Thursday, July 26, 2012

Analysis of the Responsibilities of a District Administrator

In conjunction with a graduate course that I am taking this summer, I took some time to analyze the responsibilities of a school district administrator.  To accomplish this task I interviewed a local superintendent and created a monthly checklist of duties.  I then compared the checklist to the The Key Work of School Boards guidebook.  The book explains the eight fundamental components of the key work of school boards.  For each component--Vision, Standards, Assessment, Accountability, Alignment, Collaboration, Climate, and Continuous Improvement--the authors delineate the duties required of a superintendent.  My analysis is linked below.  If the district administrator that I spoke specifically discussed the duty during our interview, then the roles is highlighted and the specific evidence (if applicable) is noted.  

Systems Thinking
An effective administrator understands all aspects of his/her school system.  They are informed, monitor progress, and intervene when necessary.  However, a district administrator must delegate duties in an effective manner.  If you focus too much on one specific area, the other areas will suffer from a lack of leadership.  Leaders allow others to have ownership programs.  

In the current political and economic climate, the responsibilities of district administrators have expanded, or in many situations, superintendents work part-time.  As duties expand and time contracts overall capacity to lead decreases.  In addition, district's that choose this path miss out on many quality educational leaders who do not view a part-time/split position as desirable.

Effective leaders sweat small details
Much of the district administrator's job is "big picture" planning.  However, effective superintendents are keenly aware that every discussion, meeting, conference, or public interaction is an opportunity to fulfill the vision of the school district.  Successful leaders are normally thinking a couple of steps ahead and are constantly analyzing how current practices align to best practices.

A High Degree of Complexity
From strategic planning, instructional leadership, and fiscal management to federal compliance, human resources, and building management; district administrators must handle a diverse set of tasks.   The reality of the position is that it requires the ability to prioritize and organize your time.  You must practice personal humility, but have a determined professional will.  Superintendents have to be able to handle a high degree of complexity while solving problems.  This process involves analyzing multiple streams of information, sometimes from contradictory sources, that lead to no clear solutions.  In these instances a successful administrator must consistently make principled decisions by stepping back from the immediate situation and seeing the long-term, large scale patterns and trends.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Welcome to Cashton Middle/High School!

Dear Cashton Middle School Sixth Grade Students and Parents,

It is with great excitement that I write to welcome you to the 2012-2013 school year at Cashton Middle School.  In just over a month, the faculty, staff, and I will be greeting you as you arrive for your first day of the new school year, and I look forward to welcoming you to our new school.
As sixth graders, you will find that you have many choices you can make to explore new interests, share your talents, and help our school community.  The transition from elementary school will represent a big shift in your educational career.  I can imagine that you might be feeling a little nervous about going to a new school with different teachers, lockers, passing time, and enhanced expectations; however, the middle school staff has planned events to help with this transition.

Sixth Grade Summer School
Aug.  6-10, 8:00am-Noon at Cashton MS/HS (Room 203)
The overall goal of the class is to create a more positive, less stressful experience for 6th grade students.  Academic and social skills will be developed throughout this course while also helping familiarize students with the two sixth-grade classrooms along with the rest of the middle school facility.
If you have not signed up for this class, but you are now interested in attending call me at 608-654-5131 ext.202.  There is plenty of space available for all who would like to participate.

Sixth Grade Parent and Student Orientation
Aug. 30, 7:00 pm-8:00 pm at Cashton MS/HS (Cafeteria)
An informational meeting for both parents and students.  The format for the evening will include:  An introduction to the CMS faculty; an overview of the core academic schedule, and an opportunity for parents and students to tour building, locate classes, and practice lockers.

Parents, as we approach the new school year, I am again reminded of the importance of communication between Cashton Middle School and home.  I encourage you to take a moment to think about your child’s upcoming experience at CMS, and feel free to drop me a letter or email with any information you feel that I could share with your child’s teacher that may be significant in helping to make the transition to his or her new classroom.  I will make certain that the information you share gets to the teacher or appropriate staff member before the start of school.  Additionally, school information is available at our school website: and school blog:
In closing, I speak for all faculty and staff when I say how much we are looking forward to the start of the new school year on September 4th.  Please feel free to visit the school or contact me at 608-654-5131 ext. 202 if you have any questions or concerns.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Key Work of School Boards

On June 18 I attended the regular monthly meeting of the Cashton Board of Education.  As principal I have the opportunity to attend each monthly meeting.  This month I focused on analyzing our board's adherence to a continuous improvement methodology.  As outlined in The Key Work of School Boards, continuous improvement is a way of thinking that focuses on doing things better.  While there is not a specific blueprint that must be followed, there are clear actions that are taken by boards focused on continuous improvement.  Making decisions based on data, adopting a customer focus, consistent review of new and existing programs, fostering open lines of communication, and celebrating evidence of improvement are strong indicators that a board is modeling continuous improvement.

The June meeting was a good example of how our board consistently reviews new and existing programs.   Ms. Peterson, our reading specialist, reported on the 2011-2012 middle school literacy program and set 2012-13 goals.  Ms. Sanders (Special Education teacher) and Ms. Menzynski (Title I teacher), presented the Title I and Special Education Evaluation and Needs Assessment Results.  Mr. Alderson (Elementary Teacher) and I presented the district and building evaluation of 2011-12 goals and set 2012-13 goals.  During each of these presentations multiple forms of data were used and board members asked questions to each presenter. The questions allowed the presenters to clarify their message and indicated the boards intent to foster open lines of communication.  There were several other agenda items, but the other critical topic was budget information provided by the Department of Instruction.  The superintendent reviewed the special education aid computation, the final revenue limit calculation, the state equalization aid, and membership data.  The ensuing discussion focused on the overall fiscal health of the district and the ramifications of funding adjustments from the state.  As I reflect on the meeting, it is clear our board is committed to the continuous improvement process.   The current superintendent has done a good job cultivating an attitude that is focused on quality and recognizing those who produce it.

If I were to become superintendent of a district, an initial goal would be to listen and to study school district data.  It will be important for me to understand how decisions are made and to what level continuous improvement already exists in the district.  If I felt it was needed, I would suggest that board members participate in a training to help them better understand the principles and tools of continuous improvement.  This training, perhaps in the form of a board retreat, would allow the board an opportunity to better understand the importance of developing a culture that promotes a process of improvement.  Another priority would be to complete an academic review of the district.  A superintendent should understand which systems are performing well in the district and which systems are under performing.  A systems audit would be presented the board and specific goals outlined to address areas of deficiency.  The audit would also provide an opportunity to showcase successful programs, teachers, and students.  Finally, I would take steps to establish a respectful and positive culture.  A respectful culture is built on a foundation of trust and communication.  Visiting every school; creating feedback systems for teachers, parents, and students; and following through on delivered promises would be a high priority.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Community: The Structure of Belonging

Community-The Structure of Belonging  starts with a dense summary of  prior research on leadership, community, and transformation.  While I appreciated the background information, I found it a challenge to read.  My biggest takeaway from the the first section (The Fabric of Community) was Block's diverse views on leadership.   The role of a leader is to invite people, set up a hospitable meeting space, and encourage engagement through powerful conversations.   The second section (The Alchemy of Belonging) provided specific examples of how to frame conversations.  His examples were open-ended and applicable to many leadership situations in schools.  Reading this book after our discussion about mission and vision was helpful.  Below is a summary of the parts of the book that spoke loudest to me.

Bigger isn't better  Community problems are not solved with big, top down programs  that are heavy on mandates and requirements and are so large in scope that they were developed without collaboration.  These programs do not elicit the passion and vigor required to truly impact day to day school operations.

Power in our hands  True transformation occurs when leaders create an environment in which all members of an organization feel empowered.   A symptom of an under performing school is when members of the organization have opinions and suggestions for change, but are waiting for "administration" to something about it.

Tilt the Floor  It doesn't matter how dynamic, engaging, and powerful a leader is, he/she alone can not will a district to move exactly as they want.  Smart leaders recognize that schools are always changing.  It is important to analyze if these changes are moving the district to a more desirable position and if not what conditions need to be adjusted to move the district in a positive direction.

The Transforming Community (Chapter 7).  This chapter had the most impact on me.  Block asserts that our conventional focus on large systems, better leaders, clearer goals, and more controls is ineffective and leads to over-regulated and disconnected communities.  He challenges both the belief that individual transformation leads to communal transformation and the traditional problem solving steps used in school.  Block describes developing a mission and vision as "important" and "essential".   However, the process must be followed up with continued engagement and involvement by all citizens.  Developing a vision is not the end of the process, it is the beginning (p.73-81).

Engagement is the Point   School leaders put a lot of pressure on themselves.  We feel we have to be all things to all people.  We need to have the answers for students, parents, teachers, community members, fellow administrators, and board members.  Block's simplified, big picture look at leadership is important to remember.  The essential role of a leader is to create the conditions for engagement.  Each interaction is an opportunity to move the culture of the organization toward shared ownership.  A leader must  feel comfortable not having the answers, it is more important to ask questions that spur engagement and action within the organization.  "The world does not need leaders to better define issues, or to orchestrate better planning or project managment.  What it needs is for the issues or plans for have more of an impact." (p.86-87).

Conversations that Create more than "Just-Talk"  Transformation occurs in a small group setting in which the focus is more on powerful questions and less on "solving" a problem.    We used Block's trans-formative conversations to cultivate a new approach to co-curricular activities at Cashton.  In my five years as principal I have had many conversations about improving student performance, increasing participation, and managing parent/student behavior and expectations.  There is no shortage of opinions on these matters.  However, I realized that our community was focused solely on the problems with our extra-curricular programs.  In isolation, I was attempting to "solve" these problems.  The extra curricular community engagement process didn't try identify problems and adjusting the athletic code.  The charge for the group was to develop a plan in which all members of the community had a stake in its success.  The result of the conversations was our "All-In" community plan.