My Headship Journey: Moving from Strategic Planning to Collective Action

Editor’s note: Two years ago, Matt Levinson blogged about participating in NAIS’s Institute for New Heads, transitioning into his first headship at University Prep (WA), and kicking off his school’s strategic planning process. In this piece, Matt updates readers on his progress.
It’s one thing to design a strategic plan. It’s a lot more work to implement one as I know from experience.
At University Prep, a 6-12 grade school of 565 students in Seattle, we used a broad-based, inclusive, community-wide process to develop our strategic plan over 13 months. We started in November of my first year as head and approved the final plan in December 2015.
Our strategic plan was fueled by innovation, a hallmark principle since the school was founded in 1976 by seven enterprising public school teachers who set intellectual courage as a core value. 
From the beginning, we knew we needed a model to keep innovation moving at a strong pace while managing the school’s day-to-day operations. That meant we had to run with what Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership John Kotter calls dual operating systems, “the management hierarchy and the network,” in his Harvard Business Review article. The traditional management hierarchy handles the daily demands of leading an organization and ensures that the core business is attended to in a thoughtful and thorough manner. The network, meanwhile, focuses on innovation.

Strategic plan brainstorming in action with the full faculty at University Prep in Seattle. Credit: Mithun Architects 

Stakeholders Empowered

We formed five network structures, or Research and Design teams, around University Prep’s Next Generation Learning Initiative, which seeks to redefine, redesign, and expand our program to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. These networks consist of faculty and staff, are co-led by teachers and staff, and work under the leadership of the academic dean and director of strategic program initiatives. School employees have chosen which network to join based on their interests, enhancing motivation and accelerating progress. I have been working closely with the academic dean and the board of trustees to advance and coordinate the initiative’s various threads. 

The five networks are:   
1. Social Justice and Educational Equity: Ensuring the Ability of All Students to Thrive
2. Social and Emotional Learning: Building and Sustaining a Health Community
3. Interdisciplinary Learning: Breaking Down the Disciplines
4. New Models of Time: Redesigning the School Schedule
5. The U Lab: Personalizing, Customizing and Individualizing the Educational Experience to Promote Student Directed Learning
The networks have been free to engage in moonshot thinking, visit peer schools, research innovative practices, develop recommendations, and lead program changes. After one professional development experience with the Independent Curriculum Group, three department chairs were so inspired that they spent the return trip planning new interdisciplinary courses. One of these courses, Environmental Civics, launched this past year.
Additionally, we organized a Next Generation Leadership Committee, composed of the leaders of each group, and included trustees and parents to provide input and feedback. Both stakeholder groups brought insights from related fields, particularly technology. In one robust meeting, we addressed the extent to which a new program needs to be developed before moving ahead. Our parents and trustees in the technology sector discussed the notion of being comfortable when a program is 70 or 80 percent baked, instead of waiting or being paralyzed until the idea reaches 100 percent baked before rolling it out to the school community. Their outside perspectives helped us better evaluate whether our initiatives were ready to launch.  
School leaders have also been learning how to design an initiative from the bottom up instead of from the top down, through small-group meetings and one-on-one chats with colleagues. For example, to develop greater community cohesion and a shared language, the Social Justice and Educational Equity Committee leaders conducted one-on-one interviews with the nine-person administrative team, along with several colleagues.
We know the principal challenge of managing dual operating systems comes when the network system runs up against the management hierarchy system, which operates within resource limitations. At this point, the network comes back down to earth after engaging in moonshot thinking. The academic dean and co-chairs of each committee are working with each network to map out a five-year rollout plan for their recommendations to balance budget constraints and adjust the pace of change so as not to overwhelm our community with too much, too fast. This is an undeniable tension and ultimately a good problem to have, as leaders exude the energy to move fast and seize wins. All along, we’ve adhered to the saying, “Manage the rate at which you fail people’s expectations.” 

Where We Are Now

In our constant state of motion, the dual operating system has helped us maintain momentum, a fluid pace of change, and a commitment to innovation, as illustrated in the examples below. 
The New Models of Time team developed a new daily schedule, which we will implement this fall. This schedule strengthens our Next Generation Learning Initiative because it centers on students and is based on many Challenge Success principles; such as fewer, longer class periods; dedicated time for building relationships and community; and more attention on students’ social and emotional well-being through shorter and longer breaks between classes. We’re moving to a seven-day rotation, with four 70-minute classes per day, a common 35-minute work period in the morning before classes begin, and a daily community time midday when we have assemblies, class meetings, community conversations, extended advisory meetings, and club gatherings. The new schedule also reflects our commitment to social and emotional learning (SEL), and is an outgrowth of the work of the SEL team. 
In keeping with our focus on teacher leadership, a math teacher stepped up to help lead the schedule transition and evolve curriculum planning and design around student outcomes. He has led two division meetings, helped coordinate a day of professional development on course planning, and played an instrumental role in helping his colleagues consider the opportunities and challenges of the new daily schedule. 
The Social Justice and Educational Equity Research team has aligned its work more closely with our Board Diversity and Community Committee to ensure that our school’s policies and practices match our program’s goals for social justice and educational equity. And, for the last two years, we have been working with Alison Park of Blink Consulting on how to measure equity and inclusion. To anchor the work, University Prep has adopted a diversity mission statement
The Interdisciplinary Learning team has morphed into an Intensives Design team, preparing the path to introduce intensives — two- to three-week immersive academic, experiential, and interdisciplinary learning experiences — in the 2018–2019 school year. The team is now deep into the research and design phase. 

What I Love Most

The many dynamic components of University Prep’s Next Generation Learning Initiative can make it challenging to ensure that each part is being carefully threaded together into a neatly designed tapestry of collective progress. At the same time, we continue to follow a process for improving the school that taps into the passions, interests, and skill sets of teachers, staff, parents, and trustees. Because the initiative is ongoing, we redefine each working committee based on our progress and invite new community members into service to hear fresh voices and mitigate institutional fatigue. All along, I’ve been impressed and inspired by the way our community has come together to catalyze the school’s evolution. 
Matt Levinson

Matt Levinson is head of school at San Francisco University High School in San Francisco, California.