Systems have a profound influence and systems can change

By Devin Vodicka

An excerpt from Learner-Centered Leadership

“You have to come see this!”

It was late July during the first month of my time as superintendent. The call was from Catina Hancock. She had just been named the interim principal at Vista Academy of Visual and Performing Arts after the previous principal unexpectedly resigned. I had already hired several new principals, and I knew that the pool of candidates was almost nonexistent at this time of the year. In a stroke of good luck, I was able to convince Catina to serve as an interim. I had worked with her extensively in Carlsbad, where she had been a successful principal before making a career adjustment to open a gym with her husband. I am not sure that any other new principal’s first call would have been to the superintendent, but I was glad that she made it. Her call triggered a quick visit to the school, and we walked the campus together.

The school facility was in a shocking state of disarray. There was graffiti. There were broken windows. Plumbing that didn’t work. Piles of random things all over the place. Half of an old piano sitting in the outside hallway. Electrical problems with the lighting. Weeds that were waist high. One of the walls in a kindergarten room had literally melted from a plumbing leak. It didn’t help that it was the oldest campus in the district, with buildings from the 1950s. It looked like the school had been occupied and then abandoned. The students’ first day was about two weeks away, and the campus needed a lot of attention.

Principal Catina Hancock and Assistant Principal Nicole Hendricks were in good spirits in spite of a facility that needed urgent attention (2012)

Catina’s call and my visit triggered a series of immediate interventions that included massive cleaning crews and landscape work. By the time students arrived on campus, it had been cleaned up and beautified as much as possible. These improvements were the beginning of a transformation at the school. Catina ended up staying on as principal, and several years later the school was identified as one of just three schools in California to receive the trifecta of earning a Gold Ribbon Award from the California Department of Education, being identified as a Title I high-achieving school, and also being recognized for its exemplary arts program.

The school was earning awards and accolades just a few years later (2016)

The facility problems that we initially encountered were the result of a breakdown in systems. While not every system’s state will be as obvious as that of a physical campus, their condition will have a profound impact on the effectiveness of an organization. Each of us who works in education has the ability to influence people and systems. As a result, we can all be leaders. I believe that this is what we are called to do. 

Why Systems Break Down

School leaders are typically conditioned to reduce waste. We frequently revisit staffing formulas, school schedules, and budgets, searching for efficiencies. I recall being thrilled one year that I was able to add two minutes of instructional time per day by eliminating an unnecessary transition, which added up to the equivalent of an entire school day over the course of the 180-day school year. These efforts can make a difference, and they reflect a prudent, efficiency-oriented management approach.

Eliminating waste also means decluttering so that performance quality is more visible. In schools, we are generally really good at creating to-do lists and very bad at creating “to-stop” lists. As a result, programs and practices add up over time, often making it difficult to describe or identify the desired essentials. Even more practically, we often accumulate materials and supplies that were deemed to be helpful at some point in the past and, as a result, our classrooms and schools are stuffed with old, likely obsolete items. Closets are overflowing and campuses become covered with portable storage containers. Spending time eliminating this waste so that more attention can be spent on learning is definitely a smart thing for all leaders to do.

In the case of the campus at Vista Academy, the facility maintenance system broke down. I am not exactly sure why that happened, but there was a huge backlog of maintenance tickets in the queue when I arrived as superintendent. It could have been due to a shortage of staffing, a lack of oversight and prioritization of the tickets, a pressing number of other issues that may have been deemed a higher priority, a failure from school site staff to enter tickets into the system, or any number of other factors. In any event, the system needed to be reconsidered to avoid future breakdowns.

Systems have a profound influence on our behavior. Systems were designed by people, and systems can also change. 

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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