The Transformational Leadership Initiative has partnered with two Saint Louis Public elementary schools, Ashland and Meramec, to challenge traditional educational models of top-down leadership.
More common in schools serving low-income and minority communities, these long-standing models enforce rigid, test-focused leadership which makes them less able to cope with day-to-day stressors and pushes educators away from centering students and coworkers.
TLI views school improvement as a cultural phenomenon. This approach is based on a belief that transforming relationships in organizations – and the social processes people use to create culture and meaning – is key to improving them. This human-centered approach has been shown to support lasting change and is counterintuitively linked to increases in student test achievement.
Both Ashland and Meramec are SLPS Consortium Partnership Network schools. The CPN model allows schools the autonomy to make decisions with the singular mission of creating better outcomes for students.
Recently, the ISP spoke with the executive director of the CPN schools, as well as four members of the teams doing this transformative work.
Jay Hartman: TLI is a good fit for us
Partnering with TLI was an easy decision for Jay Hartman, executive director of the CPN schools. He says the ethos of the CPN, which focuses on supporting schools, ensuring local control and teacher voice, aligned perfectly with the work of TLI.
“We have the freedom and flexibility to do some creative things and that is why TLI is a good fit for us,” he says.
In particular, he points to the TLI model around human-centered transformation, flattening the hierarchy at a school, and empowering teachers to design their way out of the systemic challenges they see.
Before partnering with TLI, Ashland and Meramec had peer-elected teacher leadership teams in place. He says working with TLI gave the teams formal development and leadership opportunities that enriched their capacity to learn together and execute their visions.
Hartman says through the TLI process, the teams have deconstructed and reconstructed the mission and vision of the schools, creating a true plan and vision for instruction and culture at each campus and unique to each campus, and along the way empowering all of the leaders to take ownership of that process.
Further, he says the most important part of TLI training has been the ability for teachers, principals, and staff to learn together in the same (virtual) room. He says the way learning is happening increases the accountability for everybody involved.
“Often what we see in education is that somebody will go to a workshop and get excited about it and bring it back and it dies. So far, the most important thing about the learning process for us is that leadership is learning together, learning publicly, and making commitments to each other and their schools,” he says.
Hartman also commends TLI’s willingness to adapt to the needs of his schools and being purposeful in selecting staff, consultants, and leadership coaches to better reflect the schools and its students, who are predominantly African American.
“That’s a type of personalization and responsiveness that you don’t necessarily get from most groups that are looking to partner and work with schools,” Hartman says.
Santana Barnes: This is the first organization I feel gets it
Santana Barnes, associate building substitute at Ashland Elementary, is a self-described tough critic, but he is impressed with the work of TLI.
“I’ve been in several Title 1 school districts and this is the first organization that I feel gets it.” he says, adding “finally some people from the outside are figuring it out. Because of the environment I grew up in, I tend to hide my intelligence … but I am always paying attention to systems, and what TLI is doing and their approach is amazing. TLI is a good thing and I just want the people with TLI to know that.”
He says working with TLI has helped him put terminology to what he does naturally and to the roles he assumes as he climbs in education. For example, when he heard the word pedagogy he realized that this described the work he had been doing all his life.
In growing his leadership skills, he finds the breakout rooms to be invaluable to his success thus far. He says it’s powerful to hear different staff perspectives, and have time to connect, communicate and learn together.
“All of the information we hear is precise, acute, on point, and rich,” he says.“Getting different perspectives with an open ear provides the most growth.”
He also has high praise for the hacks – techniques for improving school systems by looking outside the status quo.
“I love them,” he says. “They are disruptive and I like disruptive.”
Barnes is adamant that Ashland is not just redressing the same approach. That the work they are doing will result in lasting change and spread to teachers and staff.
“We are not just doing this for the time being and going back to the routine. We have planted the proper roots to redefine the culture at Ashland. We are shaking off the old and dressing ourselves with the new,” Barnes says.
Erika Ellis: It’s deep and it can be a little uncomfortable, but it is rewarding
For Erika Ellis, a kindergarten teacher at Meramec Elementary, being selected to participate in the leadership team was an honor. She was excited for the opportunity to think big and dive deep.
She has found the human-centered model the most valuable part of the leadership training.
“Understanding the human perspective is more important than ever. It’s a new way of looking at leadership and change. The questions I’ve had to ask, and the thinking that I’ve had to do, has been centered more on me personally and then going out from there,” Ellis says.
TLI has grown and changed her mindset, making Ellis see herself as either part of the solution or part of the problem. It has put her in a dynamic position where she can see that it’s possible to affect change.
She describes the leadership training as “putting a mirror up in front of you.” The results have required her to reflect on interactions with people and her work.
“It’s deep and it can be a little uncomfortable, but it is rewarding,” she says.
Because of TLI, Ellis has been involved in an action research project that she says is a direct result of her involvement with the initiative. The project looks at growth mindset and how that affects the identity of students as readers.
“It has put me in the driver’s position of looking at data, making decisions based on that and being the designer of what is going on in my classroom. As an educator, it’s easy to go with the flow of what’s being told and mandated, but that action research project has changed the way I see my role as a teacher in the classroom,” Ellis says.
Ellis says the TLI process has made her more purpose-driven as an educator. She says it reminds her why she started teaching in the first place, and where she wants to end. For Ellis, it has made her question career goals.
“I went into this saying, ‘I will never be in administration,’ to now, I have started the process of the principal certification because my whole outlook on the change issue has evolved,” Ellis says.
Paula Boddie: It was already planned, already has a purpose, already laid out
Five minutes away from Ashland Elementary School is the high school where its principal Dr. Paula Boddie graduated. She knows very well the community of students that she serves, and believes that location is not a barrier to success. She has worked diligently to further the school’s growth and develop it into a “hub” for the community. A hub that supports students and families, while offering a world-class education. Boddie is partnering with TLI to build on this momentum. She’s grateful that TLI is helping her grow as a leader.
“There were some other things that I personally needed to grow and to develop and to learn and I heard about the opportunity TLI was presenting … I felt that it would be a good fit because it differed from having an executive coach or taking more university course work. It was already planned, already has a purpose, already laid out, and it helped to bring a human impact or human lens to the academic arena, which I think is so desperately needed, particularly in the hour that we live in,” Boddie says.
She says one of the ways TLI has grown her leadership is by allowing her to sit among great leaders.
“It is an opportunity that is strongly needed, but very limited in opportunities to access.”
She notes that TLI provides access to three former superintendents. She has their phone numbers and has reached out to them to problem solve. She is grateful for the network that comes with TLI.
One example of a problem that a retired Normandy superintendent helped with involved meetings. Boddie says a simple suggestion by him transformed her meeting style. He suggested she not spearhead every meeting, but share the responsibility with her team. While a simple suggestion, it was a brand new idea to her.
As a top-down organization, changing the model has been tricky, but TLI has helped Boddie understand the importance of struggling and failing.
“Nobody has ever, in years and years and years, said it’s OK to fail, because failure is part of the process. It has created a lighting bolt,” she says.
Boddie says her work in developing Ashland into a hub aligns perfectly with the TLI concept of empathy.
“It was neat to see that all the things that I had thought for years and years, and began to implement and roll-out, like there was already something set up that speaks to these sorts of things that helps me create breadth and depth to what I was thinking and how I feel and what I believe, particularly as a former student of St. Louis Public Schools, ” she says. “These children have to understand the historical value of this community. This is not what people say. This is what we make it, and we have the power daily to influence and to color what this community looks like and what its products look like and what they become.”
She says TLI has helped her with this approach to nurturing all areas of her students’ development.
“TLI is helping me gain a better understanding of how the brain works, how children are responding under traumatic circumstances, so creating a stronger lens of empathy within the school, helping teachers to understand what it means to not talk empathy, but to be empathetic and to show it to children,” Boddie says.
Looking ahead, Boddie hopes the work with TLI permeates through the system and isn’t seen as just leader work, but the work of educators. She wants every educator to become a leader, whether they lead in the classroom, building level, or district level.
Jonathan Strong: Building a sense of community
Jonathan Strong, Meramec Elementary School principal, says TLI is giving them the avenue to redefine and figure out what is their mission, vision, and compelling purpose. In particular, he credits the morning meetings, empathy hacks and Place Based Learning with helping them build a sense of community.
Being relatively young in a leadership role, he appreciates TLI’s wealth of knowledge and experience and ability to align himself with outstanding local education leaders.
“Having that power team of heavy hitters who’ve done the work has been invaluable. Stuff pops up and they are like that’s not new,” Strong says.
After laying the foundation of understanding and purpose he says now they are seeing how the work plays out in the school, which he describes as starting that climax to the curve.
“You see some people diving into it and understanding it, and you see some people who are starting to push back, vent, and complain,” which Strong says is the natural part of ebb and flow. “Regardless of whether they are pushing back or venting and complaining or they are diving into it, they are aware and they understand that change is coming.”
Strong says staff in the district have limited exposure – many only know SLPS – TLI has exposed them to what is out there and to the different ways to impact student learning and that has been very valuable.
Moving forward, he hopes we can take the work we are doing with Meramec and Ashland and build a scalable model that can spread throughout SLPS.
TLI leaders believe the work at these two schools serves as a powerful model of transformation. They are demonstrating what is possible when leaders have the opportunity to disrupt the current reality and create a school that serves their community.
Media Contact: Myra Lopez