The following is an excerpt from Learner-Centered Leadership
At one point in my work at Vista, I had been wrestling with the question of what to do about an underperforming middle school that we were converting into a magnet school. Washington Middle School had for many years been in program improvement status. Student enrollment was shrinking every year as families were increasingly opting to send their children to other sites. The facility was aging and in need of attention. On my first visit to the school, I was told that it was a gang-infested area and that I needed to watch for my safety. Many of the staff members appeared to be exhausted and burned out.
The principal of Washington Middle had left for another district during the first week of school and, near the middle of the year, I hired Eric Chagala, one of the high school assistant principals from within the district, to become the new principal. During his interview for the job, I mentioned that this was a very difficult principalship. It would either be very short and end poorly, or it would be a massive undertaking that would result in significant transformation. This was not an easy job for a first-time principal. Eric’s response: “I could have applied to be principal at other schools, and I have not pursued those options. The fact that this is a difficult one is exactly why I want this job.” I knew in that moment he was the right person for the challenges ahead.
One of his first priorities was to work with his community to identify a theme for the school. We had already engaged a community group to help us identify magnet pathways to build on our existing programs, and we had settled on STEM, the arts, and International Baccalaureate (IB). I believed that the school needed a strong identity to help generate enthusiasm and excitement as we worked to improve the learning experience. I had expected Eric to come back with something like a computer science focus, or to go with a known model like IB. Instead, Eric had worked with the community and brought forward a proposal for a design-thinking school.
This was at the start of 2013. Design thinking was a completely new term for me. Eric described it as the intersection of arts and STEM, and a perfect fit into our magnet pathways. Considering that I had not heard of design thinking, I was skeptical that our community would rally around the concept. Picking the wrong focus would likely be the end of this struggling school. The safe choice was to say no. But saying no also didn’t feel right.
I’m not sure how much I let on that I was not initially enthusiastic about the design-thinking idea. I hope that I portrayed curiosity and interest in learning more. But my initial instinct and rational response was definitely that this was a bad idea. My intuition was also signaling to me that I should not make a quick decision. I gave myself a bit of time to let the idea incubate before I made the call. It was in those sleepless nights that I decided to say yes and to support the recommendation from Eric and his team.
Fast forward a few years and the Vista Innovation and Design Academy (or VIDA, which also means “life” in Spanish) was the fastest improving school in the district. We had gone from a school with declining enrollment to one with wait lists of hundreds of students each year. It was, and continues to be, one of the most frequently visited schools in the region. By every metric, it has been an incredible success and one that was achieved with the same facility and same staff that we had had in the past. The new focus on design thinking, coupled with incredible work by the teachers and staff, catalyzed an unbelievable transformation in the learning experience. And it almost didn’t happen because my initial instinct had been to say no and to make a safer choice with less risk.
When I reflect on why this story has such a positive outcome, the context for these interactions matters. At the end of the day, the reason that I supported the proposal from Eric was that I trusted him. I also think that he felt safe enough to bring an unconventional idea forward because he trusted me. My trust in him was rooted in every one of our interactions, including the interview, where I had the distinct impression that he genuinely wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids and that he cared a great deal for the community. I would like to think that he felt comfortable introducing a new concept because he had seen that we shared similar commitments and that I had been open to other new ideas.
Trust matters. Relationships matter. Learner-centered leaders focus on trust and relationships first to set the conditions for transformation.