The Holdsworth Journey: Reflections on 2017

Professional headshot of Kate RogersGratitude.

It’s one of the core values of The Holdsworth Center, and it’s the first word that came to mind when I sat down to reflect upon the past 18 months.

Since publicly announcing the center’s creation in January 2017, we have selected a cohort of seven school districts, hired 21 staff members, launched the first District Leadership Program, traveled the world with our dynamic group of school leaders, read countless books, meditated and worked with some of the most revered leadership experts in the nation. It has been at once thrilling, exhausting, challenging and the most fulfilling work of my life.

So where did this journey begin?

In 2017, Charles Butt shared with me his vision for a leadership institute for public school districts. Behind quality of classroom instruction, campus leadership is the biggest lever in school transformation. A strong principal is able to set a compelling vision for a school and attract and retain great teachers, who in turn, provide better outcomes for kids.  Yet many districts struggle to fill those positions with talented leaders and Charles wanted to do something to help.

He established an organizing board chaired by Senator Mike Johnston of Colorado to study the issue, to look at best practices in the education sector and beyond and to recommend a potential solution.

As the model for what became The Holdsworth Center program took shape, Charles asked for my help recruiting a board, a task made much easier by his contacts and relationships, as well as the deep respect that people have for him and his work in education.

The toughest part was convincing Dr. Ruth Simmons to chair the board. As luck would have it, she had recently returned to Texas after stepping down as president of Brown University and was looking for a meaningful way to give back to her home state. Initially reluctant because of the time commitment, she graciously accepted after learning more about our mission and meeting with Charles at his most persuasive.

This was an important turning point for the Center. Ruth Simmons is the embodiment of servant leadership and she has kept the staff laser-focused on the things that really matter during this critical start-up phase.

With a full board in place, Dr. Simmons joined us in Austin for a press conference announcing the establishment of The Holdsworth Center last January. Charles pledged $100 million to support the Center’s programming and additional funding to build a permanent home to be designed by Lake Flato Architects along the shores of Lake Austin.

Once we announced our plans to Texas and the world, it was time to recruit a team to bring the concept to life. Our top draft pick was Dr. Lindsay Whorton, a consultant from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) who helped to facilitate the work of the organizing board.  It took some prodding to get her to make the leap from Washington, D.C. to Texas, but when she decided to join us, it represented our first big win as a team.

For several months, Lindsay and I worked with BCG to pilot the Holdsworth talent assessment, create the selection criteria and process, and to draw insights from a group of superintendents from around the state known as the Holdsworth Superintendent’s Council.

We invited 26 districts to apply to be part of the initial cohort, then visited 19 districts in just 15 days in order to make the final selection. This incredible, whirlwind tour made us hopeful for the future of education. From the integrated arts and dual language elementary school in Arlington ISD, where children were learning both Spanish and Chinese, to the early college high school in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, the innovation on display was enough to impress even the biggest critic of our public schools.  My only regret is that we didn’t film the visits so we could share the experience with others.

Once we selected seven districts to be part of the first cohort, we set to work designing a program that would exceed expectations. Led by Dr. Shari Albright from Trinity University, the curriculum committee had created an elegant learning arc, but we had to deliver on the blueprint they developed. To spearhead that effort, we hired Marina Lin, a native Texan turned Londoner doing school leader and CEO training in the United Kingdom. Marina was returning to Austin and joined the team as Managing Director of Programs, our second big draft pick.

Since kicking off the first program in June, our group of staff and school leaders has traveled to Singapore, Ontario and San Antonio to learn about top-performing talent management systems. We have explored leadership topics from effective teaming to decision making with world-class experts such as Ram Charan, Hitendra Wadhwa from Columbia and Susan Moore Johnson and Liz City from Harvard. We have read (a lot), pushed ourselves and others outside of our comfort zones and gotten to know one another on a deeply personal level.

I know we will all look back on this year with great fondness and a sense that we were part of creating something very special. But before we turn our backs on 2017, there are a few folks I would like to toast.

One is Ben Scott from H-E-B and David Armbrust and his team at Armbrust and Brown, who led us to a historic vote at Austin City Council in support of our zoning application for the creation of The Holdsworth Center campus. Another is David Lake and the team at Lake Flato who have been designing the campus to include a learning center, administrative space and 180 guest rooms for future cohorts.

I am eternally grateful to the guest faculty members who shared their expertise with us, and all the advisors and friends who have given us honest feedback on our curriculum and our approach. And of course, I bow to our wonderful and talented team of staff, people from across the country who have picked up stakes to move to Texas and be part of building The Holdsworth Center. I learn from them every day.

But most importantly, I want to thank Charles Butt and his incredibly generous gift. His deep belief in our public schools made all of this possible.

Much work lies ahead in 2018. Our district leaders will begin developing a comprehensive plan for change and putting it into action. Internally, we must flesh out our plans for evaluation to understand the impact that we are having, work that will be led by Jennifer Chidsey, who moved from New York City to serve as Managing Director of Research and Evaluation. This summer, we will welcome our first cohort of principals and their teams, a much larger group that will present its own challenges.

But we are optimistic and excited for the next leg of our journey. Already people from around the country have begun to reach out because they are interested in what we are doing and want to learn more.

In addition to gratitude, carving out time for reflection is a practice we encourage at The Holdsworth Center. In that spirit, I’d like to share my top 10 highlights from this eventful year:

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