Human-Centered School Improvement Plans

Six years ago, I wrote my fifth blog post ever:  it was called “School Improvement Plans Suck! (And why they don’t have to).  And while I look back and shake my head at the lack of subtlety in title that I chose, upon reflection I realize that I was expressing my own frustration with the plans that I had created when I was a Principal.  Despite the hard work and absolute best of intentions by all parties involved, many of the plans that I submitted were created by myself and a small team of teachers, approved by a small group of parents, read by a small fraction of our school community and usually led to small, incremental gains in the improvement of student achievement.

Big effort.  Small gains.  Or, as my friends from Texas might say: “A lot of hat…not much cattle.”. So, in the spirit of design thinking, I tried to reframe the issue in a way that might promote different thought as a design challenge.  

“How can we create a plan for learning that delights our school community?”

To me, when someone is ‘delighted’, they are beyond ‘satisfied’ with the experience that they have just had: they are shaking their head in wonderment, with a smile on their face and a tear in their eye.  The experience has been so rich that they want to share the memories with others, both with friends and people that they might not know so well.  So rich that they hope to do it again but wonder if it could ever be replicated.  I like the word ‘delight’.  

I do not know many ‘delightful’ school plans, so I began to think of the experiences in education and schools that do actually delight people to see if I could find some common threads that could be pulled into the planning experience.  One experience came to mind for me:  it was when I was at a Parent Advisory Council meeting at my former school, and four of our students came to present to the parents about “Operation Guatemala”.  The PAC had helped to sponsor our students to go to Guatemala, and the students wanted to report back and to express their gratitude for being afforded such a unique opportunity.  Operation Guatemala was a two week trip to a small, mountainous community in Guatemala led by a group of 12 of our students and a sponsor teacher. The purpose of the trip was to build homes for families who were unable to build homes for themselves.  

The Sa-Hali Operation Guatemala Team

The students showed pictures of the area, the people they met, the children they played with, and the work that they did to build small, one-room, cinder-block homes for a number of families.  And then they began to talk about one family in particular who was so thankful for what they did.  The young father was not able to work because he had a severely broken leg and required surgery; an operation that they could not afford.  As a result, the mother and their young child were making braided jewelry to sell in the village to try to make ends meet, however, they were not making ends meet.  The family was so thankful for the work done by our students because the house that was built would give the family a tiny bit of a leg up in their very difficult life.  Our students could not believe the joy they brought to this family.  So touched were our students by this family that Operation Guatemala decided they would raise the money here at home for the father’s surgery and send it to the family.  

I looked around at the participants at the PAC meeting.  Everyone was crying. They could not believe the impact that this group of students had made.  The experience went so far beyond the expectations of the our students and the Parent Advisory Council that people spoke about it for weeks afterwards.  They shared their memories with others, both with friends and with those they didn’t know so well.  This was the type of experience that we want in schools:  one that delights the participants.

The main thread that I pulled from this experience?  The students of Operation Guatemala were solving a meaningful, real-life problem, and the learning that these students was far beyond any content that they could have covered in a classroom.  

Real-life, and learning beyond the content.

And then it hit me. A plan that uses parts of human-centered design. That solves a real-life problem. And that involves those who the solution will impact in the creation of the plan.

The Community Improvement Plan.

What if our school improvement plans were not just focused on improving student achievement? Instead, what if our plans were about improving student achievement through solving a real-life problem in the community? Through making our community a better place for everyone.

Here’s how it could look.

In the Spring of a school year, students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members come together to brainstorm around a question such as “How can we create a plan for learning that delights our school community?”.  People would brainstorm about issues in the community; issues that are lofty, that stretch us, but things that, were they to be solved, they would make a significant impact in the community.  Perhaps the group comes up with the following challenge:

“How can our school ensure the local food bank is full for the summer?”

Maybe they choose this issue because they felt that the food bank was full at Christmas, but was often near-empty during the summer months, even though the demand for food was still just as high. They would then start to come up with ideas and questions about how each student, each class, each teacher, and each administrator would be involved along with members of the community.  People would have to begin to think about things such as ‘What’s involved in making sure the food bank is full?’ , ‘Who could help us?’, ‘What is the capacity of the food bank?’, ‘How could we gather interest?’, ‘Where would we get food?’, and ‘How would it be transported?’, just to name a few things.  

These ideas would be taken back to the staff so that they could not only look at how best their classrooms would be involved, they could start to look at some of the teaching and learning that could be gleaned from filling the local food bank.  What is the math involved in filling a food bank? The science behind nutritious foods and foods that last a long time?  The language arts involved in effective methods of communication to seek help from volunteers and to promote the project? The media arts and technology involved to document the learning that would take place?  The possibilities would be endless, as would the opportunities to engage students, teachers and the community in something meaningful.

Once the framework of the plan was developed, the school would want to get some outside eyes on the plan.  Using something like the High Tech High Tuning Protocol, a small team could meet with another partner school (or in our District, their Family of Schools) to get warm feedback, cool feedback and suggestions about different aspects of the plan, including key knowledge that students and teachers would need, and how best it could be launched to capture the imagination of the larger school community.  Kids need to be a part of this–if we want them to get excited, we have to test out whether our ‘cool ideas’ are ‘sick’ (or whatever term our kids use today to say that something is awesome).

The Launch:
Once the school had iterated as a result of the feedback, the opening ‘kick-off assembly’ of the year would be totally geared to getting students and teachers excited about helping their community.  Presentations from the community, engaging and interactive videos showing the importance of every person in the community having food, statistics that highlight the issue–whatever our students and educators felt would start everyone off on the right foot to solve the issue.

Scaffolding and Sustained Inquiry:
Over the course of the year, classes would constantly re-visit the question through each of the content areas to work through the steps to solve their piece of issue.  Project-leaders and teams would be in each class to help teachers co-create the steps, supports, and products that would be the benchmarks for their part the project.  There would be critique of each of the pieces, and iteration as a result, while archivists were constantly taking pictures and videos to show the process and progress that each of the classes were making toward the overarching goal.

The Presentation of Learning to the Community/Celebration:
As the school came closer to finishing the project for the year, they would begin to work on how best to share their learning with the community.  Using the authentic products and artifacts collected by class archivists, the school would begin to coalesce the events over the course of the year into something that truly reflected the learning that had taken place and the progress that the school had made toward achieving their goal.  Perhaps the school would have their presentation of learning at the food bank and invite the community and local media to see presentations from each of the classes.  In those presentations, each class would talk about what they learned from doing this project, including the math, the science, the language arts, and the content areas. But they would also talk about the other competencies that they had developed (like the ones in the new and exciting BC Ed Plan curriculum).  There could be an unveiling of the shelves of the food bank, filled to the brim prior to the summer.  Or maybe they are not full, but partially filled, and the school talks about the challenges that they had, and things that they would do differently in the future.  

Now these are just ideas, and I know that others will have better ones about how they could create a Community Improvement Plan.  But I think of the positives as a result of a plan that works with the community to solve a community issue:

  • the students would feel like they have done something meaningful and that they have learned content areas in a real-life, hands-on context.
  • the staff would feels as though they have done something that has made a difference.  Even for people that think such a plan might be a crazy idea, no one can deny that helping the community is a good thing.  A really good thing.
  • the community would be ecstatic–a large group would have taken a real run at a community issue.  They also would have gotten a true window into the learning that has taken place in the school.

In our district, we have more than 40 schools.  Imagine if each of our 40 schools created a plan that was targeted to improve student learning through solving a community issue?  Imagine how the community would feel about school plans?  

And more importantly, imagine the difference that our schools would make to the community.

That is a community that I want to be a part of, and this idea is something that I am going to examine in our district.

If you have thoughts about this, please comment: I would love to hear about them.

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