No matter the terminology used — mission, purpose, direction, core values, belief statements — each provides an opportunity for an organization to gain clarity about what drives decision-making in the short and long term. High-reliability organizations stay “tight” to their vision and mission, aligning their work in ways that help employees build belief in the processes and products.
Extensive time and great care is often involved in first creating such documents. Committees meet, meet some more and often keep meeting, aiming for perfectly-worded prose. Governing bodies of school districts eventually approve the documents, and one of three options seems to occur:
- Nothing: The wording is codified in meeting minutes and kept for posterity. Maybe a poster or two is printed and hung up at the district office.
- Something: Headers and footers are flooded with the language: letterhead, school newsletters, websites. Someone at the central office contracts with an office supply store to have the mission or vision printed on the back of the business cards. School leaders might place the new language in a presentation to employees in the fall before students arrive.
- Everything: The language becomes the vernacular in the organization. The words and phrases are explicitly voiced when making decisions, creating plans and giving feedback. Employees become dedicated to the organization and to the actual words the organization embodies.
This narrative is not about how schools and school districts become the “everything” places. Many writers have written quite cogently about how a mission-driven organization comes to be. Where these organizations often falter is in the work of revisiting these foundational documents over time.
Particularly for schools, accreditation timelines often dictate this task. This often involves convening a committee, wordsmithing deep into the night and typing up what someone eventually wrote on a large sticky note.
For the 32,000 schools and school districts that fall under the AdvancED accreditation umbrella (AdvancED is a consolidation of the North Central Association, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and Northwest Accreditation Commission), this process wouldn’t fare so well when examined as part of an accreditation review:
Standard 1: Purpose and Direction
The school maintains and communicates a purpose and direction that commits to high expectations for learning as well as shared values and beliefs about teaching and learning.
The school engages in a systematic, inclusive and comprehensive process to review, revise, and communicate a school purpose for student success.
- Level 4 – The process for review, revision and communication of the school’s purpose is clearly documented, and a record of the use and results of the process is maintained. The process is formalized and implemented with fidelity on a regular schedule. The process includes participation by representatives selected at random from all stakeholder groups. The purpose statement clearly focuses on student success.
- Level 3 – The school’s process for review, revision, and communication of the purpose statement is documented. The process is formalized and implemented on a regular schedule. The process includes participation by representatives from all stakeholder groups. The purpose statement focuses on student success.
- Level 2 – The school has a process for review, revision, and communication of its purpose. The process has been implemented. The process includes participation by representatives from stakeholder groups. The purpose statement focuses primarily on student success.
- Level 1 – No process to review, revise or communicate a school purpose exists. Stakeholders are rarely asked for input regarding the purpose of the school.
A Level 1 score on this indicator would certainly be a warning flag to an accreditation team that stakeholders are not involved in meaningful ways when determining the foundational documents of the school.
This article contains the first of two stories how school leaders worked toward a Level 4 in explicitly involving stakeholders — both internal and external.
Suzanne Kennedy, principal of the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia, had a rare moment as a school leader: a “do over.” College Heights is almost a peerless building: owned and administered completely by the City Schools of Decatur running infant through pre-K classrooms for 340 students
The school uses multiple funding streams (general fund from taxpayers, tuition from parents, Head Start, Early Head Start, federal special education and Georgia lottery for pre-K). The waiting list hovers around 300 students.
Originally, the infant-preschool program had been delivered through a community partner. In 2010, the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education picked up the infant-preschool program. This is where Kennedy found her leverage.
Kennedy knew she needed to create foundational documents to guide the recently-united center and chose to work toward multiple purposes concurrently:
- Prepare for accreditation review
- Create a cohesive staff of now “official” colleagues (being paid by the same organization)
- Break down the hierarchy between certified and classified staff as well as between age groups
Work Product 1: Purpose
In working toward a Level 4 on the accreditation rubric, Kennedy knew that some internal stakeholder work needed to precede any external stakeholder feedback. A teacher work day provided the necessary time to begin the work toward these goals. Using collaborative structures she learned through professional development provided by the School Reform Initiative, she accomplished much of the work in less than three hours.
For the purpose statement, drawing from a Norms Negotiation process, each staff member used three sticky notes to identify what three words or phrases best describe the purpose of the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. After silently “claiming” these three most important items, a process of negotiation began.
Working first in partners, then larger groups, and even larger groups, each group winnowed its collective sticky notes to only three. After 15 minutes, 30 sticky notes sat on the wall.
While the large group engaged in a different learning experience, volunteers were elicited and used a silent process called Affinity Mapping to quickly come to a shared understanding about what major concepts emerged from the sticky notes. They then wrote some draft statements for the group to consider — all in 25 minutes.
On the way to a break, each staff member received two small dots and was asked to place the dots next to the draft statements that best exemplified the purpose of College Heights. During break, a newer small group of volunteers drafted one sentence that best captured the thinking of the group.
Prior to lunch, the purpose statement was read aloud:
College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center cultivates an atmosphere where children take their first steps in building an authentic love of learning through developmentally appropriate practices in an environment that fosters family and community involvement.
Each staff member then offered a Fist-to-Five statement, identifying their commitment to the draft. Of the 70 staff members, 100 percent showed a 4 or 5 — signaling strong dedication.
Work Product 2: Belief Statements
In creating the agenda for this day, Kennedy collaborated with others, including other school leaders and central office support. One criterion used to examine the agenda was “loose/tight.” The process used for purpose-setting had elements of loose (e.g., individuals chose whom to build consensus with, the conversations were not timed) and tight (e.g., with each successive regrouping, the task was to negotiate down to three sticky notes).
In an attempt to balance the looseness and tightness of the agenda, a silent process called Chalk Talk was used to develop belief statements. Using broad categories from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, each staff member was assigned to one large piece of paper taped to the wall.
In intentionally diverse groups (e.g., race, gender, age group, longevity at the center), staff members “talked” with their markers silently for 15 minutes, identifying their tacit and explicit beliefs about the areas:
- instruction/engagement of students
- staff/health, safety and nutrition
Their focus questions for each Chalk Talk were the same:
- What do we believe about [name of category] at our school with our families?
- What do we hope characterizes that work?
At the conclusion of the silent “conversation,” facilitators at each large paper orally built consensus with the group regarding which conversation pieces seemed the most important, circling them in yellow. Similar to the purpose-setting process, a small group of volunteers agreed to work later that day, drafting the group’s thinking.
By the end of the day, discrete belief statements were created for each of the major components of center’s framework:
- We believe in an ongoing partnership between children, teachers and parents.
- We believe in regular communication between parents, teachers and administrators.
- We believe in creating a safe school environment by implementing consistent schoolwide expectations for students and staff.
- We believe in fostering the physical development of all children by providing regular physical activities, rest times and healthy meal choices.
- We believe in planning differentiated instruction in order to implement developmentally appropriate and engaging learning experiences for all children.
An agenda focused on purpose and engagement offered effective and efficient ways for these educators to work. Attention to process paid off, as evidenced by College Heights being selected by Georgia Bright from the Start. And an important visitor came to College Heights to announce his desire to federally fund preschool education for all:
This article first appeared on MultiBriefs and has been reprinted with permission of the author
Thomas Van Soelen (Twitter @tvansoelen) is the president of Van Soelen & Associates. After 10 years of district leadership, Thomas now spends every day providing professional development and leadership coaching in various states. His primary areas include group facilitation, learning communities, data teams and teacher evaluation.