Latisha Coleman, director of Redesign and assistant principal at Anacostia High School in Washington, DC, made some tough calls last year. Before COVID-19, the school had worked closely with families and community members to co-design a new “Dream Team” initiative that paired volunteer community partners with ninth graders so that each student was mentored regularly by at least one caring adult. But when the pandemic hit, all these well-laid plans were thrown into disarray. Engaging community partners from outside the school was no longer feasible given health and safety concerns, and meanwhile, students needed support and caring relationships more than ever.
As a result, Anacostia’s leadership made two key decisions: first, the school not only persisted with the Dream Team idea, but rapidly expanded it to include students in all four grades. And second, instead of community partners, the school tapped all the adults inside the school—including the principal—to take on caseloads of students and connect with them regularly. Coleman said that some staff, struggling with the pandemic and a dramatic change in working conditions, felt they couldn’t do one more thing. “It was very overwhelming,” she said. “But our principal really put a stake in the ground to say this matters. We know it works. So everyone’s in, including me.”
Forced changes, or strategic responses?
One way to interpret Anacostia’s story is to simply see a high school buffeted by forces outside its control: adults had to take on extra responsibilities because of the immense challenges of supporting students during the pandemic. But that narrative over-simplifies what were, in fact, strategic choices to achieve a certain goal, and which resulted in important lessons learned for Coleman and her team.
Coleman is just one of 14 leaders I interviewed recently, as part of the Canopy project, who challenged the notion that the changes they made in 2020-21 were the unfortunate consequences of forces outside of their control. Rather, these leaders had a clear sense of their school’s identity and purpose, and articulated why some of the changes they made were essential—and even exciting—strategic shifts.
In Anacostia’s case, the school’s decision to tap school staff as Dream Team “captains” helped continue a practice that the school community had already bought into prior to COVID-19. Moreover, the school had always intended to expand the Dream Team concept to students in all grades, but hadn’t anticipated arriving there so quickly. The pandemic acted as an accelerator, rather than a disruptor, to its original commitment. The school has also learned valuable lessons: although Anacostia still hopes to leverage community volunteers in the future, the past year revealed the deep expertise inside their own building. Were it not for the pandemic, “we might not have been able to see the full capacity of our staff, and especially their relationship-building capacity,” Coleman said.
From emergency responses to effective change management
As COVID-19 wears on, there’s a real risk that leaders will burn out on inventing new, ad-hoc solutions. But educators and leaders can benefit from framing pandemic-era adjustments as more compelling and mission-driven than reactionary and forced. Drawing from our recent report on K–12 innovation during the pandemic, here are three themes I heard from school principals about how they’ve accomplished just that:
Changes can keep a school’s deep commitments intact while riding out the pandemic and its ripple effects. Among some leaders I interviewed, the changes they introduced were less in service of doing something new, and more about maintaining their existing ways of doing things in new conditions. For example, one leader reported converting an in-person “Museum Night” tradition into a virtual event. She and her staff set out to maintain the school’s well-loved practice, and ended up discovering some unexpected benefits of digital exhibitions of learning, such as students discovering new media and publishing their work in a more public space. Another leader described continuing his school’s core commitment to project-based learning, but reconfiguring schedules and community partnerships so that students could focus on only one project at a time, rather than two or three. Ultimately, the new approach not only saved the school time, but also drove deeper engagement in each project.
In order to make a compelling case for their proposed changes, these leaders appealed to a strong shared sense of identity and purpose at their schools. They knew that teachers, students, and parents understood what their school was all about—and they trusted that everyone would understand the need to adjust their practices in order to stay true to that core identity.
Changes can address critical needs that come to light. For some leaders I interviewed, the changes they introduced were notable departures from their schools’ normal ways of doing things, and were adopted because of needs that either emerged or became more urgent during COVID-19 and the racial reckoning of the past year. One leader shared how her staff realized that some students’ home environments made remote learning particularly difficult, leading those students to disengage or disappear. In response, the school initiated a “Community Care” model that enabled in-school custodial care for some students even while instruction remained fully virtual. Another leader described how the Black Lives Matter movement prompted her school to reexamine whether its policies and practices aligned with its stated commitment to racial equity. After realizing that, in some cases, the school wasn’t “walking the talk,” school staff adopted a distributed leadership model that ensured all staff members—especially those with marginalized racial identities—participated in decision-making.
Some leaders making changes to address new and urgent needs appeared to benefit from being able to first build collective understanding about the problem to be solved, and only then to engage stakeholders in developing creative solutions to that problem. A solution requiring people to change could fail if those people didn’t understand what they were solving for. Once the problem had been validated and understood, the prospect of changing practice to address the problem seemed to flow more naturally.
Changes can reflect new approaches that leaders already found compelling even before the pandemic. Leaders in this situation described that the new practices they introduced had been attractive before COVID-19, but COVID-19 allowed leaders to create urgency around adopting those practices. For example, one leader noted how he’d always wanted to transition to standards-based grading, but hadn’t prioritized it until parents realized that they couldn’t effectively support their children’s learning at home with abstract scores attached to each course unit. In part due to parents’ needs, and in part due to the school leader and staff’s longtime interest, the school initiated a system that indicated students’ progress in learning specific content and skills.
Leaders seizing the moment in this way seemed to benefit from harnessing their political savvy to redirect dissatisfaction and frustration toward buy-in for a new way forward. Importantly, they already had a strong sense of what that new way forward could look like—they just needed to connect its promise to the struggles that students, teachers, and families were directly experiencing.
One thing is clear: school system leaders are exhausted, and yet their trials appear far from over. The evolving pandemic and ongoing racial reckoning are likely to continue requiring schools to adapt in the year ahead. The lesson I took away from innovative school leaders is the power of reframing those ongoing adaptations as less forced and more strategic—whether to maintain the school’s core identity, solve an important new problem, or seize the moment to achieve a long-imagined goal. Doing so may help buffer leaders, and their school community, against the feeling of being out of control, and instead allow them to build a sense of agency amid ongoing uncertainty.