The school is called High Stakes High. Its motto? Proficiency or death. Teachers act as spies, and weak students are eliminated, Hunger Games-style.

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D-21 Assistant Principal Renard Simmons presents his vision for his school, which serves credit recovery students.

No, it’s not the latest young adult novel craze. Instead, the story of a school that takes accountability a bit too seriously was part of a short video exercise for current and aspiring school leaders aimed at opening them up to creativity and teamwork and at exploring the importance of structure when thinking about transforming a school.

The video was created as part of a weeklong intensive training run by Get Smart Schools for 16 fellows whom the organization plans to support for the next two years as they develop their own visions for education and learn how to effectively manage and run a school.

The fellows, who came to the seminar from Denver, Aurora, Sheridan, Douglas County and Salida, have an average of six years of teaching experience and an average of five years of school leadership. Sixty percent of the participants are women; 26 percent are minorities.

The fellowship aims to shift principals’ leadership and management outlook from traditional problem-solving strategies toward more structural thinking.

“In the past, school leaders addressed problems and challenges by fixing the problem and restoring order,” a description of this week’s training read. “They used data and logic and created long-term, strategic planning processes based on traditional decision-making approaches.

Get Smart doesn’t believe this strategy has worked.

“As our world has become more complex, patterns change and situations don’t fit into neat boxes. This requires a different approach that relies on specific patterns of thinking and a deep understanding of systems and structures.”

“We are approaching ideas as if you are a CEO,” trainer Andrew Bisaha said.  “We want to help them create a picture [of a school] anyone can buy into.”

Fellowship details

In the first year of the fellowship, leaders are immersed in learning and application through a series of modules that include interactive coursework, simulations, case studies, reflection, independent reading and research and workplace application.  This learning is then applied in the workplace with support and feedback from executive coaches. The final project for the year is a comprehensive organizational analysis of a school and the development of a strategic plan that is implemented in the second year.

In the second year, fellows refine the skills learned in year one and apply those skills in the context of new school development or school turnaround strategy. Cohort meetings are focused on deeper analysis and more sophisticated case studies. Executive coaching targets the personal talents and strengths that have been identified for the individual leader and the coach supports the fellow to develop those talents into leadership strengths.

The video exercise was intended to get them to think about the need for a beginning, middle and end — a structure to go from vision to reality in a school. To make the exercise more realistic, workshop leaders had the fellows work a conch shell and large chunk of cheese into their films — meant to represent the challenge of meeting state or federal mandates.

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Sample school vision

After the principals had fun with videos, they then used poster paper to write out a vision statement for improving a school or creating a new one.

Angelique Sanchez-Hutman, an administrative assistant at D-21, a credit recovery school in Denver, said it’s her goal to become an assistant principal then a principal one day.

“I enjoyed the idea of looking at the current reality and your vision and then building steps to get there…and seeing the gap,” she said of this week’s workshop.

Her goal is to create a dual language school for middle and high school students in Denver.

Dave Fromson, teacher and activities director at Sheridan High School, found the workshop compelling because it examined the difference between problem solving and truly creating a better school structure.

“Problem solving is temporary and bound to experience the same level of ultimate failure as you have of success vs. truly creating a new and better structure,” Fromson said. “You can change things for the good permanently.”

Fromson’s goal is to transform the school he’s in.

“I want to transform it into something in which our students are empowered to be part of creating their own postsecondary plans,” he said. “A lot of our students just don’t realize what is out there. They don’t realize what is out there is also for them.”

A school with kids who are behind

Renard Simmons, assistant principal at D-21, said he has many bright students in his school, but they’re at a third and fourth grade level academically. He wondered how people could accurately gauge their progress  – not just based on test scores. To him, it’s a major coup if a student learns to be respectful after being in a pattern of cussing in the hallway.

“I look at the student in June – that is not the same student I saw at the beginning of the year,” he said. “That kid may still be behind, but they’re not going down the hallways, saying [expletives].”

He said he’s also got gang members and there have been fewer fights this year, only a recent fight involving girls.

Simmons said he is interested in emphasizing a school that builds character, uses project-based learning and creates a sense of community. Character is the big thing for him. He tells his students that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to what happens to you.

Get Smart trainer Jane Shirley said it would be key for this student population to be trained with the skills they need to handle project-based learning.

“Those students come in with a gap,” she said.

Fellow Garrett Rosa is a director of the Vista PEAK P-20 campus in Aurora.

Rosa said Shirley “helped us early on structural thinking.”

“I loved that [Get Smart] had more of a business mindset in how to operate a school,” Rosa said. “They look at it very intentionally.”

It was those interactions with Get Smart that led Rosa to become a fellow.

“The hard part of school of innovation is I am not connected to innovative leaders in Aurora Public Schools,” he said. “Having like-minded, creative, dynamic people around who don’t have blinders up to what’s possible inspired me.”