Business / Economy

COMMENTARY: The Will to Lead: Creating Healthy School Cultures

“Schools tend to focus heavily on technical changes and spend little time on cultural change. Deep change cannot be accomplished without cultural change.”

On March 26 at a San Benito County “trustee and CEO mixer” held at San Juan Oaks, those assembled—with a standing ovation—signaled their intuitive understanding of the message: We must challenge ourselves to avoid the trap of working solely on the “technical” side of education (e.g., curriculum, compliance) and move forcefully to foster challenging school cultures where students feel respected, valued, and supported.

In the event, organized by the San Benito County Office of Education, keynote speaker Dr. Anthony Muhammad fired up our will to change school cultures in San Benito County. Appealing to both our logic and hearts, Dr. Muhammad recounted stories of education leaders who disrupted patterns of failure, turning them—by force of will—into patterns of student success. Such a culture shift can begin with setting high standards for all students, not just for those whose early socialization makes them a good fit for the status quo. This is a first and major step but not enough, according to Dr. Muhammad.

While a school may offer a comforting, supportive culture, it can leave students without the challenge required to build career and college resilience. Dr. Muhammad in Transforming School Culture (2009) urges school leaders to set the tone for change by breaking down institutional barriers that get in the way of success, for example, grading and discipline policies applied unfairly. Next is to validate and affirm all students, building on their strengths while engaging them in rigorous learning activities.

It seems San Benito County is not far off the mark.

At my table, board trustees and staff at Cienega School agreed they were already “there,” referring to Cienega’s successful individualized instruction, kinder through eighth grade. Cienega has fewer than 40 students, but "What about San Benito High, with 2,800 students?" you might ask.

In a conversation after the event, San Benito High School District superintendent John Perales confirmed that district trustees have approved a shift to what is called “a-g default,” or a college prep graduation requirement for all. The shorthand of “a through g” refers to the types of courses that can lead to eligibility for the state’s four-year colleges and universities as well as readiness to begin (without remediation) two-year programs in high-wage fields like machine tool technology. When other districts, like San Jose Unified, made a similar move, there was concern students would fall out of the program or lose opportunities for career or hands-on experiences such as auto shop. Their fears were not realized. Along with the belief that students can perform at high levels, a major change statewide helps high schools avoid the either-or choice.

Some years ago, the University of California launched a course-approval option called Career Technical Education (CTE) that encourages high school faculties to develop courses integrating academic subjects like physics with hands-on courses like auto tech. The A-G Guide reads, “In the past decade, UC has approved CTE courses in all seven ‘a-g’ subject areas and has increased the number of University of California-approved CTE courses from 258 to over 12,000." This move significantly increases opportunities for more students to be college and career ready.

In a similar way, UC has formalized authorization for high quality online courses, once again increasing options for all students. At least two other statewide initiatives are moving along steadily; both increase student options and increase chances of success, broadly “defined” as graduation, career readiness, and/or college admission. Already in effect is Assembly Bill 86, a major overhaul of adult education that aligns high schools, adult education, and community colleges.

San Benito County is actively engaged in the planning stage of this barrier-breaking movement, thus ensuring adult students can connect with career and college preparation by mastering language and computational competencies. As a result, educators will have improved remedies to offer students who leave high school before graduation or who get set off track in their career plans at any age. You will find more information here. Yet another innovation broadens the range of options for students. Recent California legislation encourages the expansion of early college programs in partnership with community colleges and the California State University and University of California campuses.

Since its first year, San Benito County high school students have participated in the Gilroy Early College Academy (GECA) which operates at Gavilan College in Gilroy. One of 23 in California, GECA engages students in both high school and community college coursework, in some cases allowing students to complete an associate of arts degree and/or transfer package by their high school graduation date. Theoretically, a GECA student can leave high school with enough units to finish a four-year college major in two more years. Proponents cite the benefit of challenging students with high expectations while simultaneously reducing the cost of a four-year degree.

Dr. Muhammad, with humor and the passion of a true believer, reassured trustees and senior leaders that the courage to exert our will to convert toxic school cultures into healthy cultures would be rewarded many fold. He reaffirmed the role of leaders who “… do not stop at criticizing current behavior. Rather, they use their resources and influence to help people improve” (event handout “The Will to Lead: Creating Healthy School Cultures”). In his words, this is a “call to arms.”

While there is good work going on in San Benito County, local and state changes underway promise more options for student success. High expectations with graduation requirements aligned to college and career readiness; high quality online courses; and early college experience all advance our practice as educational leaders and, by extension, student success.

*Also contributing to the event were ACSA SBC Education Leaders, Aromas-San Juan School District, Hollister School District, North County Joint Union School District, and San Benito High School District. **Every public high school must seek approval for college prep courses from the Academic Senate of the University of California. To view approved courses for all California schools, click here.

Lois Locci

A Hollisterian since 1999 (and a Silicon Valley escapee), Dr. Locci taught English and Intercultural Communication at De Anza College in Cupertino for years before adding a second career as chair of the education department of UC Extension, providing professional development for teachers K-14 in four counties and three countries. Also at UC, Dr. Locci led the development of Advanced Placement® and honors courses for the University of California College Prep Online until retiring in 2012. She served a four-year term as Trustee for Gavilan Joint Community College District and currently serves on the board of BenitoLink.