Learning from Wicked Challenges
How a Wisconsin school system deployed an army of improvers to light the way during a year of volatility
BY PATRICIA F. GRECO/School Administrator, April 2021

Patricia Greco, former superintendent in Menomonee Falls, is working with her former district through Studer Education on several organizational goals. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF MENOMONEE FALLS, WIS.
An “army of improvers” is at work in the School District of Menomonee Falls in Wisconsin, where staff are learning how to increase student engagement, improve parent confidence, keep their people safe and sustain learning outcomes in 45-day cycles of improvement.

These are remarkable lessons to learn during a pandemic. Consider the collective power under normal conditions.

Like educators everywhere, schools in Menomonee Falls stopped and restarted at a frenetic pace 13 months ago. The COVID-19 pandemic threw up barriers in front of every decision maker, rendering familiar routines useless and challenging even experienced leaders to tackle wicked challenges in their complex systems.

Applied Principles

As school buildings closed, leaders scrambled to make sense of what would come next. Corey Golla, superintendent of the 4,000-student Menomonee Falls schools, and his team leaned into their collective abilities. No one would claim it was easy. Everyone was up late and back at it early. They were prepared to learn deeply, design next actions and seamlessly align execution of their plans to keep students learning and everyone safe.

The district leaders applied these seven principles to guide decisions:

»physical health and safety of students;

»physical health and safety of employees;

»social and emotional health of students, ­parents, employees and community;

»sustained student learning;

»district financial and operational stability;

»economic stability of employees; and

»community support.

Golla had experience as a skilled improver. Building the capacity for continuous improvement is a priority engrained in school board policy in Menomonee Falls. Improvement is co-owned from the classroom to the boardroom. Ongoing development and coaching sustain a culture of service among team members and with students and families. Feedback and continuous improvement cycles guide student learning and instructional decisions and remove barriers from system processes.
Casey Blochowiak, director of teaching and learning in Menomonee Falls, Wis., says colleagues had to address their own stress levels to focus on needs of students during the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF MENOMONEE FALLS, WIS.

Shared, sound decision making is the goal at every level with the school district guided by Studer Education’s Nine Principles of Organizational Excellence. The district has been building a systemic backbone for continuous improvement over the last decade.

Deep Listening

When school buildings closed, emotions were raw. Casey Blochowiak, director of teaching and learning in Menomonee Falls, says district leaders consciously navigated their own stress levels to stay centered on the needs of students and staff.

Golla, the superintendent since 2018, indicated he was grateful his team was skilled in continuous improvement processes. The district formed improvement teams within the first week of the closures. Staff were able to respond quickly as a coordinated team, scaffold communication and execute seamlessly. The service mindset was on display.

The team accelerated two-way communication. The feedback cycles that were valued within their regular routines now became essential. Pulse-check surveys were used to seek targeted input from students, family members and staff more frequently, first at 30 days and then 90 days. Golla shifted from monthly to weekly leader rounding with his principals, and his opening question changed to “How does it feel to live in your school today?” Principals identified themes from their weekly leader rounds with staff and created a common rubric to prioritize challenges and next actions. Leaders took care to celebrate what was working and personally recognize staff efforts.

Standing weekly meetings shifted to tighter leadership huddles. Decision making was pressured and time was precious. Leaders identified the measures that mattered most to monitor student progress and ensure safety. These led to the creation of a daily dashboard.

Golla monitored the district and building COVID-19 case counts, numbers in quarantine, substitute fill rates for teachers and assistants, and any evidence of internal transmission. Principals reviewed daily attendance and student learning progression.

The facilities team monitored safety and cleaning protocols. The technology team monitored access and needed resources. The finance team monitored staffing resources and funding guidelines.

Leaders across the district stayed tight to their guiding principles and decision rules. They reviewed what was working and current challenges, predicted the impact of proposed changes and targeted next actions to remove barriers for students, parents and staff.

Scaffolding communication was important. Leaders prioritized sharing smaller amounts of information more frequently. Golla hosted frequent town hall meetings. The key messages within his weekly Superintendent Updates were scaffolded to the principals’ and teachers’ key messages in Sunday night updates to every family and student. Everyone knew when and where ongoing information would be distributed.

Top: From left, Patricia Greco, senior director of thought leadership at Studer Education, meets with Keith Brightman (center), director of finance and operations in Menomonee Falls, Wis., and Corey Golla, superintendent in Menomonee Falls. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF MENOMONEE FALLS, WIS.
A Shared Focus

The youngest learners, in prekindergarten through 2nd grade, demonstrated the most significant learning loss during the fully virtual spring. Learning loss was not as significant for the older students.

The district prioritized access to face-to-face instruction, five days a week, for the youngest students starting in the fall. Protocols and procedures for movement throughout the school, social distancing on the playground and the rules for mask use and quarantine were tightly executed. All were on board with maintaining student access to learning and their roles in safeguarding safety.

Instruction for older students was designed for hybrid and virtual options. The opportunity to attend fully virtual also was given to students and parents. Principals and improvement specialists continued to meet on Wednesday afternoons with teachers across departments and grade-level teams.

Principal Tina Posnanski at Valley View Elementary School and Sue Lee, an improvement specialist, pointed to the importance of designing intentional supports for teachers new to a grade level. They accelerated the support to help each newcomer understand the priority learning standards, common assessments and check points, and important grade-level milestones. Weekly team meetings focused ongoing team support and shared problem-solving specifics to virtual instruction.

Examples of Teacher & Student Improvements

The Challenge The Change Idea

Sustaining student engagement in small-group virtual instruction.

Students are paired with one student in face-to-face instruction connected to a student working at home. Tools such as Google Chat, Seesaw and PDF Extension were used to help students stay engaged in learning.

Quality learning when a substitute teacher is needed for virtual instruction.

The tight collaboration across schools and grade-level teams allows teams to record lessons and provide additional small-group support for students. Educational assistants were assigned to support students in virtual learning huddles.

Sustaining support for struggling students.

Student huddles are held with intervention specialists to provide wraparound support. Literacy specialists are strategically assigned. Small teams monitor student performance and engagement. Educational assistants join classroom instruction.

Teachers’ Problem Solving

Menomonee Falls teachers are trained in the Plan-Do-Study-Act continuous improvement process. Their team meetings each Wednesday afternoon focus on co-planning and problem-solving. Teachers reflect on student progress as a team to assess what is working and where students are struggling.

Team norms give teachers space to share ideas openly. Meetings start with the Plus/Delta process to seek input and share ideas on what’s working. They share insights on learning barriers when discussing what needs to be changed.
These teams assess students’ learning progress. Classroom measures of progress are prioritized for individual support and specific intervention. Prioritized improvement ideas are tested to determine if they result in improvement. Examples of teacher and student improvements appear above.

Virtual Lessons

Sumeera Mansukhani, a 4th-grade teacher who serves 33 students in fully virtual instruction, has been amazed at what students have achieved. She also has built effective strategies to connect to parents.

Mansukhani starts each day with a full classroom meeting. The instructional day flows from whole group to small group to individual instruction. Students use the Plan-Do-Study-Act process to monitor their individual goals and assess their learning progress.

Students save their learning reflections in their digital learning journals for conferring sessions with Mansukhani and reflection with their parents.

Weekly plans are shared with students and parents each Sunday night. Parents receive content slides the night before the lesson. Class meetings are held at the end of each unit of instruction. Students use the Plus/Delta process to reflect and give Mansukhani input on the teaching strategies that best support their learning. She uses student input to design instruction for the next unit.

Students led the parent conferences last fall. They shared their goals, reflected on their progress and reviewed the strategies that mattered most to their learning. Each student shared her or his plan for next actions, how parents might help at home and the additional support needed from Mansukhani. Students are reflective and engaged, and they guide future instructional planning.

Skilled Improvers

NWEA predicted the pandemic over the past 12 months is contributing to a 30 percent learning loss in reading and 50 percent loss in math learning across the nation. In Menomonee Falls, Golla confidently says students are performing at the same rate as a typical year. The district’s skilled army of improvers has worked effectively as a team to light a pathway during the harshest conditions.

As education leaders, we cannot refer to ourselves as improvers unless the impact of our daily work removes barriers, resolves problems and improves outcomes for those we serve. It is time for us to solve the most challenging and systemic issues we face.

PATRICIA GRECO, retired superintendent in Menomonee Falls, Wis., is senior director of thought leadership with Studer Education.  Twitter: @greco_pat