It’s the first day of school and Dr. Jeanette Ball, superintendent of Judson ISD, is standing in a 3rd grade classroom at Rolling Meadows Elementary.
She asks if the children have any questions for her and gets a heartfelt query. A little boy’s older brother told him he wouldn’t make any friends. Is it true, he wonders?
Dr. Ball doesn’t miss a beat.
“Children, would you please raise your hand if you would like to be this young man’s friend?” A flurry of little hands goes up. “Look at that,” she tells the boy. “You tell your brother you have a class full of friends, including the superintendent.”
This is just one of many classrooms Dr. Ball will visit today as she makes her first-day rounds, her arms loaded with flowers, fruit and donuts to stash in principal’s offices and teacher’s lounges. She comforts preschoolers who burst into tears as their caregivers step away, hugs staff members and greets parents cheerfully. She notices one man’s medical scrubs and thanks him for the work he is doing.
Treat everyone well
The Delta strain of the COVID-19 virus has introduced unwanted tension and anxiety into the first day of school for districts across the nation. But if she feels any stress, Dr. Ball doesn’t show it. Today is about spreading joy and making people valued.
As senior leaders, we have to enforce and model the culture.
It’s an ethos Dr. Ball is trying to instill every day of the year across the district of 23,000 students in Northeast San Antonio. When she was hired in 2018, transforming the district’s culture was an urgent priority.
“Frankly, it was an abusive environment where everyone was scared to talk,” she said. “To this day we are still fighting this.”
In 2019, Judson ISD began a 5-year partnership with The Holdsworth Center that has helped Dr. Ball and her team begin to rebuild the trust needed to start working toward better outcomes for students.
They began by collaborating with groups across the district to create a definition of leadership that would codify who they wanted to be and help chart a new course for the future. It has three core tenets: Plan for success, invest in people and treat everyone well.
Changing the culture
When it came to treating everyone well, Dr. Ball and her team knew change would have to flow from the top.
If people are allowed to treat each other poorly in central office, it flows downhill to the school level, and ultimately to students and parents.
Poor customer service was one of the main complaints when Dr. Ball arrived. Parents would often arrive at schools to locked doors and unhelpful staff.
Setting the expectation that parents and students deserve better starts with showing staff they deserve better by treating them with respect and compassion and investing in their personal and professional growth, Dr. Ball said.
“As senior leaders, we have to enforce and model the culture,” said Rebecca Robinson, Judson’s deputy superintendent of staff.
What does that look like in practice? When people are doing something well, leaders should acknowledge it. Leave a note, send a gift, and always make sure to let them know why, Rebecca said.
It also means having difficult conversations when people are not living up to values and expectations.
Recently, Rebecca learned that a staff member lost their temper with a colleague, resulting in an angry outburst witnessed by others. She had a long sit-down with the staff member.
“Is this the impression you want to leave with people?” she asked. “You have to decide who you want to be.”
Rebecca could have delegated the conversation to someone else or told the colleagues to work out it out on their own.
“But if I don’t address it, the message to the team is that it’s OK to act that way,” she said.
Explaining the why
Though leaders must be role models, that does not mean they are polished and perfect examples. Good role modeling also means showing humanity and taking ownership for mistakes.
Recently, a principal came to see Dr. Ball in her office. She was upset about a staff member the superintendent had placed on her campus to help with administrative duties. She felt it was a message that she couldn’t handle the job. That wasn’t the intent at all – Dr. Ball was just trying to be helpful – but she hadn’t taken the time to make that clear.
In another recent example, a staff member shared that when she didn’t get a promotion she was seeking, Dr. Ball never called to talk to her about it. The decision had been made a couple of months ago, but she was still upset.
Both were communication failures on Dr. Ball’s part, and she apologized.
“Everyone creates stories in their heads, and I have to do a better job of explaining the why,” she said. “It takes more time, but it is so important.”
No growth without struggle
The fact that staff members felt safe enough to share their feelings with Dr. Ball is a testament to how far the culture has come in a short amount of time.
Data show huge improvement in the level of transparency and shared understanding among campus leaders, which has led to much greater engagement. Much of that has been thanks to the collaborative work and communication around Judson ISD’s leadership definition, developed as part of the Holdsworth partnership.
This spring, both assistant principals and principals were more than 50 percent more likely to say that their district had clearly defined the characteristics of great leadership, and both groups were nearly 40 percent more likely to say they understood how the leadership definition applied to their role.
When central office is up front about what’s expected of leaders and combines it with a commitment to support their growth, it changes the equation.
“In the past, things were very “hush hush,” said Priscilla Alfaro, principal of Wagner High School, a school with 2,200 students, three-quarters of them economically disadvantaged.
“Nobody wanted to air their dirty laundry, so to speak,” Priscilla said. “You couldn’t really have an open conversation about your struggles because it would seem like you couldn’t handle it.”
Growing a bench of leaders
But when there’s no struggle, there’s no growth. To grow, staff need to know it’s Ok to admit weaknesses and work on them. They also need the pathways, resources and support to keep increasing their skills.
Judson ISD has been able to tap into the expertise of Holdsworth’s District Support Team – staff who are embedded in the district – to help them create the systems and structures needed to grow their own strong bench of leaders.
Preparing leaders for the principalship is especially critical – aside from a child’s teacher, principals have the greatest impact on student learning because they shape the skill level and working conditions of every teacher in the building.
The best way to learn is through experience, but more often than not, principals are hit with all the demands of the role on the first day with no training wheels to lean on.
Many are promoted from assistant principal positions, but the day-to-day work of an AP requires a different skill set than what’s needed for the principalship.
A dream leadership job
At Judson ISD, leaders have set a goal to have an excellent principal on every campus by 2024. While that may sound straightforward, building the foundation needed to reach that goal takes time and focused effort.
One significant move was hiring Dr. Destiny Barrera to serve as director of leadership development.
Last year, Destiny was a principal at Spring Meadows Elementary. At the same time, she was playing a pivotal “volunteer” role coaching other principals and helping pilot JP3, a new training program for assistant principals to help get them ready them for the principalship.
This year, she gets to do her volunteer job full-time. Some of her first major projects include leading the second year of JP3 and supporting some of the district’s newest principals as a mentor and coach.
“It’s my dream leadership job,” Destiny said. “I feel honored to be able to support my colleagues and I love watching people grow in their leadership. I am excited, and I have some big ideas.”
Training for the principalship
In its pilot year, three assistant principals were part of the yearlong JP3 program, which included book studies, regular meetings, on-the-job training, a summer internship in central office and a final project.
Priscilla Alfaro at Wagner High School was part of that trio.
For her, one of the most valuable aspects was a peer feedback survey that helped her understand how her colleagues viewed her leadership.
It confirmed something she already knew – that she needed to work on her ability to create and articulate a vision. She chose to focus on that skill in her individual development plan for JP3.
“I honestly didn’t even know where to begin,” Priscilla said. “It was truly a growth opportunity.”
Moving to the next level
With Destiny’s help, Priscilla sketched out a plan to talk with teachers about Wagner’s data – the good, the bad and the ugly, as she put it. From there, she organized a visioning task force and asked for volunteers. The group collaborated for several months, working through differences of opinion before landing on a common goal.
Their vision? To shape leaders and role models at Wagner and to create such a warm and welcoming environment that students feel inspired to give back to their community, or even come back someday to work at Wagner.
As the vision was coming together, the principal job at Wagner opened up and Priscilla applied. During the interview process, the committee gave her a performance task – to create and articulate a vision. She nailed it, of course, thanks to the preparation and coaching she received through JP3.
“I don’t even know how I could get that lucky,” she said.
A new tone
With the new school year now in session, people ask Priscilla if she’s nervous.
“I say no because if I have struggles, there is always someone I can turn to for feedback and advice, and it will be 100 percent with my best interests at heart,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have sought the principalship under the previous culture, which speaks a lot for the transformation that has taken place.”
Priscilla credits Dr. Ball for setting this new tone, and for investing in her through the JP3 program and Destiny’s coaching.
She loves that Dr. Ball gives her cell phone out to all principals and encourages them to call her whenever they need something, and that she’s visible everywhere – on campuses and at community events. She seems to truly care for every staff member in the district.
“She is authentic and raw,” Priscilla said. “She really has built that trust and opened the lines of communication. I am always watching and learning from her.”