We need to develop leadership throughout every level of the organization—students, teachers, principals, bus drivers, custodial staff. You can’t take it one step at a time. We all need to be learning and growing together.
Dr. Lynn Moody
Q: Rowan-Salisbury Schools (RSS) was able to respond quickly and effectively at a district-wide scale to the challenges of this current pandemic. What would you say enabled the district to do so?
Lynn: We were positioned well for this moment. Five years ago, we began focusing efforts around digital transformation. We wanted to make sure every single student, their family, and our community at-large had access to information. And, that the information they had access to was current and relevant.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this basic idea that everyone should have access to current and relevant information was going to launch us into a much broader journey toward learner-centered transformation.
If we fast forward to today, I think about how critically important it is for our students to have what they need to learn about the things they’re curious about. I think of a picture I received this week from one of our families. It is of a father and his children building a chicken coop. I just love this picture because it is showing these young people working on a passion project their entire family is interested in.
I don’t know if the father already knew how to build the coop or if they looked up videos on YouTube, but knowing they have access to that type of information—no matter their curiosities—makes me smile.
Q: With digital access acting as your entry point to broader learner-centered transformation, what were your next steps in bringing that transformation to life?
Lynn: I believe wholeheartedly that teachers need to lead our learning design, so one of the next steps we took was sending our teachers all over the country to learn from districts that were doing very unique things with their learners. We also encouraged them to visit businesses, like Starbucks and Apple, to learn about their core values and what pushes them to continuously innovate.
We began a book study and habit of sharing articles related to building a culture of innovation and transformation. We combined our information gathering efforts with the lessons we were learning in real-time with students. As you build this learning culture, it just builds on itself.
As we continued searching outward for people who were really thinking about education differently, we discovered Education Reimagined, Stand Together, Transcend, Mastery Transcript, and Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). It was great discovering these organizations because although everyone uses different language in their communities, we could use something like Education Reimagined’s “open-walled” element to name what we were seeing at the places we visited, enabling us to better think about how we could deepen our own practice of getting students out into the community.
Q: What drove you to explore business and industry as a place for inspiration in transforming learning at RSS?
Lynn: Phil Schlechty is one of my all-time heroes, and I have been a part of the Schlechty Center’s Superintendents Leadership Network for nearly 20 years. This network is where my thinking began taking shape around what it means to be a learning organization and how to imagine what school could be.
The network meets three times per year and the fall and spring meetings are always centered around visiting a business, and then coming together to discuss what we observed. We consider how what we learned changes our own thinking about how we educate the children we serve. That model worked so well for me that I wanted to engage our teachers, staff, and administrators in the same process.
It’s great seeing what other school districts are doing, but exploring what other businesses and organizations outside of education are doing is where you can really get on the edge of learning differently.
When you run a large district, a natural question is how do you create a personalized experience for every child? So, as an example, we visited a mega church in Dallas, Texas to see how they were able to generate such a massive following and help each follower feel unique and valued. We wanted to know what they were doing to make people feel like that. We saw how they created smaller networks of support to make the community feel personal, rather than overwhelming.
Every time we visited a new organization or business, we could learn something entirely new. And, we can take all of this information back to our district to figure out how we can use it to change our thinking about what we’re doing. We don’t need the business world to tell us how to transform education, but we can combine our expertise in education with the lessons the business world has to offer and create a powerful learning experience for every child we serve.
Q: Your efforts led to an incredibly unique decision by the North Carolina legislature to label you as a Renewal School District. Can you take us through that story?
Lynn: About 18 months ago, I was sitting next to State Senator Michael Lee who was co-chairing a finance committee for education with Representative Craig Horn. He was exploring how the state could go about simplifying the allocation of finances to school districts, so district CFO’s didn’t have to spend so much time trying to interpret how they could spend each dollar.
So, as I’ve done many times in the past with other elected officials, I told him that, as a Superintendent, if our district had total control and flexibility over how we could allocate our budget, then we could really transform education in our community. I’ve never had anyone take me up on this before, but Senator Lee asked, “Do you really think you could do that?”
I said, “Of course I do. But, as long as we’re forced to adhere to guidance that doesn’t make sense for the needs of our district, we’re always going to believe we’re trapped in this model. We just need the freedom to spend money based on the unique needs of our district.”
Senator Lee further inquired, “Is fixing the financial situation all that is needed?” And, I was quick to point out that fixing the finances in isolation of everything else wouldn’t be enough. We needed flexibility around hiring, curriculum development, and even our daily and yearly calendar. With total flexibility, we could truly invent something brand new.
Several months later, Senator Lee called me up and said, “Okay, if you really mean it, I’m getting ready to craft some legislation to provide you the flexibility you’re looking for.”
Shortly after that, Senator Lee presented House Bill 986 to the education committee. Midway through the bill, you’ll find “Part VI: Renewal School System” where it lays out the opportunity for RSS to:
“Permit the local board of education to decide all matters related to the operation of the schools under its control within the local school administrative unit, including use of State funds, curriculum, and operating procedures, except as otherwise provided in this section. The purpose of operating the local school administrative unit under a renewal school system plan shall be for the local board of education to design and create a comprehensive, innovative strategic vision for sustainable school improvement and student achievement through the delivery of instruction and resources tailored to the needs of the students and the community.”
The bill was quickly approved by the education committee and was sent to the Senate and House floors the next day. The bill was approved by a large majority. I couldn’t believe it. Now, as you mentioned and as far as I know, we’re the first renewal school district in the country.
Q: Why do you think the Senator was willing to act so quickly?
Lynn: For this kind of work to take off, you have to get your community or your Senator—or whoever you are in conversation with—excited about the idea and believing in the possibility just as much as you do. It’s an evangelistic approach to expressing what you believe education can look like.
Over time, you start to get some buy-in. People will buy into your energy and conviction before the idea itself. But, that isn’t sustainable. If different people get elected or people move out of your community, you have to energize new people all over again.
So, the energy of a leader can’t sustain it. It has to become deeply rooted. We have to make this work such that it isn’t easy for people to go back to the conventional way of doing things. We have to make staying with this vision the easier thing to do. When a new leader comes along, the learning community will be choosing that leader. And, if they have internalized our learner-centered belief system, they will choose a new leader who matches it.
It is also important to note this type of embeddedness doesn’t happen overnight, so you have to take a multi-pronged approach. We need to develop leadership throughout every level of the organization—students, teachers, principals, bus drivers, custodial staff. You can’t take it one step at a time. We all need to be learning and growing together.
Q: How has that leadership shown up during this pandemic?
Lynn: The people who are leading us right now are our nutrition staff, bus drivers, and custodians. They are continuing to deliver the brand of Rowan Salisbury Schools as we speak. It’s amazing and scary all at the same time because amidst social distancing, they are out and about serving our students and families every day.
I followed a school bus to see how our meal deliveries were going—I get pretty emotional when thinking about the experience. Our kids love our staff. So, when the bus pulls up to deliver food at a home, the children come running out—they’re so excited to see someone from their school.
The staff member stepped off the bus to deliver the meal, and the kids just ran up and hugged her immediately. It was so hard because she knew she wasn’t supposed to be in contact with the children; but the kids didn’t know any better, and they were just so happy to see her. That’s the kind of connection our kids have with all of our staff because our staff are enrolled in what we are trying to do in our district.
When we think about professional development, it means all of our staff—not some of our staff. We want them all. Because if my custodian doesn’t understand our directional system, when they are out in the community, people will talk to them about what is happening in the district. And, who do you think people are going to believe, him or me? He’s so much more credible in the community than I am.
We are ready to take this to the next level and be an example for the rest of North Carolina and the nation, as a whole.
Dr. Lynn Moody
This isn’t just hypothetical. A couple of years ago in one of our middle schools, we had created learning spaces everywhere. We ripped out lockers and made the hallways much more functional for learning, so we had students all over the place. One of our custodians came to me concerned with having so many students in the hallway outside of regular passing periods.
He said, “I’ve been working here for 20 years, and I haven’t seen anything like this before. These kids are everywhere. They’re on the floor. They’re outside on the benches. This is terrible. We need to do something about that.” I asked what he thought was so terrible about it and he said, “They could be doing anything they want. I’ve also noticed that when I take out the trash each day, I don’t see any worksheets anymore. The teachers have quit using them…”
I realized in that moment—as he was telling me how much the building had physically changed, how there wasn’t any paper in the trash cans, how there were kids in the hallways—that he didn’t know why all of these changes were occurring. We hadn’t taken the time to tell our entire community why and what we were trying to do. Because he wasn’t involved in the process, he wasn’t on board—naturally. What he saw was just total disruption; that things had gone crazy.
So, what do you think he would say in the grocery store? “That middle school I’ve been working at for 20 years has gone completely crazy since that new Superintendent has been there.” Everyone who works for the district carries our brand.
I say this all the time to our bus drivers, they are the first and last conversations our kids have every day within our school community. Our bus drivers know things that nobody else does. When there’s a ribbon on the front door of a child’s house because a family member passed away, our bus drivers might be the only ones who know that. When there’s boxes outside because a child’s father is moving out, our bus drivers might be the only ones who know that.
They know all kinds of information about our children, so if they’re involved in the process of developing our vision and culture for learning, they will immediately know to pass along information to our teachers and counselors. Everyone is extremely valuable to the organization, and their role is much bigger than their individual tasks.
Q: It’s awesome to hear how everyone is being enrolled into RSS’s learner-centered vision and valued for the gifts they bring. What do you do when someone simply doesn’t believe in the direction you are going?
Lynn: Just because this is our vision doesn’t necessarily make it the “right” vision. It just makes it our vision. If you want to be part of our vision and it’s your vision, this is probably a good place for you to work. But, it’s okay if it’s not. We’ve had quite a bit of transition during this time, and I’m fine with that. I’m very supportive.
One of the principals who I liked and valued a great deal was very much a traditionalist. We had a conversation, and he said he respected what I was doing, but he knew it wasn’t a good match for him. We worked together to find him a place where his talent and beliefs would work best and where he would be happy.
It’s not about being angry with people. This isn’t going to be a good fit for everyone. And, whether they are a principal, teacher, or custodian, if we’re not the right place, we want to help them find that right place.
Q: What’s top of mind for you as you move along your transformational journey?
Lynn: Not only do we now have this opportunity to transform as a renewal district, we have a moral obligation to do it well. Most school districts would dream for this scenario, so for them, we need to go big or go home. We have to be bold and show what a school district could really look like with the kind of flexibility we have.
We’ve spent the last 18 months getting clear on the direction we want to go. And, we have found great partners that are ready to work with us in moving it forward. We needed to find people who could speak our language and we have.
Now we’re trying to figure out how to put the meat on the bones. How do you put the processes, procedures, and policies in place that sustain this kind of thinking and energy over a long period of time? As we flesh that out, we are ready to take this to the next level and be an example for the rest of North Carolina and the nation, as a whole.