Moving From Good to Great: Are We There Yet?

There is nothing quite like the start of a new school year. The hallways come back to life, spirits are high, and hopes for new possibilities and opportunities are at their highest. It’s a fresh start, a reset of soughts, and it’s always a perfect time to take stock with a faculty while laying the groundwork for what the year has in store. At DFHS, we spent a great deal of time at our opening faculty meeting talking about what we have accomplished, what’s “new” at our school, and how we are doing with regard to the “good to great” question that we first tackled at our opening faculty meeting two years ago. See post:

https://johnfalino.com/2013/09/02/how-does-a-school-go-from-good-to-great/

As I enter my fifth year as the Principal of DFHS, I continue to see our journey as a story that continues to unfold. And while new teachers have joined us along the way and others have moved on, the story of our school continues to evolve. A constant for us has always been our mission to prepare all students with the necessary 21st century “survival” skills to flourish beyond the walls of our school. How we approached that five years ago versus today is of course much different, as nearly all students now have daily access to 1:1 technology, we have expanded student access to our IB and science research programs, we continue to offer new elective options both within our school and virtually, and we continue to push beyond our comfort zones to try new instructional approaches based on the respective needs of our students. It’s a pretty special place, and the question of whether I think our school is “great” is an easy one for me to answer.

So what’s it take to be a great school? I certainly think the teachers at DFHS hit the nail on the head two years ago with their ideas. After thinking some more and seeing a “great” school in action each day, I’ve come up with a few others…

1) Never Settling on “Great”: While it’s important every once in awhile for school communities  to “smell the roses” and celebrate their accomplishments, it’s equally important to engage regularly in self-assessment exercises from an organizational perspective to think about what is going well, what isn’t, and what can be done differently. As I said before, DFHS looks very different today than it did five years ago, and it will need to look much different five years from now. If it doesn’t change, and it doesn’t continue to evolve, it will not be long before that “great” school plummets to good, fair, and eventually poor.

2) Leading from the Middle: I asked the DFHS teacher leaders to read The 360 Degree Leader by John Maxwell over the summer and have since shared the text with all of the faculty members at the high school. The concept of leading “down, across, and up” from the middle of an organization is a critical mindset that all teachers need to have. At DFHS, the teacher leaders have been fully empowered to lead their respective departments in a vision building process that will result in a 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year plan. Their goal? To continue to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their departments in order to create a cutting edge program that best supports the needs of all students. My role? To support, guide, and facilitate the process and ultimate change that is needed.

3) A clear and focused vision: We have a very clear district vision in Dobbs Ferry that guides all of the work that we do at the high school. At our opening meeting I focused the teachers’ attention on Wagner’s 21st century “survival” skills with the understanding that it is our job, above all else, to prepare students for success beyond high school. Regardless of the path that our students choose upon graduating, our singular goal must be to help them to develop the necessary skills to problem solve, adapt, and flourish in any experience that they encounter. This “simple” yet incredibly complex mission supersedes all and is the foundation of all work that we do inside of the classroom each and every day.

4) Support for all students: We have lots to be proud of at DFHS. All of our students take at least two IB courses before graduating, our state exam scores are at an all-time high, and virtually all of our students engage in extra-curricular activities that range from athletics to knitting. While we are certainly proud of our “something for everyone” approach and continue to work tirelessly to ensure that all students connect to our school, perhaps what I am proudest of is the success that we have had with both our special education and economically disadvantaged students. Each year our students in these sub-groups continue to perform exceptionally well due to a systematic (and individualized) approach by our extraordinarily talented teachers and support staff. Our school also received a gold star distinction by Newsweek for our work in this area for two consecutive years.

5) Building Management: Not to be understated in any of this is the importance of having leaders who work to ensure that a school runs smoothly on a day-to-day basis. Simply stated, none of the great instructional stuff that is discussed above can happen if the operational side of things is not covered. This includes scheduling, building procedures, security, and student management. For Principals, it’s important to think Maslow and hire a good AP. I’m fortunate to work with the best in @careim2.

Of course, there are many more things that go into making a school “great” and one can probably make a dissertation topic out of this if they wanted. Please feel free to share out some additional ideas using our school’s hashtag, #DFHS2016. I wish all of you the best for a great school year.

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