The Difficult Work of School Change

August 18, 2016

By Jeff Spencer, Principal at Washington Discovery Academy

Jeffrey Spencer

You can read a book or go to a conference where the authors and speakers make change process and school improvement seems like a simple task.  While there some pretty simple strategies and components in the process, the true work of school improvement is complex and difficult.  Washington Discovery Academy (WDA) went from a school struggling with its identity as a PBL school to the only Elementary Demonstration Site in the Network over the course of a school year.  We got better at the work of improvement by digging in and doing the work.

Coming to WDA as a new principal, I surveyed multiple stakeholders to gain better insight into the strengths and areas of growth in the building.  Overwhelming from our staff, culture and re-grounding in our vision as a PBL school stood out as areas where growth was needed.

According to Jim May, Director of Schools at New Tech Network, the work of building administration is to be an environmental architect.  Leadership creates the conditions for others to grow and flourish.  To start our year, we held an optional staff retreat where everyone attended.  I got some push back because a “retreat” shouldn’t happen on-site but it was very well received.  We affirmed our vision to be a great PBL school with deeper learning, built culture using protocols like compass points, and re-created our school norms, which were posted throughout our building in adult spaces.  The focus on culture created a foundation for the work to come.

“I have always loved a quote by Oprah….”Kids are perceptive.  They know without you even speaking, if you care, if you are excited, if you love learning.”  If our culture is not good, then, at a minimum, kids will know and learning will suffer.  Our work on school culture has made an impact on our students because we are united in our goals and as a staff.”

-Kendall Hoover, WDA Kindergarten Teacher and PBL Leadership Team Member


Adult Learning & Collaboration

Year Long Driving Question:  How can WDA grow and improve to be the best PBL elementary school?

The driving question above focused our adult learning and a tangible outcome was our application as a demonstration site.  Initially, our PBL Leadership team led a modified Futures Protocol to create a vision of our ideal learning environment.  From there, we created tangible action plans and next steps to move our building toward our goal.

Thinking about change process and the learning organization framework, we looked at our structures to support the work and adult learning.  Regularly schedule Critical Friends Groups, professional development modeling the PBL instructional process, collaborative data meetings to look at student work, and coaching, modeling, and co-teacher possibilities with our instructional coach created concrete structures to support growth in our adult learners.  Intentionality created time, space, and support so school improvement was possible.

“There is a chance for everyone to use their strengths and interests to better our school in some way. Allowing for teachers to have their voice and choice in how they help, makes the passion for change in our school stronger.”

-Alyssa Mentz, WDA Second Grade Teacher and PBL Leadership Team Member

Teacher voice and leadership were critical attributes in our change process.  Teachers created passion committees to improve culture with groups focusing on building appearance, social needs of adults, supporting our ELL families, and continuing our strong social media presence.  These groups met throughout the year with teachers guiding the work and outcomes for each group.  In addition to our PBL Leadership team, a diverse staff advisory team served as a communication and collaboration conduit for the building.

“After attending Train the Trainer, the way I speak to my students and the way I ask questions to lead them to better their own understanding, has changed completely. Guiding your students learning by asking them challenging questions can be difficult to adjust to, but the reward is great. You are not giving them the answer or holding their hand and showing them the way. Instead you are giving them the tools they need to figure it out on their own, which will have an everlasting impact on their learning. The Train the Trainer path way has forever changed my view and practices on both student and adult learning. “

-Lindsey Risner, WDA Third Grade Teacher and PBL Leadership Team Member

Support from the Network accelerated our growth, pushed our thinking around key concepts and built leadership capacity in multiple staff members.  As contractual benefits may change from in-person coaching to virtual, NTN has many virtual offerings that can be leveraged well for continued growth.  Throughout the year, our PBL leadership team and I worked through adaptive challenges and thought partnered with our wonderful New Tech Coach, Jodi Posadas.  The monthly virtual PD offered a cost free dose of knowledge and skill development with a side of healthy collaboration.  We were also able to send three teachers to the Train the Trainer track at NTAC, a teacher into the Math Leadership Academy, and two teachers to the Elementary Literacy Math Cohort.  These strategic partnerships helped us build the local capacity to accelerate the work.

“Our connection with NTN has given us a lot of opportunities to share our learning with others. In the Train the Trainer track, I was pushed to really think outside of the box and coach people into finding their own answers versus just giving an answer. Within the literacy cohort, I was able to brainstorm with other facilitators that also teach foundational skills. This allowed us to bounce ideas off of one another and further embed foundational skills into our literacy blocks.:

-Jennifer Knebel, WDA First Grade Teacher and PBL Leadership Team Member

The designation of Demonstration Site is a journey and not our destination.  We will apply again this year to reflect on our work and growth.  This year, we shift to a culture of deeper learning and collaboration.  We hope to go deeper into the learning about literacy in elementary PBL but balance it with the individual passions using PDSA cycles and improvement science.  We are excited about a new year of adult learning in the service of improving our student outcomes!  I challenge you to consider applying at your site, even as a learning experience you will receive much value.


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