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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Part 1: Learning to be leaders

For the next few days I'm going to be excerpting my story about small schools transformation at Cleveland Heights High School. You can order or download a copy of Learning to be Leaders here. The book itself has some great photography shot over several days by Rob Wetzler.

Learning to be Leaders

Principal and teachers adjust to expanded roles that give them a greater voice in shaping their small school.

By Wendy A. Hoke

After more than 100 years of serving a community anchored by its cultural institutions and a university, Cleveland Heights High School needed to change. Recognizing that the old comprehensive model wasn’t able to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, in 2003 the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District started a journey toward a new kind of high school.

The beginning was challenging as a small cadre of educators worked to convince the community, students, parents and teachers that dividing the campus into small schools would allow them to provide more personalized and demanding studies.

Each year, as educators became more comfortable with change and students adapted to a more intimate learning environment, progress was made. Each of the new small schools began to establish its own identity. Community organizations partnered with the school to support change. The graduation rate rose and overall student performance improved.

But even as the first three small schools graduated their charter classes in 2008, challenges remained. Student achievement had fluctuated over time and gains were not equal across all schools. Discipline problems remained an impediment to instruction.

One key to meeting these challenges was leadership. The small schools model gives teachers a greater voice in their schools’ futures and calls on more educators to step up to lead. As with any aspect of change, the need to learn new roles creates both conflict and opportunity.

This is the story of how leadership evolved in one small school.

On a brisk Saturday in October 2006, Principal Marc Engoglia sits at home, struggling to compose an e-mail to his teaching staff at Legacy School. He’s supposed to be helping his wife, Darlene, prepare for their annual Halloween bash, but instead he’s irritated by the teacher response to a memo he distributed two days earlier.

He first types a response that shows his frustration. Then, working on his laptop in the kitchen while Darlene bustles about the house and their two children run in and out, he calms himself enough to compose a response that will reinforce his expectations without inflaming his staff further.

Engoglia knows this disagreement could undo the recent progress he’s made in earning teachers’ trust. Young for an administrator at age 35, Engoglia got off to a rocky start when the small school at Cleveland Heights High opened the year before. He was excited about the school’s potential to reach struggling students and the chance to do things differently, but his enthusiasm sometimes led him to push too hard for change.

In his second year, he is learning to check his impatience and to not respond defensively to every criticism.

Now a memo he distributed letting teachers know about a literacy seminar threatens that progress. Already carrying full loads with little chance to catch their breath during the day, some teachers object to Engoglia saying he expects them to attend the seminar during lunch – an uninterrupted time protected by their contract. Their union representative distributed an e-mail in response saying, “All lunchtime meetings ARE VOLUNTARY! PERIOD!”

Frustrated that teachers seem to be resisting his efforts to move instruction forward, Engoglia crafts an explanation. “As far as the memo goes, I know I can’t ‘force’ anyone to attend,” he types. “But again, expectations are and always will be that ALL teachers, not just a portion, continue to find ways to grow as educators and to continue to find ways to meet the needs of our students.”

By Monday, the controversy seems to have resolved. A second memo from the union rep is conciliatory. “Our educational philosophies are harmonious.… It is my true belief that administrators and teachers work best supporting each other.” Engoglia’s attention is pulled to other pressing issues at the school.

Two days later, Engoglia walks into his office on the third floor after a meeting at the board office. He picks up a document lying on his chair and scans it, then sits down, angry. The staff has filed a grievance. It charges that he violated their guaranteed 50 minutes of uninterrupted lunch when his memo used the word expectation, which to them implied attendance was mandatory.

Engoglia sits with his head in his hands, sighs and runs his fingers through his hair in frustration. Not only does the grievance undermine his effectiveness, but it also raises troubling questions for a principal committed to the small schools model.

Will he be able to regain the confidence of his teaching staff? Will they embrace the new roles he sees for them? Can they accept that he wants them to be proactive in making changes that will impact students’ achievement? And, if not, can they realize the vision of Legacy as a school that lifts some of the most troubled students in Cleveland Heights to happier, more productive futures?

Year One: Starting Off at a Disadvantage

Like Engoglia’s relationship with the teachers, the school itself gets off to a rocky start. When it opens in 2005, it is one of the last two small schools on the Cleveland Heights campus, launching with The Mosaic Experience a year later than Renaissance, REAL and P.R.I.D.E.

Because it starts a year later, Legacy begins with fewer teachers on board with the idea of small schools and more of the teachers who wonder if the small schools effort could be a passing fancy, like some reform efforts of the past. Legacy’s staff is made up of those teachers who didn’t choose a small school and who are largely used to teaching juniors and seniors.

It also includes students who didn’t choose a small school, many of whom are not especially drawn to Legacy’s mission of problem-based learning. The Mosaic Experience finds it easier to attract students because it promises to engage them through integrated technology and the arts.

As the school with the lowest enrollment, Legacy is most likely to receive transfer students as the year progresses. Those students often arrive without paperwork to indicate credits earned, their achievement or passage of the Ohio Graduation Tests, making it tough to place them in appropriate classes.

These factors combine to make it difficult for Legacy to meet students’ needs. They are why from the very start Engoglia pushes his staff so hard. But his commitment to improving performance and his eagerness for change could backfire if he alienates the very people who will have to carry out the change.


Jill said...

Sweetie - a whole book. :) Now that might finally be doing justice to the incredible work you've done on this project. Congratulations.

Wendy A. Hoke said...

I miss this project. Fortunately, I've kept in touch with both the storytellers and the Heights people.