On March 3, the Texas Department of State Health Services made the announcement that tens of thousands of school and childcare workers in the Lone Star State had been waiting for: they would finally meet the definition of essential workers, eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Marcelo Cavazos, superintendent of Arlington ISD, sprang into action. He reached out to the Arlington Fire Department with an audacious request: could they partner up to vaccinate every single district employee, all 8,500 of them, in a single day?
Oh, and could that day be March 8, just five days after the official announcement?
Dr. C, as he’s known, had good reason to think leaders in his district could pull it off. After all, Arlington ISD had just experienced perhaps the most difficult year in its history, yet due to a strong culture and an engaged and trusting workforce, more staff than ever say they consider the district a great place to work.
Staying invested in the mission
With 60,000 students and 8,500 staff members, Arlington ISD is the 13th largest school district in Texas.
It’s always enjoyed support among faculty and staff. But thanks to its 5-year partnership with the Holdsworth Center, the district has navigated the pandemic better than most.
While staff at many districts were operating on the edge of burnout, those at Arlington ISD banded together to tackle myriad challenges while remaining engaged and emotionally invested in the mission.
Much of the groundwork was laid long before the pandemic hit, and included steps like:
- Putting people first by showing care and empathy for staff
- Communicating honestly and transparently about the district’s shortcomings – what they need to fix and why
- Committing to grow and develop staff in a best-in-class way
- Following through on people’s input and taking action on promises to make things better
Responding to crisis
Dr. C said he saw the effect of the foundational work the district has done with Holdsworth in those tense days after school districts across the nation abruptly shut their doors last spring. The first of many crises the district faced was making sure the students who relied on school meals didn’t go hungry.
“Our food service staff — they just jumped in and built a brand-new structure to prep and deliver curbside meals,” he said, doing it so quickly that they were ready within days. Next came the need to distribute technology to students who would be learning from home, he said. The technology team quickly stood up a system to provide devices, including hot spots, to families across the district.
Meanwhile, teachers and principals were trying to figure out how to do something they’d never done: deliver instruction remotely.
District leaders gave them the time to design programs and get trained, Dr. C said, a move that came with some criticism from the community. But taking that time allowed teachers to feel more prepared and comfortable, and ultimately boosted the quality of instruction for students.
‘A district is the people’
The district and board of trustees also approved several policy changes that shored up trust. It extended federal COVID leave benefits beyond the December 2020 expiration date, and teachers did not have to use sick days if they were asked to quarantine by the district. Teachers were also given the choice of working from home or coming into the school to teach.
A district is really the people. They are the heart of the organization.
“A district is really the people. They are the heart of the organization,” Dr. C said. “Through Holdsworth, we learned about the importance of communication, transparency and collaboration, about taking input from staff, and valuing the individuals in our district. We used the structure we created through Holdsworth to meet the needs of our students and staff, and it has really paid dividends.”
In May of 2020, deep in the uncertainty of those early days of the pandemic, teachers were still 37 percent more likely than they were in 2017 – when Arlington began the Holdsworth partnership to say they feel their work is valued by the district, while indicators of trust jumped double digits.
Belief that the district participates in “open, honest two-way communication” rose by 40 percent in the same period.
‘A lot of untapped talent’
One of the ways district leaders cultivated trust among staff was by following through on their commitment to help staff grow and develop.
Holdsworth’s 5-year partnership gives district leaders the time and support to be intentional about creating systems that allow them to identify future leaders and create pathways for their success, said Dr. A. Tracie Brown, Arlington ISD’s chief schools officer.
“There was a lot of untapped talent in our system,” she said. “In the past, you typically advanced if you raised your hand or someone nudged you. Now we are more intentional about identifying our high potential talent and supporting them in their current role or aspiring one. This helps us retain more of our top talent, and it makes staff feel valued, respected and like they have a path forward in our district.”
Next came building systems to develop all that untapped talent.
In particular, district leaders heard many assistant principals (APs) weren’t sure how to make the jump to principal. Without a clear roadmap, many applied for principal roles in other districts to get the experience they needed. And from the district side, leaders realized they had no real picture of how many APs were ready to lead.
Tracie led the creation of a robust micro-badging program that allowed aspiring leaders opportunities to develop the skills they would need to keep moving up the ladder. She also instituted Talent Talks, a process for district leaders to identify campus staff with high leadership potential, create learning opportunities for them, and provide them the coaching needed to prepare for a principalship.
As a result, the ratio of ready candidates for projected principal vacancies – which average around 10 per year in Arlington ISD – has risen to 3:1, a huge improvement from prior years, when it was not uncommon to have little to no ready candidates for an open job.
The changes made a big impact on APs. In 2021, 71 percent of APs said they understood their future promotion opportunities within the district – that’s up from 30 percent in 2017.
Additionally, 72 percent said they had a mentor who has helped them identify their career goals and paths to achieve them, up from 33 percent in 2017.
Growing the bench
It wasn’t just APs who benefitted from new leadership pathways at Arlington ISD.
They have really emerged as pioneers and innovative leaders.
District leaders also created “lead principal” roles, giving school principals the opportunity to lead at the district level. Soon after the pandemic hit, four of those lead principals were tasked with reimagining schools — what are the challenges and complexities that come with online learning and engagement? What is the profile of the virtual learner? How can we support teachers and campuses?
“They have really emerged as pioneers and innovative leaders,” Tracie said, “working to reimagine school during a disruptive pandemic. Senior leaders would typically make those calls. Now we have lead principals leading robust and meaningful system-level work.”
They also created multiple pathways for teachers to become leaders, including district lead teachers, instructional coaches, model teachers and department leads. Tracie says in the past, the district didn’t really focus on a teacher/leader trajectory.
Today, she says, “We now have 150 outstanding teacher leader across the organization who helped create the teacher leader pathway. These are phenomenal teachers who mostly want to continue to teach, but our pathway affords them the ability to grow and impact the wider system.”
Kristin Crocker teaches advanced sophomore English and a Theory of Knowledge class at Arlington High School, where she’s been teaching for the past decade. Her campus had already begun a program for teachers to become instructional coaches, she said, but now that it’s a district-wide program, teachers from different campuses are able to share their expertise.
“The thing I love about that position is that it gives people the opportunity to use their experience and knowledge and not have to give up teaching to do it,” Crocker said. “We use the phrase ‘grow the bench’ a lot now, bringing people along so they’re ready to be in those positions.”
Increasing everyone’s capacity
For teacher Andrea Trowbridge, the work the district and individual schools have done with Holdsworth has “increased everyone’s capacity in all the ways, professional and personal.”
Andrea is in her third year of teaching third graders, after several years teaching older grades. She said she wanted to reach children earlier, to help make sure they have the foundational skills necessary to grow and succeed.
One of the eye-opening opportunities Andrea had via Holdsworth was looking at education through the lens of business. She learned about testing change on a small scale before going big.
“In education, too often it’s the opposite,” she said. “There’s a new initiative, everyone’s doing it and then we see what happens.”
Her team had the opportunity to try some high impact/low effort changes around reading.
“Many of our students are coming to third grade below reading level, and that’s their first year taking the STAAR. We first did a lot of work digging into the reasons our students aren’t reading on grade level, then, of those reasons that are in our control, which would have greatest impact if we made changes?”
Room to grow
The team homed in on how literacy instruction was structured. “We asked, ‘Do we have all the components of a balanced literacy program in all classrooms, and it is taught with fidelity?’ Andrea said. “We definitely had room to grow — and we saw growth last year. It was really impactful for me to see how much little things, based on research and done consistently, can improve scores.”
That growth wasn’t just in her students’ reading levels.
“It was so surprising to me that in this educational leadership program we learned how to take care of ourselves, physically and mentally,” she said. “The work we did around managing our emotions was not what I expected. But I have seen the effects. The work has stretched me. It solidified the power of a growth mindset, and how crucial it is that I help my students build this type of thinking.”
Withdrawing from a bank of trust
Rachel Gallardo worked with Dr. Cavazos and his team as part of Holdsworth Center’s District Support Team, embedded consultants who work alongside districts leaders to create and implement new systems and structures. She said what she’s witnessed is a district that listened to what their people were saying, then acted.
“They heard, ‘We don’t have enough opportunities to develop here, we don’t see the pathway.’ Their team said, ‘Okay, we hear you,’ and they began investing in their people.”
This is how you build a strong culture through leadership, Rachel said.
“Hearing feedback, building systems, and giving people ownership over those systems – when you make these major changes, you must bring people along. They saw a way to build trust, and when they came into this big moment, the pandemic, these leaders were able to draw from that bank of trust. People said, ‘Okay, what do you need us to do?’”
A joyful day
On March 4, the day after Dr. C confirmed that the Arlington Fire Department could vaccinate all district employees in a single day, he and his fellow leaders across the district made it happen.
“From Thursday to Monday, the planning, the prep, the logistics, the communications, the location –everyone pitched in so that all our employees could get vaccinated,” he said. “Thousands took advantage of it, and the joy in the event – it was really significant.”
Kristin Crocker, the English teacher at Arlington High School, agreed.
“I don’t know how they were able to pull it together so quickly,” Kristin said. “But it was such a meaningful moment and big step for getting the kids back. It really was a gift.”