As part of the multi-year Holdsworth Partnership, Dr. Rodney Watson, Khechara Bradford and Julie Hill all participated in District Leadership Program, a two-year learning journey in which central office administrators develop their personal leadership skills and practice growing and empowering others and creating change to drive excellent and equitable outcomes for students.
Khechara Bradford walked into her garage and sat in the dark with only the light from her phone. She needed a place where she could be alone, and cry if she needed to.
When schools closed due to COVID-19, she and other top leaders at Spring ISD decided to do something they had been wanting to do for years: move to project-based learning. They had only taken baby steps toward the model, which is designed to spark natural curiosity and tap higher order thinking by asking students to apply skills in multiple subject areas to an in-depth project.
With the overnight move to remote learning, Khechara, the district’s chief of curriculum and instruction, saw an opportunity to make a bold move. When seniors received their first online assignment, it was in the form of an oral history project.
They were not happy.
“Is this a joke?” one senior asked. “Why are you making us do this?”
They gathered signatures on a petition in protest. It was this news that sent Khechara into her garage on a Monday morning. She thought the district would pull the curriculum.
But they didn’t. Instead, they spoke with the seniors, answered questions, listened to concerns and walked them through the assignment.
Over time, the work started to roll in and….it was amazing. One student wrote a poem that became a national finalist for the Pulitzer award. Another turned in a powerful interview with her father about why he immigrated to the U.S.
The state wasn’t holding us back, standardized tests weren’t holding us back. We were holding our own selves back and our students back.
“The projects were so creative and inspiring,” Khechara said. “For three months, we threw off the label of a high-poverty, low-performing district. We could have been the best private school in America.”
Labels for students fell away too. You couldn’t tell who was at the top of their class, who was still learning English or who needed special supports.
Seeing the results sparked a profound mind shift for district leaders. It also broke loose a zeal for reimagining schools that set high expectations for all students.
“We make these assumptions that certain kids won’t do the work, or they don’t have parents who can help them, or they don’t have the resources or technology,” said Spring ISD Superintendent Rodney Watson. “It’s not the students or the parents. It’s the expectations we set.
The state wasn’t holding us back, standardized tests weren’t holding us back. We were holding our own selves back and our students back.”
“Not anymore,” chimed in Julie Hill, chief of human resources and human capital. “We have broken loose. If we have quality instruction, bring on whatever assessment you want, we will be successful. We have a boldness and confidence that we did not have before. We know who our children are, and we believe in them.
We are unstoppable right now.”
Laying the groundwork for action
For the leadership team at Spring ISD, the previous year laid much of the groundwork for the unity and energy propelling them today.
As part of The Holdsworth Center’s District Leadership Program, the team spent many weeks together learning how to be better leaders, become a stronger team and empower those around them. They visited school systems in Singapore, Ontario and the U.S., as well as companies such as H-E-B, to study how high-performing systems operate and build strong cultures.
“Through Holdsworth, we have developed a shared understanding around what we need to do to fundamentally change the culture of our organization so that we can get to equitable outcomes for kids,” Rodney said.
When the pandemic hit, concepts they had discussed in theory became real and urgent. Leaders began pushing changes in weeks that would normally take years.
With so much work to do and so little time to do it, empowering others became critical.
Before COVID-19, the district had adopted a new online learning management system, Schoology. They had a three-year plan to roll it out slowly, first to teachers, then students, then parents. When schools closed, they rolled it out to everyone in the space of two weeks.
Parents – the last group to get Schoology in the original plan – hopped right onto the platform, attended online training sessions and quickly became active partners in their child’s education.
Teachers had been working to improve collaboration in their Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for years. Suddenly, PLCs were operating at levels no one imagined possible. Without the limitations of physical space, principals were huddling with their entire staff each morning and afternoon, communication and support flowing both ways.
“No one was concerned about their title,” Julie said. “People saw what needed to be done and jumped right on in and brought their best collective thoughts and energy.”
A cultural shift
When it was time to plan for how Spring ISD would reopen schools in the fall, leaders didn’t confine that effort to central office as they would have done in the past.
Instead, they reached out to principals and asked who would like to volunteer for a planning team. Everyone raised their hand.
The group of more than 100 leaders split into working groups to consider issues around instruction and technology, schedules and classroom configurations, transportation and facilities, staffing and professional development, family supports and child nutrition.
Taking parent and staff surveys into consideration, the team came back with a recommendation that Spring ISD prepare for three different scenarios ranging from students coming back with little social distancing to continuing with remote learning.
When they presented to the board of trustees, Rodney could see the group’s pride in their work: “It was their plan. They were confident, intentional and passionate. I think it was the beginning of a cultural shift.”
Had district leaders come up with the plan and tried to push it from the top down, “it would have gone over like a ton of bricks,” Julie said. “We will not revert to those bad habits. We discovered our principals have all kinds of gifts they were hiding, and we will never let them sit down again.”
Reflecting on what they have learned, Rodney, Julie and Khechara created a list to guide their future actions.
- Stop telling. Start asking.
- Stop assuming. Start seeking deeper understanding.
- Stop guessing. Look for critical evidence.
- Stop having a fixed mindset. Walk in a growth mindset.
- Stop conquering. Start facilitating.
- Stop operating in “me, my four and no more.” Move into all for one.
- Stop criticizing. Start celebrating.
Rolling with constant change
Shortly after Spring ISD and many other districts announced reopening plans, the Texas Education Agency released plans of their own. Schools were mandated to open in-person for five days a week for any parents who wanted that option.
It was back to the drawing board for Spring, which had designed its in-person schedule around a rotation, with Wednesdays off for deep cleaning.
With spread of the virus worsening, however, it soon became clear that opening up buildings wouldn’t be safe by August. Like many big Texas cities hard-hit by the pandemic, Houston and Harris County officials mandated that schools start remotely until at least September 8, an order that may be extended based upon conditions.
We have not been deterred by the pandemic. At every juncture, we dug deeper and pulled more up. We are not tired, we are energized.
“I have always encouraged people to embrace change,” Khechara said. “But when you’re living it, it’s hard. Something that was good to go yesterday may not be good to go tomorrow. I have gotten married to some things that I am passionate about and I’ve had to be OK with letting them go because now is not the right time.”
For instance, it was time to hand curriculum back to the teachers. Students will have one project-based learning unit in the fall and one in the spring, but teachers are designing their own curriculum in professional learning communities.
“It’s a good combination, I’m excited about where we are. We are meeting in the middle after hearing from parents, school leaders and teachers,” Khechara said.
For the whole team, staying flexible and upbeat while rolling with constant change is the order of the day. “We have not been deterred by the pandemic,” Julie said. “At every juncture, we dug deeper and pulled more up. We are not tired, we are energized.”