On Friday, I returned from a whirlwind tour with 26 others to four school districts in five days - Los Angeles Unified School District, Alliance College Ready Public Schools in LA (an alliance of 26 charter schools), Clark County School District in Las Vegas, and Edmonton School District in Alberta, Canada. The visit was capped by a visit to Michael Strembitsy School in Edmonton. What an incredible learning and professional development opportunity for me!
The purpose of this trip was to learn more about school empowerment, defined as placing responsibility for decision-making in the hands of those who are most impacted - those at the school level. Empowerment is more than just being responsible for one's budget. It means engaging the school community in meaningful discussions about how money is spent, staffing decisions, and curricular and instructional decisions to ensure quality teaching and learning at that particular school. It means that schools will be more accountable for their decisions especially those that focus on student achievement.
The larger issue of what school empowerment means and how it is implemented in our Department is being discussed and must involve all of us who value education in Hawaii. We have elements of empowerment through our School Community Councils and the ability to create a Financial Plan to address the needs of our individual schools. However, top-down mandates are still common and can be discouraging to the school especially when they are in direct conflict with the culture of the school.
As a school leader, I work with our school community to address the needs of our school, Every school is unique, and one size doesn't fit all. As the principal of Hale Kula Elementary School, I have the responsibility to ensure that our Academic and Financial Plan reflects the individuality of our school so that all students can be successful.
Sustainability in education is not as easy as it sounds. The Edmonton Public Schools had 22 years under Mr. Strembitsky's leadership as Superintendent. His tenure and strong core belief in school empowerment ensured its sustainability. Principals and leaders in the Edmonton system shared that a few years ago, when a Superintendent brought in an external provider to increase student achievement, that top-down mandate was a challenge for those who had been raised in an empowered system. Today, school communities in Edmonton are once again empowered to create a strategic plan (modeled after the District plan) that is tailored for their school and are accountable for their results.
I do believe that one's experiences as a teacher define how one leads as an administrator. I was fortunate in that I started my career as a Head Start teacher, a program created as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty. We were expected to involve parents in their child's education; we worked hand-in-hand with a social worker and public health nurse to address individual needs of students and families. We had a nutritionist and dental hygienist on staff as well as others who provided services to individual students with special needs. Head Start provided students with a preschool experience so they would be more successful when they started kindergarten. I was empowered as a teacher; I knew the non-negotiables, but I could design my curriculum based on the needs of my students and use data to drive my instruction.
I believe that school leaders must empower our teachers if we want them to empower their students. As a school leader, it is my job to take mandates from the State or District and mold them so they make sense for our teachers. It is not easy to maintain empowerment in the face of top-down mandates, but we have done so by protecting our teachers and encouraging their continued growth as educators in areas they have personally identified for themselves. At Hale Kula, the Common Core State Standards guide our instruction, but teachers have flexibility in how they teach and what resources they use. All grade levels have a matrix for the year and a pacing guide to keep them on-track. Teachers meet to agree on assessment tasks, and they review data to determine next steps. As far as a school-wide focus, we are especially proud of how we are using technology as a tool for teaching and learning. Check out a presentation our library media specialist created to demonstrate how we have empowered our teachers and students to use technology effectively to share their learnings.
Our school vision states "Hale Kula empowers learners to explore, discover, create, and share." This applies to all of us - adults and children - so we can continue to learn and grow.