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Leading By Example

Suzanne McLeod was Superintendent of Union-Endicott Central Schools in New York State. She participates in a program of School Turnaround called Get to Great. A key to this approach which helps good schools get great results is a set of prototype projects. While others may study and plan (ready…aim…aim some more…aim some more) Suzanne fired and then aimed—and in a way that prompted over 15 students who would have not passed courses this year to do so. This is actually enough to move a needle in the population of those most at risk for drop out. I urge you to read the short case on “No Tiger Left Behind” below. This is a surprisingly low-tech approach that shows how that the human touch can make all the difference when concentrated on a specific group of kids at high risk. This project took half an hour of time per week of the superintendent’s time—less than the time spent watching just half of a sporting event or concert. And the difference for achievement in the school was profound.


A write up by Hal Williams, Outcome Guide

This is the prototype project of Suzanne McLeod, Superintendent of Union-Endicott Central Schools. Like everyone in Get to Great Sue did not lead change by edict or exhortation. She led by example.

The Target

A goal of this district is to drop the dropout rate—dramatically. And no group drops out at a faster rate than those students who are returning from involuntary absence. These are youth who had major discipline and behavior issues resulting in a Superintendent’s Hearing. At this district as well as others, the eventual dropout rate of students in this category is very high—often well above 90%.

Sue asked what first predicted that the re-introduced students would not make it. The answer was course failures, so she set as her target that all of the 20 students in this category would pass all courses in the 2010-11school year. No Tiger would be left behind.

The Data

Sue first needed the list of students in the district who had been sent out involuntarily and a way to update it for students who left the district upon reentering. In “Get to Great” any target goes from percents to numbers….and from numbers to names. She then concluded that she needed this data to be able to help students pass all their courses:

–continuing information on their levels of achievement, including grades. She could not wait for quarterly assessments.

–insights from teachers, who can often see early signs (e.g., disengagement) long before tests are reviewed.

–attendance and any disciplinary, medical or other challenges appropriately noted.

–attitude and motivation to pass courses of these students, which she wanted to see and hear directly from them.

Lacking that elusive and comprehensive “data base” Sue simply moved forward with all she needed to track progress of these 20 students: a binder. All of the above data went in it continually and it became the source of needed information in portable, sharable, flexible form.

The Action

Sue began with the assumption that while classroom teachers could pay attention to these high-risk students that they could not reasonably shift limited time from other students to provide the help they would need. At least for the prototype period, her conclusion was that the intervention would be a new one and would be a new approach, a new program, a new policy. The intervention would be her.

As she met with the students it was clear that they had multiple challenges, beginning with attitude, skills and knowledge shortfalls, and, often, a lack of parental engagement. Her view was that she needed a way to help these students begin to achieve in real time, not after a remedial period which would further weaken morale and any sense of possibilities. She literally did “whatever it takes”, providing enough strength and force to the relationship as was needed. She saw kids in the hall, after and before school, and at all times by email or phone. She learned to be sensitive to keeping a low profile as far as other students’ view of these relationships were concerned. She also developed close collaborations with other administrators, guidance counselors, and teachers who often intervened before Sue had to!

Sue notes that she is well aware that her position as superintendent made it difficult for anyone to say no to her. That she simply puts in the plus column. If she has that power, she should use it for student achievement, not for showing up at school events.

In a few cases, this was resisted, but in a positive way. “What do I have to do so that you don’t keep bugging me?” Sue told them and found this a perfectly acceptable motivation to pass courses!

Three students (two 9th graders and an 11th grader) spoke with me to give their insight. All said that Sue’s direct connection to them during the year made a clear difference on their passing classes. The common threads;

–They really took notice because this was the leader—who, as one student put it, “has so many other things to be doing beyond talking to me.” Two said it would not have made such an impression if it was a teacher or someone else in the building.

–They were surprised at the first visit (which began with a call to go to the principal’s office where Sue spoke with them). They found this memorable in part because it was scary. “What did I do wrong?” This quickly turned to other emotions (which I sense they could not readily characterize) when they saw that her only point was to help them pass all their courses.

–Beyond the specifics of questions she asked was the theme that Sue cared a lot about them. She knew their grades and their status on “stuff” due for classes before speaking with them. While only 3-4 times per year (that they remember) the visits were clearly enough to maintain the sense that she was watching them.

–They told none or very few of their friends about the superintendent’s interest in them but did not seem to find the interactions embarrassing in any way. They understood and agreed with the purpose.

–All three believe they will pass their courses this year and that they would clearly not have done so without Sue’s involvement with them.

Two of the students are concerned that if they do not continue to get some kind of watching next year that they might relapse into problems. This raises a good question from the prototyping: how much intensity and duration of such an intervention is needed to insure that a positive change is sustained? As principal Steven DiStefano puts it, these kids are just over the divide where they tottered between academic success and failure. It is of great importance to keep them there.

The Results

Sue now projects that at least 90% of her students will pass all their courses and notes that data from previous years suggests that no more than 10% would have done so. With 20 students that’s a “save” of 16 students. Given that course failures are the leading predictor of drop out, it is reasonable to see this as at least 14 dropouts prevented. The cost of just one drop out is over $1 million of earning by the person and an even higher sum in added social service and health costs.

Sue, like many prototypers, finds examples more compelling than statistics. Here are a few of the students whose progress overwhelmed her:

  • One young man – a 7th grader – is not only passing all of his classes, but recently brought his father to a Research Symposium sponsored by our select High School Science Research program, where our top science students work with university research professors and compete in competitions such as the Intel Prize. This young man’s goal: to participate in this program in high school.
  • One young woman, who has returned after two long-term out of district suspensions, is now passing all of her classes and now aspires to become a physician. Sue and her team believe this is a realistic and achievable goal for her.
  • Three other students, all passing their courses, set their own prototype goals for 4th quarter as having a 90% average or better.

Gains are always relative to costs. In this case, Sue projects that this project took an average of 30 minutes a week of her time. Counting start up, call it 3 hours per month average. That is no more time than that spent attending one sports event or community meeting per month. Sue is clear which is more helpful in increased academic achievement.

By Hal's Results First

Hal Williams 
Outcome Guide

… is a resource for foundations,
governments, and nonprofit
organizations that seek to define,
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