Time For A Change

Every August, I lead the new teacher training in our district for all incoming middle and high school teachers. Most of the teachers aren’t just new to our district; they are embarking on their new teaching careers. First, we have a crash course in how to be a city teacher and then, towards the end of our time together, I make sure they understand the importance of fitting into our district, and knowing that the Lawrence Public Schools is the right place for them. I explain that in our inner city setting, it’s so important to understand that we teach kids first and content second. So, if one of our new teachers perceives of herself as a teacher of Shakespeare, or as someone who loves teaching about volcanoes, then our district may not be the right fit. Connecting with our students and meeting their needs is far more important than specific content knowledge in the world of urban schools. I tell them, there’s no shame in leaving a place to find a better fit for your skill set, strengths, and interests.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to Bill Simmons’ podcast with David Kahn, general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kahn has made some questionable player/personnel decisions in the last few years. So many, that some experts consider him to be the worst general manager in the NBA. But as I listened to the podcast, I heard him speak about his decisions in the context of his organization and it was clear that he had made some thoughtful decisions. But they went wrong because of a different problem. There isn’t any alignment between what the owner of the team wants, the decisions the general manager is making, and the manner in which the coach utilizes the players. The result is one of the worst teams in the league.

It’s clear that organizational alignment is vital to the success of a professional basketball team and I would argue it’s just as vital in a school district, especially an urban district facing so many pressures to improve standardized test scores, graduation rates, attendance, and a myriad other issues. I’ve been thinking about fitting in to my district, and the organizational alignment therein for many months.

I’ve been an employee of the Lawrence Public Schools for eight years. Colleen Lennon, one of the finest principals I know, gave me my first administrative opportunity when she appointed me her middle school assistant principal seven and half years ago. And then, a few years later, seemingly out of the blue, our superintendent offered me the opportunity to lead the districts’ efforts to design six small high schools. We converted our 3,000 student comprehensive high school in a building more than one hundred years old, into six small thematic high schools on a state of the art campus. I had the amazing opportunity to lead six groups of teachers to imagine six different schools. And since then, I’ve both led and worked collaboratively to try and re-imagine teaching and learning at the secondary level in our urban school district.

As our work has progressed, my own thinking about what a school could and should be has evolved. I’ve spent the last year attending conferences like Educon, NTCamp Burlington, EdcampBoston, and next week I’m headed to Edubloggercon East. These events, and the wonderful people I’ve met face-to-face, and online, have dramatically and positively impacted my thinking about technology integration, school structures, teaching, learning, and leadership.

To return to that podcast and David Kahn, my thinking is no longer aligned with my district’s thinking. I think it’s presumptuous and more than a little arrogant to assume that my district should conform to my thinking about school, and the more time passes, the more divergent I am from the direction my district is headed. So, I’m taking my own advice and after eight wonderful years in Lawrence, I’ve found a better fit for the educator I am now. My family and I are headed to Cleveland, Ohio, so I can become a principal of a high school in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. I’ll be leading Design Lab Early College High School, in Cleveland’s innovative portfolio of schools. This upcoming school year will be the schools’ fourth, and we’ll have our first graduating class. Design Lab is a STEM school, with design thinking as its’ central theme. Our partners are intended to be the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Engineering School at Case Western University. There’s already a strong partnership with Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) for dual enrollment programs for students.

My intent is to build an amazing team and imagine a new school together. I’ll use future posts to describe my thinking and our process. For now, what the school will be is undetermined. But I am hoping to install a fab-lab this year to get our students designing and applying STEM principles in hands-on applications of their ideas. And then we’ll see what happens next!

So, all that’s left to do is find a place to live in the Cleveland area, put our house in Massachusetts up for sale, pack up our home, move all our belongings, enroll our oldest son in kindergarten somewhere in Ohio, and change a million of our four month olds’ diapers. Oh, I also have to hire the rest of the school staff, build a school schedule, and actually get to Cleveland, all in the next four weeks. If you’re searching for me, I’ll be hiding under my desk.

If you’re looking to teach or be an administrator in an urban district in Massachusetts, I highly recommend you check out the Lawrence Public Schools. The kids and their families are amazing, and I can’t imagine working with a more passionate and dedicated group of teachers and administrators. It’s a place where being an educator means positively impacting students’ lives every day.

And if you know anyone nice in the Cleveland area, educator or not, let me know. My wife and I would love to meet them. Until March, I’d never visited Cleveland, and we don’t know anyone.

If you’re a teacher, an engineer, a designer, or an artist living the Cleveland area, and you want to re-imagine high school with me, let me know. I’m starting to build a team.

If I’m being honest, I should say I’m a little scared to start a new adventure. But the truth is, I’m more scared of staying where I am, and becoming complacent, and of giving up on my vision of what school can be just to stay in the safe life we’ve built for ourselves. So we’re off to Cleveland, and I can’t wait to get there. I’ll use this blogging space to let you know how it goes…

CC Images:

Change by Alex Calderon

Puzzle pieces-2 by yann.co.nz

Cleveland by Cfour33

Panic by litherland

Road to volcanoes by Gabriele Nastro

Cross posted over at Growing Good Schools

3 Comments

  1. What a great blog post! I truly agree, in any organization, there must be alignment from the top to the bottom, otherwise there is a disconnect that leads to the inability to meet/exceed goals or achieve the organization’s mission and vision. This is no different in the education. As more schools adopt project-based curriculums and transition into portfolio schools, this is one business lesson well worth adopting.

    July 22, 2011
  2. Lou Salza said:

    Dear Eric,

    Welcome to Cleveland!

    Thoroughly enjoyed your blog post regarding your move to Cleveland. I liked what you wrote so much I back-tracked through many of you blogs on the principal’s site where you post. You are a thoughtful educator, and a marvelous writer. I love how you weave your experiences as a dad with insights into the art, craft and science of education. I was especially touch by the blog you wrote about your father. Thank you for writing and for sharing!

    I moved here four years ago and we absolutely love Northeast OH. My wife and grew up in the Boston area (long ago!) I have served in both public and private schools ( Landmark School in Beverly, and Hamilton-Wenham Regional HS in Hamilton MA.) Most recently my wife and I lived in Hawaii where I served as Head at a school for children with learning differences.
    Lawrence School here in the Cleveland area is a school for children K-12 with learning differences. We opened a state of the art upper school serving grades 7-12 with amazing technology. I would welcome an opportunity to meet you when you get settled in Cleveland. Please get in touch if there’s any way we can be helpful to you. We live in Shaker Hghts one of the inner ring suburbs. Best house, best community, best neighborhood, we have ever lived.
    BTW: you can buy a REALLY nice house here for monopoly money!

    Best regards,
    Lou

    July 23, 2011
  3. Eric:

    Congratulations on your appointment, and I so excited for you in this new opportunity. I think we all must begin by knowing ourselves (as the Delphi Oracle stated), and make our decisions from that touchstone, and it seems you are doing that exactly in this case.

    Hold your principles and ideals high, and remember that even when you may have to make compromises in practice, you can always continue to pursue them step by step as you build your school with your vision as guide.

    A side note– Lou Salza (above) is a great friend to have; he is one of the most visionary and innovative school heads within the National Association of Independent Schools. Cultivate that relationship!

    I too eagerly anticipate reading regularly about your journey at your new school, and more than that, I am eager to take an opportunity to come visit sometime in the next year and see your work in action. I think that all of us at Connected Principals are eager to see another “model school” emerge as we look for examples of exciting and innovative practices.

    Best,
    Jonathan

    July 25, 2011

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