Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Flawless First Day of School

I took my children to the first day of school yesterday morning. It was a new school for all of us and our proud and excited kindergartner’s first day of school ever. I have to admit that I felt nervous as did my wife and second grader (the kindergartner was too excited to be nervous). We had moved to a new school and knew very little about what to expect. How did drop off occur? How did the little ones get, physically, to the classroom? Where we allowed to go with them? Where did the newly purchased supplies go? Would our second grader have to carry her own backpack, lunch and huge bag of first-day-stuff? The anxiously anticipated first day of school had arrived.

We live in Arizona where we are allowed to send our children, space available, to any school in the state so long as we are able to provide transportation. We moved our children this year to an out-of-district school and we were all feeling the apprehension that comes with a big move like this.

As I waited in the line with the other second graders and their parents, I was reminded of a dialogue I had had regarding the first day of school. Several years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the importance of the first day of school. We were coming up on the beginning of the school year at the time and he had good cause for concern. He was the new superintendent of a large school district of over 160 schools with a total of about 140,000 students.

Historically, his district’s first day was a chaotic swirl of activities and misadventures as everything that could go wrong did. One of the glaring bits of data he received in his first six months was that parents were almost universal in their feedback regarding the first day of school. It was, to be blunt, bad. Buses ran routes at the wrong time. Schools were not well provisioned with the necessary supplies. Classrooms were not set up in advance of students arriving. A surprising number of staff members would actually call in sick for the first day. Staff and volunteers were not in place at many schools to assist with directions and the questions that accompany the first day of school. Schools were reportedly disorganized and there were more “kinks” to work out that there were things that went well. Or so it seemed.

All of us who work in schools (or work with schools) know that opening a school at the beginning of the year can pose some problems. And most schools work hard to be prepared in advance. But this superintendent, based on both prior experience and feedback he had received about his new district, drove home a program he created that explicitly stressed this need. He called it the Flawless First Day of School.

To hear him talk about it, their entire school year would be based on the results of their first day. He discussed, district-wide, his expectations for the first day at length on many occasions. And he reiterated his expectations over and over again to drive these points home. Buses on-time. Teachers on-time and present. Classrooms prepared ahead of time complete with student names posted on desks. All logistics at each school carefully planned, documented, and communicated to the regional assistant superintendent for approval. The list went on.

In fairness I thought it overkill at the time. His held seemingly unending discussions on the topic; the Flawless First Day required loads of extra work for principals and teachers. He was not satisfied with assurances that activities would run efficiently; he wanted to see written plans. He was still relatively new in his role (he had started in January of the prior year) and felt as though he had unlimited influence. I warned him to invest his goodwill wisely and be careful of using it all on this one subject; he had many initiatives to push and he would need to converse his political capital. He would not be deterred.

The results were, of course, not flawless. But it was the best school year beginning in many years for the district. The school administrators and teachers alike were very pleased. Buses did run the correct routes at the correct times. These routes and times were well communicated. Classrooms were decked out and ready to receive students. Teachers had actual lesson plans ready for the first day and were prepared to jump right into the challenging curriculum. Parent nights had be held prior where they received information about what to expect the first day / week / year. Staff and volunteers were carefully briefed and deployed to help direct students and parents to the appropriate place. Central office staff were, largely, deployed to schools to assist.

The superintendent later explained to my why the first day was so important to him. He had a large organization that, over time, became more focused on the internal workings of their jobs than on students and parents. In a huge cultural shift he needed to get the organization focused on caring for students, focus on their learning, on their experience. He used the first day exercise as an important reminder of two things: 1) students are the most important thing to us and are the reason we are here, and 2) by being intentional we can perform tasks exceedingly well. But we have to be diligent in how we go about executing those tasks.

It was an interesting activity to observe for me at the time and I think benefited him well. The first day of school marked a small but significant turning point in the culture of the schools and in their ideas about what was most important. To be sure, shaping and moving the culture of an organization that large is no small task. But influencing culture in a school district is not about one big task. It is about many small tasks and initiatives. It is about communicating a consistent message and consistent expectations regarding how we teach our students and how we operate our schools. This initiative was one small but important step in that direction.

I thought about this experience as I worked through my morning at my children’s new school. There were adults with orange vests at every turn to help. We ask one of the orange vests where second graders were supposed to go. She told us. Another explained the daily drop off procedure that made more sense with her pointing rather than referring to the map on the website. There were signs posted everywhere.

My kindergartner’s class was well prepared. Parents were welcomed (encouraged) to stay for the entire first day. My daughter’s name was on a desk which she quickly found. The teacher began a well prepared introduction to the class for the kids. As if on queue, she finished and the (new) principal came on the loudspeaker for the days announcements. We all did the pledge of allegiance. And the principal ended her announcement with the simple statement “Welcome again to the first day of school. We have no substitutes in the building.”

Scott Wallace is the Executive Director of the National Center for School Leadership. To learn more about their services and how they can help you improve school leadership and assess school culture, visit their website at http://www.ncfsl.org