the year, we moved from system to system, constantly improving along the way.  In some cases, we tinkered.  In others, we made a complete overhaul.  We moved our referral system to a digital system that allowed us to more easily track and analyze discipline data.  We implemented random tardy sweeps to encourage more on-time behavior.  We designed a system of positive behavior intervention and supports.  We deliberately highlighted and celebrated our students who had made significant growth – both academically and socially.

Obviously, I’m biased.  I was the principal and felt tremendous efficacy about our collective improvement work.  Of course we had setbacks and moments of tremendous disappointment – both in ourselves as leaders and in some of the decisions made by our students.  We weren’t always successful.  But we persisted.  As we approached the end of the school year, it felt like we had made significant progress.

As graduation neared, several staff members approached me out of concern for certain student behaviors that had historically disrupted graduation festivities at the end of the school year.  I ensured my staff that we had permanently committed to high expectations and wouldn’t settle just because the school year was coming to a close.

I had made a deliberate point to communicate with my seniors that they needed to attend graduation rehearsal in order to walk across the stage at graduation.  Of course there might be reasonable conflicts due to illness, but this wasn’t going to be something to sluff off.

On the morning of the rehearsal, all but three of our students were present.  While I intended to be true to my stated expectations, I had my own heightened sense of concern for my three missing students – I certainly wanted them to participate in graduation, and so I encouraged classmates to reach out directly at the same time that I was calling home and trying to track down the students to get them to rehearsal.

When the three young men finally arrived, nearly an hour late, all three were clearly under the influence of marijuana.  In some contexts, this might seem like an easy decision, but this is San Francisco we are talking about, and recreational marijuana use amongst 17 and 18 year old adolescent young men was hardly a criminal or serious offense.

With the support of my admin team, I made the decision to bar the three young men from the graduation ceremony.  My calls home to family informing them of my decision brought immediate reaction and anger.  How could I deny these young men the culminating moment of a hard fought education?  Parents and family members packed into my office, pleading, and then demanding, that I change my decision and allow the young men to walk.  As the pressure mounted, teachers began to take opposite sides – with teachers openly advocating on both sides of the decision.  I was threatened with lawsuits and physical violence.  One of the young men was so incensed that he shattered the glass entry door to the school as he stormed out.  What was supposed to be the culminating moment of celebration for the school year descended into a deeply contested crisis.

As the final day of school came and went, opposition to my decision stiffened.  I received several phone calls from former staff members and the previous principal asking me to reconsider.  Students hinted at a walk out.  I couldn’t imagine anything more awful as a first-year principal than a student walkout at graduation in protest of my leadership.

Internally, I wanted nothing more than to relent and allow the young men to walk.  I’m a people-pleaser, and I don’t like to see people uncomfortable or experiencing difficulty when I have power to assist.  But I’m also deeply committed to exercising the leadership necessary to move schools and organizations to the next level of performance and shared values.  This decision very much felt like a critical inflection point in driving home the message that above all, I was committed to holding high expectations as the principal – regardless of the consequences.

I should note that my supervisor and superintendent Gia Truong supported my decision.  As was her approach to developing principals, Gia refused to overrule me and make the decision herself and instead engaged me in a serious of questions to ensure that I understood and could articulate my own thinking on the matter.  I think she knew this was a decision that was killing me – and sometimes I wonder whether she herself was curious what I would do in the end.

In the end, three young men didn’t walk at graduation.  There was no walkout – although I had to sweat it out the entire ceremony as I was unsure what might happen.  I clearly remember crafting a statement for my staff – making it clear that I too was struggling with the decision, and that I was not entirely sure that it was the best outcome for the three young men involved.  I was, however, certain that given our struggles and history as a school, that it was the right decision for our collective community.

Over the days, weeks, and months that followed graduation, and with the benefit of time, many of my staff came forward to express their appreciation of my commitment to act with integrity in a difficult situation and for being transparent with my decision-making process.  Even some of those who were most vocal in their opposition approached me to share their feelings of respect for my decision.  Years later, that first graduation came up with some frequency when staff members shared stories about me.

In the end, I truly do believe that we made the right decision for our school.  Of course I’m not entirely closed to the idea that things could have played out differently and still have had a positive outcome.  I certainly still ache a bit on behalf of the young men involved.  But seeing a tough decision through in a crucible moment provided me with a resolve later down the road that made it easier to make difficult decisions when the pressure mounted.  It wasn’t just a defining moment for the students and staff for whom I had stewardship – it has shaped how I perceive myself as a leader.  It’s a decision that stays with me.

Thoughts on the Breakthrough Coach

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Have you ever attended a professional seminar that got people visibly agitated?  That’s only happened twice to me.  The first time, it was an undersecretary for the Department of Education during the early years of No Child Left Behind under the George W. Bush presidency.  She really liked the metaphor of “don’t beat a dead horse” and used some actual images of a dying horse.  Not a happy audience.

The other time was a little more subtle.  It was when I attended  Breakthrough Coach training with Malachi Pancoast.  Malachi didn’t whip the audience into an angry frenzy – but he definitely stirred some emotions with his unapologetic thesis for why school leaders are not as effective as they could be.

Here’s the general thesis.  The primary role of the school leader is to observe the system at play in the school he or she leads and then provide ongoing and actionable feedback to make it work better.  This applies to every aspect of a school’s functioning – from instruction in the classroom to how parents are greeted in the front office.  In essence, the principal is the coach, constantly making adjustments to ensure the increasingly optimal functioning of the system.  Malachi encourages principals to get out of their offices regularly and spend as much time as they can where the game is being played – in classrooms.

None of this seems particularly controversial.  Indeed, most school leaders know intuitively that improving instructional practice is the holy grail of their leadership legacy.  Principals know that spending time with teachers and students in classrooms is what they should be doing.  Of course, this leads most well-intentioned principals to feel some guilt about the disconnect between what they know they should be doing and what they actually do with their time.  It brings about a self-consciousness that is baked into the psyche of most school leaders.

The beauty of the Breakthrough Coach is that Malachi doesn’t sugarcoat this disconnect.  In fact, he emphasizes it.  He is explicit about the fact that he expects the principals in the room to be defensive.  He knows the retorts to expect.  “You don’t know what my job is like!”  “I would be in classrooms, but the district bombards me with meetings and paperwork!”

I won’t go into all the details of the training.  It would ruin the fun and surprise of it all.  Nor am I suggesting that every school leader should adopt every aspect of Malachi’s refreshingly practical tools and approach to leading a school or organization.  But there are a few general design principals from the breakthrough coach that I have found to be essential.

Observe the System

You can’t lead from an office.  You have to be out there where the work is happening, watching and talking to kids and adults about how they experience the system.  You have to ask questions and suspend your own assumptions and biases.  You have to really try to understand what is going on around you.

I once sat in a meeting where the Chief Academic Officer wore a safari hat – her plea to teachers and principals in the system was to consider themselves data collectors.  From a leadership perspective, you need good data to make good decisions.  Sometimes, you have to go get that good data yourself in the form of observations and conversations.

Have the Hard Conversations

Learning to see the system is primarily an analytical task.  The leadership component comes from the emotional toll associated with constantly asking people to change.  Sometimes you are asking people to change routines or processes.  Sometimes you are asking people to change their attitudes and beliefs.

Regardless of the change, providing feedback can be uncomfortable.  As my mentor and supervisor Gia Truong often told me – leadership is essentially a series of hard conversations.  Malachi’s perspective is that as leaders, we are avoiding far too many of those hard conversations.

Your Value Isn’t Measured in Hours

Working long hours doesn’t guarantee an impact on student learning.  Malachi drives this point home – asserting that most school leaders often sacrifice their personal interests, their health, and their personal relationships on the altar of their professional identities.  He points out how we’ve allowed the principal’s office to become our de facto home – with couches and fridges and all the accouterments of home.

Malachi’s invitation is to get out of the office, to go home, to be present for the people in our personal lives who also need our attention and love and support.  The truth is that balancing school and home life for a school leader is a genuine challenge.  Perhaps some of the initial discontent amongst participants of the Breakthrough Coach is due to this perceived oversimplification of the time demands placed on principals.  It’s a fair critique.

Yet deep down most principals know Malachi is right.  Our years roll by, our children grow older, and all the time we privately fret about the tradeoffs we make in order to run our schools.  In a labor-oriented field like education, and where time spent with children does have intrinsic value, there are only so many ways to achieve balance.  Efficiency helps.  Talented staff helps.   I’ve reflected on this element of Malachi’s sessions more than perhaps any other.  Our potency, our energy, and our visionary clarity is often fed by a centered and balanced life.

On the whole – I’m a big fan of the Breakthrough Coach.  In my mind, it is a training well worth the time and money.  It’s a fresh, somewhat unconventional take on management, and it is guaranteed to get you thinking about your purpose, your role, and your efficacy as a principal.

On Being Principal – Rough Beginnings

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Imagine it’s the first day of the school year.  As the new principal, I position myself on the front stair steps that lead up to our high school, perched on a hill atop the solidly working class Excelsior neighborhood in San Francisco.  I happily greet every student who passes by.  Some students are warm and eager to introduce themselves, others seem indifferent to my presence.  For my part, I am full of optimism and excitement about my new job.  As students are streaming past me, I vaguely notice a commotion off to my right, followed by a girl’s surprised scream.  Soon a young man is standing in front of me with blood running down the side of his face.  I quickly shift gears from enthusiastic greeter to crisis manager as I usher the young man and several onlookers into the front office.  Within the first five minutes of my first day as principal, I’m already conducting an investigation into a fight that had occurred between two of my students who decided to settle old debts on their way to school.

As those first days turned into weeks, I found myself digging deeply into my emotional, physical, and intellectual reserves in an effort to stay above water and actually lead.  I had perhaps underestimated how the expectations to play so many roles each day would weigh on me.  In addition to building relationships with students and staff, managing crisis, and recruiting students to the school, my days (and nights) were spent dealing with an unimaginable array of responsibilities and challenges.  Even then I considered myself lucky, as I had a caring and patient wife, a network of equally overworked but committed school leader friends, and an unusually supportive superintendent.  In many ways I received both personal and professional support that many new principals may never experience.

“Being a principal is an impossible job.”  That’s the best and most honest advice I ever received as a principal.  It came from a principal colleague as we stood on a street corner two blocks from my school, watching students leaving school for the day.  I was just a few months into the job, but it felt much longer.  I had aged.  I had spent more than one evening on my living room couch, in something of a daze.  It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that a brief encounter on a street corner with a fellow principal quickly found me confiding about the immensity of the leadership challenge I was facing.

“Daniel, just remember that everyone wants something from you.  Everyone has a problem, and it wasn’t until I reconciled myself to the reality that I couldn’t fix everything or meet everyone’s needs that I was able to start thinking about the most important things I should be doing.”

It was advice that made me think back to a statement that Richard Elmore made to my cohort of 42 aspiring principals as part of the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  He was blunt and to the point.  “The very characteristics that likely got you into Harvard will keep you from being a transformative school leader.”  He was speaking to our potential tendency to be perfectionists, to avoid conflict, and to mitigate risks and go by the book.

Now I was in the principal chair, and the immensity of the leadership challenge was humbling.  Everything felt urgent.  It was hard to decipher between putting out fires and doing work to encourage more long-term strategic shifts.  Sometimes I was actually putting out fires.

Frankly, the daily rigor of being the principal was intense in a way I hadn’t entirely anticipated.  It required the very best of my thinking and virtually all of my energy, and even then I felt like I was falling woefully short.  In many ways, it was precisely the type of professional experience I wanted and had aspired to.  I just hadn’t completely realized the degree to which the role would immediately push and challenge me.

Tools of Improvement Science – Systems Thinking

27 Sept 17 - Improvement Science Systems Thinking

Mechanistic controls.  Tight interdependence.  Centralized authority and clear hierarchy. These are concepts we often associate with bureaucratic organizations.  Perhaps the most common visual metaphor for such systems is the picture of interlocking cogs and wheels.  “You’re just a cog in the machine,” is a phrase that has crystalized into a euphemism for a lack of agency or power to create change or exercise independent thought within a bureaucratic system.

While I do think that many of the bureaucratic controls alive and well in our organizations have outlived their usefulness in the context of our dynamic, information ubiquitous and fast-paced society, my purpose is not necessarily to bemoan bureaucracies.  To the contrary, my purpose is to point out that even in traditional bureaucracies – such as a large public school district – the metaphor of the cogs and gears simply doesn’t hold up.

In Santa Ana, for example, we’re engaged in a partnership with the CORE Districts and the Carnegie Foundation to use the tools of Improvement Science to better understand our current systems of operation and make deliberate, strategic decisions to improve those systems.  At the center of this work is learning to think with a systems perspective.

To help our district and school leaders adopt a more systemic perspective on their work improving outcomes, our improvement coaches Juli Coleman and Amanda Meyer from CORE designed a game they called the “Butterfly Game.”  Taking cues from the idea of the Butterfly Effect, the game is designed to help participants experience the interdependence of working within a system, and how small changes can sometimes cause large perceptible shifts.  However, unlike in the metaphor of cogs and gears where causes and effects are predictable, the game reflected the much more unpredictable nature of improvement work.

We started off standing in a circle.  The only rule we were given was to identify two other people in the circle, and then when we heard “go,” position ourselves equidistant from those two people without making it obvious who we were tracking.  Immediately on “go,” everyone in the circle started moving, trying to make physical adjustments to stay equally distant between their two human guideposts.  To the outside observer, this impromptu system was little more than chaos.  To participants, there were clear, if unseen, relationships influencing our every move.  Of course we all had chosen different people to track, and that interdependence spread messiness everywhere.  People were crashing into tables and nearby trees – paying such close attention to the the people they were positioning against that they failed to spot stationary obstacles.  When a participant came late to the circle from the bathroom, nobody really paused to clue her in to what was happening, so she did the best she could to figure it out without looking and feeling confused.

At some point, the movement slowed down to a trickle, and the system seemingly came into equilibrium.  Then the game designers decided to make a few structural changes, moving just a few participants from one location to another – citing the promise of greater efficiency and effectiveness as the motivation for the move.   When we heard “go” a second time, the system immediately started moving in response to the structural shifts imposed on the system.  I myself had difficulty avoiding a collision with both tables and other participants as they adjusted their positions.

Again, the system eventually settled into a tenuous equilibrium.

The debrief of this experience was rich in drawing out metaphors and parallels with our work as systems leaders.  Relationships are deep and often unseen.  We can’t always define the rules of the system but often can see and measure their impact.  Small changes can cause unpredictable outcomes.  We sometimes neglect newcomers to the system or allow others to sustain contact or injury without taking much notice.

Yes, we have to work together to get the work done – but the systems within which we are working are much less linear and predictable than we like to admit.  Often, our solutions offer technical, linear fixes to systems where human intuition and human error are in constant play.  The tools of improvement science are meant to equip us as leaders with analytical practices that slow down our shortcut-seeking, solution oriented administrator brains.  Instead, we apply methodical, analytical processes that help us get better at getting better.

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

12 Sept 17 - Adventures in Bullet Journaling 3

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.

Engagement

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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.