What’s it take to retool your school?

How principals' small changes lead to big shifts in school culture

Keera Dwulit, principal of Avonworth High School, is interested in Deeper Learning–the idea of mastering core academic content through meaningful, relevant work that prepares students to solve complex problems they’ll encounter in the real world. As soon as she was promoted from assistant principal last year, her superintendent suggested she join a professional development fellowship just for principals, so she decided to check it out. After all, she was interested in learning more about creating a mentorship program between teachers and students at her school.

Throughout her four months with School Retool, Dwulit was asked to do things she never considered, like move her desk into the school lobby to be more visible and accessible to students and teachers alike. The capstone of this adventure was a 3-day conference called Hacktivation Nation at Stanford University’s d.school, where Dwulit and others from the Western PA cohort joined 100 other school administrators from around the country deepened their own learning about making change.

Crafting “small hacks” with School Retool / Photo: Ben Filio

The Theory

School Retool is a project of the d.school in conjunction with IDEO–it’s a human-centered design project for K-12 educators, but instead of making prototypes for products, folks are creating small changes they can implement quickly to dramatically shift the culture of a school.

Last spring, School Retool team from d.school and IDEO visited 18 sites around the country to lead workshops for school leaders. They taught these administrators to use small, scrappy experiments called “hacks.” Participating principals are encouraged to implement these hacks on a small scale, to test and tweak and, above all, act. Co-director Peter Worth says that School Retool wants to help principals develop a bias toward action. He says, “Rather than spending all that time in planning, let’s try an idea tomorrow,” even if it’s just with one teacher or one student.

Tyler Samstag, director of instructional innovation at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit partnered with the Grable Foundation to bring School Retool to the Pittsburgh region. Samstag supports 42 school districts in Allegheny County, and loved that this was an opportunity just for building level administrators, who don’t often get professional development or the chance to network with one another.

Samstag felt like the program could be very impactful here, especially since School Retool focuses on districts with a 40% or higher rate of free and reduced lunch rate. “They teach administrators that making systemic change doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” he says.

Start Small: Everyday Hacks

Worth points out that educators won’t adapt their mindset just by reading manuals, and so School Retool sends principals back home to try things in their actual schools with their faculty and students. “That makes people vulnerable,” Worth says. “They will make mistakes and fail, but then come back to the group and share about that.”

To demonstrate this, principals were given small assignments like “shadow a student,” which Dwulit chose. She says, “It was one of the most powerful things I’d ever done. We always think we know what teens are thinking or what they need or want.” After that experience, Dwulit made appointments to meet with every senior one on one. “Some were extremely, harshly honest about teaching styles,” she says, “and others talked about lack of choices and options.”

The conversations led Dwulit to look at the way her school district approaches study halls. “Students don’t use them the way we envision,” she says, and so she began letting students leave early or come in late rather than attend study hall. Students used the time to catch up on sleep or to help put younger siblings on the bus or drive parents to work. This change “has uncovered some things we can help students with,” Dwulit says.

Change Mindset

Alyssa Mick is the principal at Oak Glen Middle School, a rural school in the West Virginia panhandle. Mick joined School Retool wanting to change how grades are administered at her school. She noticed that students were doing everything they were asked, but “our assessments are showing that they’re not learning what we ask them to learn.”

Mick valued the fellowship to learn about making changes at school because that’s not something principals are taught when they’re training to be administrators. “There are a lot of programs that teach things like finances or community relations,” she says, “but this was a totally unique opportunity for me to learn to create meaningful change in the school environment.”

It’s no secret that change is a scary thing for many people. Mick was energized by what she learned about starting small. “The process is so much more manageable when you ‘prototype’ an idea with small groups. I can have all kinds of change initiatives going on at the same time because I’m working with so many small groups,” she says. “We can try things out, see how they work, make changes, and extend that out to a larger group.”

And so, last spring, Mick asked her Spanish teacher to adopt a method called Standards Based Assessment. This method breaks down every learning target for that subject and tracks student progress. The first attempt wasn’t working very well, so Mick and the teacher made some tweaks. Then, “We saw this method flourishing,” she says, “and we pushed it out to a group of four teachers.” By the end of the school year, Mick had 50% of her teachers grading in this method. “It’s working organically and systemically through the faculty. I see teachers getting excited, sharing their ideas. It’s growing gradually.”

At Oak Glen, the impact of hacking toward change has led to a shift in faculty attitude. Mick draws a parallel between her School Retool experience and the 21st Century Skill of resilience she’s trying to instill in her students. “We say FAIL means First Attempt In Learning–we tell this to our students, but we encourage that in our faculty as well. It’s ok to fail! It takes awhile to reach mastery with a new idea.”

Mick says, “We have a new attitude now of just trying things. It’s ok for it not to work the first time. We’ll just look at it again and go back to the drawing board.”

Scaling Up Change

After the four workshops and the onset of summer, participating principals (nearly 280 nationwide) were eager for more–more input on their ideas, more discussion of deeper learning, and more experience pushing the boundaries of their creativity. Hacktivation Nation brought them together for a long weekend of collaboration and experimentation. Samstag from the AIU and principals from Avonworth, Pittsburgh Perry, Pittsburgh Brashear, and Oak Glen represented the Western PA cohort. The d.school recruited 40 K-12 students from nearby schools to try out the hacks and offer feedback to school leaders.

Scenes from Hacktivation nation.

Principals could choose different sectors of deeper learning to focus on–such as building a student advisory or project-based learning–and attend workshops in that area, including time to design small hacks toward that work.

The start of the school year is always chaotic, and especially so for principals, whose job entails putting out numerous, simultaneous fires. But they are energized and rolling out new hacks all the same.

Mick wants to spend a staff meeting looking at every student in school to see which adults have relationships with each student. She wants to find out if she’s got some students who do not have a positive relationship with an adult at school, calling it a “school safety net.” She wants every student to have an adult “who knows their name, checks on them to see if they’re here, makes sure they feel comfortable.”

Dwulit plans to meet with each teacher one on one, “not in an evaluative way, but just to check in.” And of course, all the fellows are eager to touch base with their School Retool coaches and trade ideas with their network. Dwulit says, “It sounds so goofy, but it was just so great to be part of that big network of people trying, one step at a time, to make things better. I don’t have to be concerned that I don’t have it all figured out. There’s a collective feeling of ‘let’s keep trying.'”

Published October 05, 2017

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