|Ryan Carpenter, superintendent in Estacada, Ore., celebrates with students preparing for their graduation ceremony. PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN CARPENTER
Last September, one of the largest wildfires in Oregon’s history scorched and ravaged 138,000 acres and came within a mile of our schools and downtown Estacada. The catastrophe wreaked havoc across most of the school district’s 750-square mile footprint.
District employees and all 1,800 students’ families were displaced from their homes due to evacuation and, in some cases, houses and businesses were destroyed by the flames. Simultaneously, families and educators were mitigating the coronavirus pandemic through stringent state guidelines and safety requirements, which already were stressing the school system.
One threat was clearly visible. The other, being invisible, was just as threatening.
These challenges were complex. What prevented a breakdown of Estacada’s school system were the robust processes and routines we had developed that strengthened our organizational resilience.
We recognized from our training that resilient organizations lead with empathy, align their focus and reliably execute toward an outcome. Facing both the COVID-19 threat and what was labelled the Riverside Fire, the organization had to make quick decisions, become agile, make bold adjustments, monitor actions and follow a process to cascade clear communication throughout the system.
One critical challenge Estacada faced was shifting guidance from states and public agencies facing the unknowns of the pandemic. To stabilize our system and minimize any anxiety and confusion, Estacada made two-way communication a priority. By using two key leader practices, daily leader huddles and leader rounding, we were able to stay focused on our priorities for safety and quality learning.
One of the most consistent and reliable practices I used as superintendent in our district was the Daily Leader Huddle. When we were forced to operate remotely, I needed to find a way to maintain a connection, owing to anxiety caused by uncertainty and the rapidly changing conditions. We needed a forum for decision making and sharing information.
I adopted a highly structured agenda that divided time into important categories across 30-minute connections. The huddle, involving 19 senior administrators in the district, was not designed to solve the emerging challenges but rather to make short, daily connections, celebrate quick wins and identify where people felt stuck. Each huddle closed by focusing on one or two things people could do during the next 24 hours.
These daily meetings helped leaders rally around a goal and validated any incremental change that led to a win, turning anxiety in-to positive energy that propelled the district forward despite the uncertainties. The reliability of committing to these huddles and the consistency of holding them daily built important trust with the district leaders. The timely communication across the system created trust with the staff.
We credit these daily sessions to Estacada scoring its highest employee engagement mark on the Studer Employee Engagement survey. The survey measures employees’ perceptions about the workplace. In spring 2020, Estacada increased its employee engagement mean by .19 points on a scale of 1-5 and improved its overall mean to 4.40.
Daily Leader Huddle Template
The rapid response from these daily huddles also made a real impact on the community. Within 10 days of the initial shutdown, Estacada was able to reach all children and families who were food insecure using bus drivers to deliver meals across the wide district footprint. The transportation and food service collaboration was one solution that resulted from these administrative huddles. We became a model for school districts elsewhere when Time
magazine gave us national attention for engaging our district transportation for meal delivery during the first month of pandemic-related closures.
We made the daily huddle a habit and developed a reliable process for extending our capacity to respond to disruption. Huddles increased our agility and resiliency for tackling the Riverside Fire displacement in mid-September. The fire was officially contained in early December.
|Daily Leader Huddles: Agenda Template
| Daily Huddle Agenda
»Greetings/Welcome/Roll Call (One minute)
•Select one person to contribute (One minute)
•Communicate something recognized from rounding (more to come on this today) (One minute)
»Announcements (2 minutes)
»Discussion on Actions for the Day (purpose is not to solve problems) – determine people to report out (usually team leaders) (10 minutes)
•What’s up in the next 24 hours? (15 seconds per team lead and only relate to key activities, meetings, decisions)
•How are we doing on daily metrics? (30 seconds per team lead talking about daily metrics)
•Where are you stuck? (90 seconds per team lead talking about concerns that would keep the team from having a great 24 hours)
During our leadership meetings, I realized the importance of developing feedback loops. These personal connections helped us to recognize both bright spots and blind spots.
Leader rounding was another process we chose to ensure we heard all voices before making decisions. In Estacada, we had been routinely using leader rounding on outcomes for about six months. We had gathered feedback around improvements that were identified through our employee engagement survey. We found it validating and helpful to ensure that our strategies were achieving the desired results and that employees saw positive changes.
Rounding on an outcome is an intentional process that asks four primary questions to gather information from stakeholders throughout the school district:
What is working well?
Is there anything I can do to help you perform your best?
Do you have what you need to do your job?
Is there anyone you would like to recognize who has been especially helpful to you?
Hardwiring rounding into leader behaviors, we now had another process for gathering feedback as shifts occurred. Capturing our employees voice and making personal connections during a time when staff felt isolated enabled us to check in during each new challenge (the coronavirus quarantine, the re-entry process and the fire evacuation).
Our district used leader rounding feedback to identify themes around areas of improvement. One evident theme was the need to improve special education students’ access to the general education classroom. Rounding also confirmed that instructional assistants needed support for specific skill development as they worked collaboratively with general education teachers to meet student needs.
A staff committee representing all classifications convened to design an improvement project to better understand and eliminate the barriers around inclusive practices. A necessary system improvement designed by the committee to support the instructional assistants resulted in “boot camp” training. The training provided paraeducators with toolkits and instructional practices that proved effective in supporting our most vulnerable student population. Estacada increased the percentage of students with an IEP in a general education classroom by 12 percent during 2019-20.
|Ryan Carpenter (center rear), superintendent in Estacada, Ore., used a structured agenda during his Daily Leader Huddle over a lengthy stretch when school buildings were closed.
PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN CARPENTER
By last fall, COVID-19 fatigue, coupled with a large wildfire that left our community exhausted, a different type of challenge emerged. The conditions created shifts in workplace perceptions among Estacada’s employees, and our district now was facing fractures internally and externally around re-entry preferences. Our community favored phasing in our students’ return to school, especially since many families had been displaced by the fire, while school employees sought assurances regarding health and safety.
Through rounding, we identified stakeholders’ concerns and created a targeted communication plan. I then could work with the school board, the community and employees to assure them that whatever re-entry approach we settled on, students would receive a high-quality education and the safety of everyone would be our highest priority.
Not Losing Sight
An important facet of Estacada’s organizational resiliency also came from not losing sight of the strategic priorities that had been laid out in a 2018 strategic plan, Envision 2030. Many might wonder how any district undergoing the unpredictability of the pandemic could maintain its focus on offering high-quality learning opportunities for students. By creating robust processes that placed the stress on the system, not its people, we were able to keep moving forward, achieving desired results and living out our mission.
Daily Leader Huddles and rounding enabled the district to identify wins and recognize individuals who were demonstrating the district’s values in their work. Senior administrators were able to develop an emotional bank account of trust and become our most helpful asset as the disruption waged on with no end in sight. Ensuring that people came first and leading with their core values, the district made key decisions that prepared leaders for the emotional consequences of change.
The intentional focus to collect employee voice led to improved outcomes. The effective focus on employee engagement led to the school district’s recognition as a Top Workplace 2020 from the Oregonian, the state’s largest news media outlet. This award highlighted employee satisfaction within the school organization. Estacada was the first public K-12 school district to receive this honor in more than 13 years.
This shared ownership and collective commitment helped Estacada’s leadership team feel a sweeter kind of success — one that comes from remaining deeply committed to living out the mission, vision, values and goals of the school district, despite the disruptions we experienced.
is superintendent of Estacada School District in Estacada, Ore. He acknowledges the help of Studer Education leader coach Kathleen Oropallo in preparing this article.