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Two Principals Share Lessons Learned in the School Design & Implementation Journey

Two Principals Share Lessons Learned in the School Design & Implementation Journey

Two seasoned design leaders joined Springpoint to speak about their experiences with the school design and implementation process. Alternative high school principals Ron Schmidt (Chelsea Opportunity Academy in Chelsea, MA) and Margaret Green, (Next Wave / Full Circle in Somerville, MA), shared their learnings, insights, and advice for educators who are diving into the design process.

Understanding students through qualitative and quantitative data

“Make sure you also hear from students who are not coming to school and those who don’t want to go to class. They can tell you why. Involve them.” – Margaret Green

Margaret talked about how going through a process to understand students helped her look at data differently. From talking to students to observing classes, she and her team were able to gain a new perspective and useful insights. She encouraged new partners to be open to the important stories that new data can tell. She emphasized looking at both quantitative student interests and aspirations.

Educators gather at a table to go over design materials.

Ron noted that qualitative research was essential to gain a deeper understanding of how stakeholders feel when they experience challenges or successes. For example, Chelsea Opportunity Academy (COA) welcomes and embraces students when they come to school late. He learned that lateness was a major stress for students and punitive measures could be a barrier to them coming at all.

Leveraging design supports

“Forget everything you know about your kids and go find out about them again.” – Ron Schmidt

Margaret and Ron visited each other’s schools, and they both talked about connecting with colleagues as a means of continuous learning and enrichment.

Ron discussed how grateful he is for the consistent, actionable feedback he and his team received. Specifically, at one point, a Springpoint coach encouraged him and his team to infuse more of their passion and voice into their design artifacts to capture what they were learning about students. Margaret encouraged attendees to leverage their fellow designers and their supports, reminding them to reach out proactively to maximize their school design efforts. "We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t pushed like we were,” Margaret said.

Learning tours were pointed to as a way to discover innovative practices. Margaret and her team saw a school piloting interdisciplinary courses, which they adapted as part of their design process. Ron also borrowed practices from the things he saw on learning tours, from major things—like competency frameworks—to simple things like a staff bulletin board depicting photos of staff when they were in high school. Ron also spoke of an outdoor youth program they adopted and adapted after he heard students in Colorado talk about how outdoor experiences impacted their relationships and their engagement in school.

The design team gathers for another day of planning.

Design team management & student voice

Leading a design team is a significant time commitment. Both leaders had clever strategies for protecting their design time. Margaret told her staff that Friday would be her design day so they knew she’d be less available that day, which allowed her to focus on design work. Ron talked about phasing in structural changes that allowed him to offload some day-to-day running of the school.

Both leaders discussed getting students on the design team since empowered students can be an incredible source of insight. Ron told the story of a group of students who, after a school-wide vote, approached him with a request. They asked that administrators not talk before students vote. They told Ron that students we receiving messages about what adults thought and how they wanted the vote to go. These students also asked that adults leave during the actual vote. “I was surprised—and proud!” said Ron. “There was a genuine sense of ownership. It created a level of trust and belief in what we were doing.”

Principal Ron Schmidt works at a computer.

Margaret initially wondered about the logistics of getting students on the design team. But she didn’t let it hold her back. And it worked. Several students contributed in significant ways, and she creatively kept them involved and engaged. Students attended Master Classes and brought learnings back to students and teachers, sometimes leading professional development workshops. Students also joined learning tours, like William Santos, a student who wrote about his experience visiting high schools in New York City. Importantly, Next Wave / Full Circle students received credit toward graduation for their design work. She advised attendees to tailor design team experiences to leverage the unique strengths of student designers.

Margaret and her team used existing structures such as student government, assemblies, and staff meetings to involve the community and harness student voice. They gathered ideas and feedback but kept the design team as the driving engine behind design work. For example, the design team gathered input and then wrote the school’s mission and core values. They brought it back to the full staff for feedback and approval to ensure that the final product incorporated everyone’s voice while maintaining a core group to own the work and move it forward.

Ron was asked how his thinking changed in designing and implementing a new school model. “I thought I could make the traditional system work for kids,” he said. “[But] now that I have seen how they flourish in a nontraditional system, there’s no way I can go back to a traditional system.”

He also talked about one of the biggest changes resulting from the school design process, which is that COA makes every single decision by first asking this key question: ‘is what we’re doing in students’ best interest and how are we going to incorporate student voice?’

This article originally appeared on Springpoint. Click here to learn more.

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