Out of the Box

The topic for this week with the #CompelledTribe is to write about pushing boundaries. I am choosing to post about a project our district initiated in Fall, 1993.  At that time, I was the Superintendent of the Center, Colorado school district.  Center is located, appropriately, in the center of the San Luis Valley of south central Colorado. The local economy is totally agriculturally based.  In 1993, our demographics included a free/reduced lunch rate of 95%. As part of a consent decree from a lawsuit, every student new to the district had to complete a home language assessment. Review of results indicated that approximately 15% of new students in a given year did not speak any language fluently enough to consider it a home language.  Needless to say, we enjoyed some significant opportunities to make a difference.

Using accreditation guidelines in place at that time, the district was not performing at a high level. We had tried many of the “traditional” fixes with limited success. It was time for something more significant. We were approached by an organization called the Center for the New West to partner with them on what we called the Student Centered School Project. Two years later, our district was the highest performing district in Colorado based on the same guidelines, when compared to similar districts. The rest is history.

What follows is taken primarily from a proposal document created in October, 1993, and an unpublished paper I was asked to write by colleague Superintendents in Colorado along the subject of “What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports Were You Thinking When You Dreamed This Up.”  It came to be known as the Rules for the Revolutionaries. Based on our work, the district was invited to join 25 other districts from around the United States to form the Virtual High School Global Consortium in 1994. http://thevhscollaborative.org/ The consortium shared a 5 year grant from the US Department of Education to create a national consortium of schools that expands members’ curricular offerings through a wide range of innovative network-based courses that support reform. After a couple of years of inventing stuff we now take for granted in online classes, the consortium went live to the world in 1996 with the creation of the virtual school model now used by all state level virtual programs. While the concept may not sound too exciting today, it was pretty new, exciting and different in 1993. It was kind of fun to be in a district in rural Colorado and find the district profiled  in the New York Times, USA Today, The Educational Forum of Kappa Delta Pi, and Wired. The bureaucracy wasn’t really ready for it.

We considered the Project to be somewhat revolutionary.  The revolution was all about innovation and creating systems and processes that did not exist at the time, not just tweaking what was already there. So here is a summary of the Project, and lessons learned. For what it’s worth…

“The Student Centered School is designed to “break the mold” in education by:  (1) Demonstrating that students can learn best when self-directed and given access to multi-media information and learning tools; (2)  Allowing parents to enroll their children in a learning program without geographic boundaries, and organized to best fit their child’s learning style, interests, and ability to be a produces of their own, and other children’s learning materials; (3)  Showing that teachers can be re-trained to be multi-discipline, multi-age level learning coaches certified as such through our alternative certification program.”  Our Board of Education had passed a Resolution of Support stating in part that we would “shift the Structure from student as a recipient of education – to student as self-directed, independent, lifelong learner; from student as the consumer of educational materials – to student as producer of educational materials; from student as recipient of teaching services – to student as provider of teaching services; from the student as a customer of school services – to student as the owner of the educational system and facilities while in attendance.”

Dealing with the Bureaucracy

  1. Have the support of your staff and community, but understanding that if you wait until “everybody is on board,” it will never happen.  There is a reason why some are called Early Adopters and others are called Later Adapters. As we moved up the regulatory chain from community to the state Department of Education, state Board of Education and state Legislature, asking questions they were not prepared to answer, it was nice to have the local support as part of our network.
  2. Ask forgiveness, not permission.  When bureaucracy and policies get in the way, do the right thing and ask permission later.
  3. Placate the people you can’t avoid and avoid the people you can’t placate. We were fortunate to have a champion for our program working for the Colorado Department of Education.  He was a tremendous asset in navigating the politics of the  bureaucracy.
  4. Implement before anyone changes their mind, or you get caught. The best path is to do what’s right before anyone catches you.  Often, you don’t need to  ignore or avoid people, just take their instructions and implement them before they expected you to.
  5. Do what is right for the customer and everything else will fall into place. Most districts concentrate on test scores and dropout rates, not the customer.  That’s shooting at the scoreboard and not the rim. If you concentrate on meeting the needs of the customer, the test scores will follow.
  6. Go with your gut. Weigh the risks, but don’t be afraid to take a shot. In most cases, you won’t have all the information you need, and the target is moving, anyway. A wrong answer at least provides data and helps you make better decisions in the future.  Waiting, or doing nothing at all, provides nothing.
  7. Burn, don’t bleed to death. Doing the right thing and doing things right does not guarantee survival.  The rules of the revolution say to make your best effort, put everything on the line, and swing for the fence.  Even when you fail, you will do it with a sense of style and the knowledge that you gave it your best.
  8. As a leader, have a strong sense of security.  There will be a long list of people who will try to grind you down. Machiavelli was spot on when he said, “There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system.  For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system and merely lukewarm defenders who would gain by the new one.”
  9. Build your network. Realize that you are not walking down the path of discovery alone.  Find the others who can both support you, both personally and professionally.  We partnered with some very brilliant people, both with the Center for the New West initially, and later with the other districts in the Consortium.

My undergraduate background was in music, I still consider myself a recovering trumpet player. During one of the sleepless nights I caused myself, I watched an old musical, “The Man of LaMancha.” In it, Don Quixote gave a speech called “Life As It Is.” I paraphrased it:

“I’ve worked in education for nearly 40 years, and I’ve seen Life As It Is. Pain, misery, cruelty beyond belief. I’ve heard the voices of God’s noblest creatures, His children. I’ve been a student, teacher and administrator. I’ve seen colleagues at each level drop out, walk away, or die more slowly by putting in their time. I’ve held them as they left. These were people who saw Life As It Is. They left despairingly, no commencement speeches, no retirement farewells. Only their eyes filled with confusion, questioning why. I do not think they were asking why they were leaving, but why they had ever come in the first place. What we do at times seems lunatic. But who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams, this may be madness. To seek treasure where there has only been poverty may be madness. To nurture hope where there has only been despair and resignation may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness. But maddest of all is to accept life as it is, and not as it should be.”

I hope I have one more fight left in me before I leave my keys behind and call it a career. Looking for another playground, and some new people to play with.

And so it goes…


5 thoughts on “Out of the Box

  1. Gary,

    Once again I am inspired by your reflections! What a courageous and innovative project you and your district undertook! Student centered, no boundary restrictions, connecting with families…sounds like what we talk about all the time, but often fail to do! Thanks for living the example and being on the front line! I think about the “Life as it should be” speech often as it pertains to education. I love what is revolutionary at one time can become the norm in the future. Keep at it!!



  2. Gary,

    I am connecting with this post in so many ways. I actually reached out to you because Craig challenged us via Voxer to reach out to someone we haven’t heard from in a while. I checked my list for the #compelledtribe, fueled by Wennstrom and clicked on your name! Low and behold – your post is amazing in so many ways. I’d love to vox you but didn’t see you on the Voxer list. I just followed you on Twitter. If you follow me back we can direct message.

    Your courageous leadership is inspiring to so many educators. I admire your strength, commitment and passion. It is infectious!

    I needed to read you post tonight…in more ways than one. I think it was meant to be that I clicked your name. Please get in touch if you can….besides, I’m a saxophone player! Lol!

    Thanks again – amazing post!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the kind words. Very fortunate to be able to work in a very supportive community, a Board of Education which provided both vision and leadership, and a staff that was second to none. A group of revolutionaries who were professional in every sense, and walked the talk about doing what was best for kids every day. We learned to laugh at comfort zones, found a lot of confidence in ourselves, and passed it along to our students.


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