So how did he do it? Stein interlaced Manual High School with a Strategy String.
Manual High School had been shut down due to poor performance. In an impoverished neighborhood where more than 70% of its students qualifying for free lunches, Manual boasted the lowest test scores in the entire state of Colorado and was stricken by low attendance and sky-high drop out rates. By organizational standards, the school had given up on its customers (the students) and allowed poor performance to close its doors.
In August 2007, Manual reopened as an Innovation School (a public school that thinks and acts a bit differently). This experimental school clenched a vision that committed the management team and staff to do “whatever it takes to ensure that students stay in school and are prepared for success in college, career and in life.” They then transformed that vision into an actionable strategy.
They began by scrapping the strategic plan. "Strategic plans are never fruitful," said Stein. The long-term strategic planning process of old turns into a massive "to-do list for lower level people" that disconnects from performance results. Instead, Stein and his team of volunteers worked collaboratively to answer, "Who do we want to be?" Through this collaborative process, they created a mission statement and Core Principles to support the vision of doing everything needed to keep kids in school. They linked the Core Principles to performance by creating Core Practices that state clearly how Manual's day to day operations would address performance and drop out rates.
For example, all teachers use daily learning goals to communicate and act on daily agendas. Daily learning goals and other consistent practices ensure that students get bell-to-bell learning and no time is wasted. "You will never see a teacher sitting behind [his] desk," said Stein. At Manual, day to day performance demands interaction. When teachers and students are required to provide evidence that they are reaching incremental and long term goals, there is no time for dilly-dally.
With regulations and reporting required by school districts, success measures require a mind-numbing amount of communication for the team at Manual. But constant, open communication with all stakeholders -- students, teachers, administrators, district leaders, and school management -- breaks through the hierarchy and keeps the Strategy String at Manual High School tightly woven to ensure that each student has a chance at a prosperous future. Students are the number one stakeholder at Manual, and its daily practices constantly remind you of that. Without open communication and participation by everyone involved in doing what it takes to ensure student success (including the students), stakeholders disengage and lose sight of the commitment that they signed on for at the school's relaunch. The same is true of businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations.
Aligning Core Practices with stakeholder needs also meant decentralizing decision making and putting more responsibility into the hands of the principal and management team. Like an entrepreneur, Stein was allowed to negotiate many of Manual's contracts to focus school functions on the needs of its students. For example, weekly access to psychotherapists and counselors often work in affluent, suburban schools. Not so much in intercity schools. If a student is dealing with a problem at home and has to wait a week for support, they are more likely to disengage or drop out than wait for that support. By providing regular resources like counseling services on site each day, the school was able to immediately address student cultural, emotional and social needs and quickly re-focus them on learning. That's not common in public schools. But with efficient management and the ability to negotiate services independent of school district mandates, Manual was able to shape a school that met the unique needs of its at-risk student population.
At the end of the 2009-2010 school year, Manual claimed the title of the 3rd highest performer in the Denver Public School district. This year, Manual will celebrate its first graduating class since the relaunch. By creating a responsive strategy that emphasizes daily check-ins with Core Principles and adherence to Core Practices, Manual High School possesses a Strategy String that will allow it to course correct for any changes to the needs of its teachers and students. Now that Rob Stein has turned over the reigns, I hope that the new principal can keep the string from unraveling. With Manual's collaborative, responsive method for connecting strategy to performance, if the ends start to fray, students, teachers, and community will do whatever is needed to keep its kids in school.
Check out the new movie about our education system:
Waiting for "Superman"
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