Tuesday / April 23

How Shared Leadership Transformed A School

We are part of an administrative team at a middle and high school of 750 students in San Diego. We are fortunate to be surrounded by an amazing team of educators, students, families, and community partners.  Like every school, we are collectively faced with the daily dilemmas, challenges, and pure joy that inevitably occur in a complex organization.  Things we never could have conceived of when we founded this school, along with our colleague Ian Pumpian, have happened. As professors in educational leadership, we have long understood the value of shared leadership.  Frankly, neither of us can imagine how everything would get done if only a small handful of people were responsible for making the myriad of instructional, operational, and fiscal decisions that are necessary to advance learning.

Early on, our school collectively designed and adopted five pillars that serve as guideposts for decision making (Fisher, Frey, & Pumpian, 2012). When confronted with challenging situations, we ask ourselves if our actions align with these principles:

  • Welcome: Every child and adult needs to feel welcomed and respected, every day and in every circumstance.
  • Do no harm: Our actions are consistent with three mutual conditions: Take care of yourself, take care of each other, and take care of this place.
  • Choice words: The language we use as adults must build student’s identity and agency.
  • Never too late to learn: We are willing to do all it takes to ensure that our students learn at the highest levels.
  • Best school in the universe: We strive to be the best place to work, the best place to teach, and the best place to learn.

These five principles served us well in the first years of the school. We invested greatly in developing teacher leaders, supporting the aspirations of staff, and conducting outreach to families and community partners. However, we began to realize that we had overlooked one important constituency: our students.

Students as Leadership Partners

In 2009, we began a journey that has transformed our school, and continues to do so today. Recognizing that the supports and services we were developing for our students didn’t go far enough, we began exploring new solutions. Our suspension rate, while not terrible, was higher than we wished. Our students were familiar with the pillars, but didn’t necessarily embody them when challenging situations arose.  Most of our students passed their classes, but there were still some stubbornly entrenched in a cycle of failure.  In an effort to improve our practices, we began to explore restorative practices. Nine years later, we can safely say this has made a profound difference at the school, as it has allowed us to tap into the power of student leadership.

Many are familiar with restorative practices as an approach for resolving serious problems and disputes (Costello, Wachtel, & Wachtel, 2009). Principles for reaching resolution include giving victims a forum to state how they have been harmed, and for the offender to make amends and restore the relationship. Restorative practices have earned a reputation as a viable alternative to suspension and expulsion, especially among historical overrepresented groups who receive formal disciplinary sanctions (Anyon, et al., 2014).  Our suspension rate has declined each year since restorative practices were first introduced at the school.

What we didn’t expect, but were delighted to discover, is how restorative practices transformed the student body. The vast majority of students never experience a high-stakes conference during their school career (our data show that only 4-5% of students annually are involved in these meetings.)  The real and lasting strength of restorative practices has been the proactive nature of the continuum. Students regularly lead class meetings to address issues and concerns, and participate in class circles that are curricular in nature (discussing a poem in English, or debating an historical event in World History.)

In 2011, students approached a teacher about forming a group that would be charged with building social networks for students new to the school. Six years later, Connect Crew has become an essential part of the social fabric of the school.  Members of Connect Crew served on work group to design a new student onboarding process for those enrolling after the start of the school year. New students spend the first day at school in the company of students and teachers to gain a foothold in the inner workings of school.

Sharing Leadership with Students

As with every secondary school, we have traditional student leadership outlets, such as student government, clubs, and sports. But we have come to appreciate that leadership always begins with self-governance.  As part of our data collection, we administer the Student Voice survey to our students. This 67-item instrument allows us to track trends over time (there is a similar Teacher Voice instrument that we use as well.) Among the data we are most proud of are the results of last year’s SV survey: 96% of our students reported that they were “good decision makers,” a rise of 29 points from 2014. (The national average is 67%). Another data point for us is that 80% of students responded favorably to the statement: “Students have a voice in decision making in this school” (the national average is 47%).

Only a small percentage of students can occupy formal leadership roles, but every student has the capacity to exercise voice in school. However, they need to be equipped with the tools to do so. For us, restorative practices have been a valuable tool. Students also need opportunities to make decisions about what happens in their classrooms and in their learning lives. When teachers know how to create forums such as class meetings and circles, students are able to exhibit their leadership skills and influence the learning environment. Leadership is not a matter of role and position, but rather of personal responsibility. What better way than to provide students with the tools to lead themselves and others?

Anyon, Y., Gregory, A., Stone, S., Farrar, J., Jenson, J. M., McQueen, J., Downing, B., Greer, E., & Simmons, J. (2016). Restorative interventions and school discipline sanctions in a large urban school district. American Educational Research Journal53(6), 1663-1797.

Costello, B., Wachtel, J., & Wachtel, T. (2009). Restorative practices handbook for teachers, disciplinarians, and administrators. Bethlehem, PA: International Institute for Restorative Practices.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., &, Pumpian, I. (2012). How to create a culture of achievement in your school and classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Quaglia, R., & Corso, M. (2014). Student voice: The instrument of change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California.

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