District-Wide Innovation: Deeper Learning for all Students

Kathy Gomez is a superintendent to watch and learn from; she leads the Evergreen Elementary School District in San Jose, Calif. In our role as their school design and implementation partner, we at New Tech Network (NTN) have had the privilege of working closely with district staff, school leaders and teachers. Kathy and her staff have as their vision for Evergreen that all students experience deeper learning, because, as Kathy says, "Deeper learning outcomes are good for all kids; they promote agency, self-confidence, and lifelong learning with a sense of 'I can figure this out' whether it be a college pathway a career access point."

This district vision is causing big "shifts" as schools move from traditional structures to implement student-centered innovative models like the New Tech Network. For Evergreen, implementing a Project Based Learning instructional approach in conjunction with the cultural foundations of trust, respect, and responsibility is how they ensure all kids leave their system with the social and academic self-confidence that comes with attaining deeper learning outcomes.

For districts that also wish to make this transition to deeper learning for their students, Kathy offers some tips from their experience. Her first tip is to recognize that these types of shifts are often more cultural than they are technical. She says, "Teachers teach the way they were taught. It's too easy for teachers and administrators to do what they've always done because they've always done it that way." If you attempt to implement change through technical shifts (new technology, new curriculum, new school buildings, etc.) without addressing the existing culture, those changes are less likely to stick.

To make cultural shifts happen, working with an external partner who can see where you are and suggest effective ways to move forward can help accelerate change. To work effectively with a partner, however, Kathy's next tip is to be willing to be vulnerable. "You have to be comfortable being completely honest and vulnerable in airing your dirty laundry," she says. "We picked New Tech Network because of the flexibility that NTN allows - no rigid model that must be strictly implemented. Frankly, the team at New Tech understands the realities and complexities of school districts. The customized and tailored support with our Instruction team was critical as we seek to spread deeper learning through our district." However, she suggests, it would not be possible to receive such strategic support if the district had not fully revealed their candid assessment of their needs early on in the work together.

Another tip from Kathy is to recognize that the challenge inherent in fully adopting new initiatives is creating trust among staff so that they believe they have the freedom to change. To meet this challenge, one of her strategies has been to give school leaders the space and time to choose a new focus for their school that will best meet the needs of their students. She has helped to clear the path for this work by changing the way accountability is discussed within the district. "We're spending a lot of time talking about outcomes instead of API test scores," says Kathy. Balancing autonomy with clarity of purpose goes a long way in establishing trust within the larger system.

Amidst this change, I wondered how she managed the inclusion of parent voice within her district-wide vision. With that in mind, Kathy shared another tip: Understand that it takes time for changes to become institutionalized. "Parents are critical to school success and are vocal when they support or don't support a particular direction," she said. "Making sure parents understand the 'why' of the shift is essential. My experience is that if their children are happy and learning, parents are generally happy. However, I know that we have many parents who are uncomfortable with non-traditional learning environments. They may be intrigued by the non-traditional, but are a little hesitant to apply it to 'their' kids. That's okay! Slow and steady wins the race!"

As you might guess, these structural shifts at the school level are also causing changes within the district office. This leads to Kathy's final tip for other districts looking to engage in this work: It is critical that you find ways to develop leadership across the entire system by incorporating the voices of principals, teachers, and students into the development of new district practices. Kathy explains, "Our structure is still very traditional - superintendent, assistant sup. Directors, etc. but the topics of conversation are very different; they emerge from the front lines rather than from the top. When the top introduces ideas they're in the form of questions rather than solutions. We are working to build leadership capacity and help our leadership team and teachers think about why they are doing what they are doing and ultimately help them tap into the passion they had when they entered the profession."

Change at this scale is never easy. When asked, "why engage in district redesign in the first place?" Kathy says, "Because it's the right thing to do if we want our kids to be prepared for their future." As I said at the beginning of this blog, Evergreen Elementary School District and its visionary leader, Kathy Gomez are ones to learn from. The consistency and focus underway leave us excited to watch what happens. More and more districts are engaged in self-examination in terms of meeting student needs for today's college and career realities. We have reason to believe that efforts like those underway at Evergreen are paving the way for us to be a nation proud of its public schools.

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Lydia Dobyns, President and CEO of New Tech Network at Katherine Smith Elementary School, San Jose