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District chief: Why school success stops and ends with teachers


School district CEO learns that investing in the future for education starts by investing in its people-specifically, teachers.

I believe the hardest day of any job is the very first day. On that first day, the basic, most elementary parts of the workplace are foreign. Where do I park? Where is the coffee? How do I log in to my new computer? The list of things to learn goes on and on.

However, a new job also brings tremendous opportunity. The day I walked into my new role as CEO of Ohio’s Youngstown City School District (YSCD’s), I sensed the tremendous passion and promise of the district’s approximately 5,300 students and 500 teachers. While 99 percent of YSCD’s students are economically disadvantaged, I could feel the power and energy within the school system.

The question was, “How do we unlock our school district’s potential?”

My immediate objective was meeting with my senior leadership team to brainstorm ways to elicit the substantive change we knew would greatly impact the learning of Youngstown’s students.

Everything Hinges on Teachers

After much discussion, deliberation, and thoughtful review of reams of data, the team agreed that investing in the growth of YSCD’s teachers had to be the central pillar of our strategy. However, supporting every teacher within a single district is no small feat. We knew we needed an instructional focus and a strategy for building capacity.

Our focus was simple—How should the district’s senior leaders empower YSCD’s educators to create dynamic learning environments that placed students at the center of learning? In order to begin the transformational process of creating these types of learning environments, we reached out to our teachers for insight and clarity.

(Next page: How YSCD focused on teachers to elicit true school district transformation)

Focusing on Teachers for True Change

Alongside the district’s seven Deputy Chiefs of Transformation, I began a series of workshops designed to help teachers create clear and relevant purpose statements for each and every lesson.

In addition, we encouraged teachers to provide their students with the time and space to participate in academic discourse about what they would be learning, why it was relevant to them, and how they would know when they’ve achieved success.  We thought these purpose statements, coupled with a student-led “turn and talk,”  would be the best first step for improving teaching and learning in YCSD.

When we embarked upon this work, we spent a great deal of time in our classrooms across the district. It was clear that some teachers were embracing the changes while others were quite resistant.

In order to create a better sense of readiness which would lead to greater teacher buy-in, we knew we had to work on shifting the culture within the district.  From this realization, the teacher fellow program was born.

While we wanted to promote the growth of all educators within Youngstown, our vision was grounded in a teacher leadership approach; we knew we wanted to work intensively with a select group of teachers in order to transform teaching and learning.

With a desire to provide professional development to all teachers, principals, and a small group of teacher fellows, our administrative team quickly realized we couldn’t execute on our vision by utilizing our current staff; we were going to need the help of a professional development provider who could facilitate the learning of multiple audiences through quality learning experiences and job-embedded coaching.

After talking with many companies in the industry, we unanimously felt that Discovery Education could best meet the needs of the district, our teachers, and our students. Their student-centered mission and willingness to truly partner with us gave us the confidence to move forward with our plan.

Incredible Participation Record

With Discovery Education’s support, we were able to create a rigorous teacher fellow application, design a relevant and feasible professional learning plan for every educator in the YCSD, and provide the best learning opportunities the teachers in Youngstown have ever experienced.

The district-wide PD provided by Discovery Education was so well received that our number of teacher fellow applications doubled over a 24-hour period.

With over 150 teachers now eager to become a part of the teacher fellowship program, we knew something special was about to happen in Youngstown City Schools. As we combed through the applications, we consistently returned to the same four questions:

  • Does this teacher have a genuine desire to improve his or her craft?
  • Will this teacher routinely reflect on his or her current teaching practice?
  • Is this teacher committed to building a collaborative culture within their school and the district at large?
  • Is this teacher willing to take the necessary risks required to make serious changes to student learning?

Because YCSD had endured criticism for its failure to effectively prepare students for life outside of its schools’ walls, we also had to consider which teacher fellows would help us in our efforts to communicate the district’s new direction to community stakeholders.  After careful consideration and with the guidance of Discovery Education, we chose our teacher fellows,egan implementing our vision.

Shifting Culture, Beliefs

In just three short months, we have provided our teacher fellows with four days of professional learning and several coaching sessions that have helped them begin to put the theories they are learning into practice.

More importantly, we’ve started a shift in the belief system of the teachers and students of Youngstown. Through Twitter, we’ve given our teacher fellows the necessary platform to not only showcase the positive teaching and learning happening in their classrooms, but to also demonstrate their vulnerability as learners–a vulnerability that is a cornerstone to promoting continuous growth across the district.

Our fellows will continue with professional learning with Discovery Education throughout the summer, and all teachers will have the opportunity to engage in PD before beginning the 2017-2018 school year.

As I close out my first year as CEO of Youngstown City Schools, I am pleased to report that I now have the basics like parking and coffee firmly under my belt; more importantly, I am excited about the tremendous cultural shift the Youngstown team of students, teachers, administrators, and community members have made in last 180 days.

We’ve become stronger. We’ve become more able. Most importantly, we’ve better positioned ourselves to change the lives of all our students.

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