Mark DiBella on How to Lead a Change
YES Prep's school director discusses how to create a positive environment for everyone in the school community.
Release Date: 10/28/09
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Mark DiBella on How to Lead a Change (Transcript)
Mark: One of our core values is achieving social justice. And this is something that, I mean, it kind of defines what we do. Our Founder and Head of Schools often talks about education being the civil rights issue of our day. And I couldn't agree more. And it goes back to this idea of giving 100 percent every day. When you think about the civil rights activists, they didn't take time to ask themselves, "Do I have energy left to give?" If you truly believe that this is an issue of civil rights, then it kind of inspires you to give more than you thought you were able to give. And then when you look at our demographic of students at this school, 83 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. We don't have the exact numbers yet for at-risk, but I would guess that roughly half of our students are considered at-risk. It's just a very high need segment of the population, and historically under-served. And so when we say, "Achieving social justice," what we mean is we are giving opportunities to students that they would not get at another school, but we believe are kind of just baseline opportunities. All students in America should have access to excellent education, and that currently isn't the case. And so we're here to kind of level the playing field.
Mark: We're looking to not just give students a baseline education, but look for ways to enhance that. So that involves implementing programs that they wouldn't get, maybe, at their traditional public school. It includes going on field lessons or field trips to different colleges around the country, exposing them to college, so that it's not just, "Yeah, we're going to send you to college, or you're going to get into college." But it's very much, "We're going to provide you opportunities along the way, so that when it's time to go to college you've been exposed to that opportunity, and you're ready for it.”
Mark: I've been asked a number of times what makes YES Prep North Central great. And I've even had people say, "You know, what do you do to make it great?" And I'm not being falsely humble here, like it's not me. It's people, people, people. It's the teachers that we have here. And so we have a very clearly defined way that we recruit teachers. And we use, basically, a personality profile to ensure that the people who come to work here are not just dedicated to this idea of social justice, but they're also dedicated to working in a team, and they're dedicated to being part of something greater than themselves. So we work really hard to make sure that we've got the right people, and then once we have them here, we work really hard to keep them here.
Mark: You know, it's challenging for me sometimes as a leader, because your tendency is to want to keep control of everything. And what I realize more and more is that leadership can be this-- you can think of it as this pyramid. And the more that I sort of sit up top on the pyramid and keep the authority to myself and keep the decision-making to myself, the more likely our school is to become stagnant and just become basically a microcosm of me. And that's the last thing I would want. And so I intentionally hire people who are different than me. I intentionally look for ways to have people on my leadership team, and have people in my school who push me. Just making sure that there are as many voices in this school onboard and feel like they have a voice, and I think that makes it much more genuine.
Mark: I really fight hard to not micromanage my teachers. I think of it as I'm the support there for them. I've used the analogy with them before of being oxygen. And that if things are going well, I sort of fade into the background. But if I'm not doing my job, or things aren't going well, then they're suffocating and they know I'm not doing my job. So it's very much like find the right people, and spend a lot of time doing that, and then just let them run the school. And in a lot of ways, they have a lot of autonomy here at this school.
Mark: Teachers are each provided a cell phone from the school in order to make themselves accessible to students twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And the idea being is that students aren't allowed to use the excuse that they didn't understand something. And it, again, exemplifies that idea that we want teachers building this positive relationship with students. So that doesn't just happen during the school day. It happens at night. If a student has an issue that comes up at night, they have an avenue to get in touch with the teacher directly, and we pay the cell phone bill for the teachers. But so students use that for personal reasons, but they also use it if they have a question on their homework, and they need help, they can call their teacher. So that the next day they can't come in and say, "I didn't understand something, so I didn't do it." They always have an avenue to look for, to reach out for help.
Mark: Working 100 percent every day means different things to different people. Some things that, I think, are pretty common when people talk about it is the availability that we talked about earlier. Are you available to your students past the normal school hours, which, I think, is probably 8:00 to 3:30, and we're in school from 7:30 until 4:30 Monday through Friday. So are you available those times, which are already longer? Then on top of that, are you available to your students outside of those hours? Are you available to pick up the phone when they call you at 9:00 upset about a fight that they've had with their parents? Are you available to return a phone call when they ask about homework that you gave that they don't understand? Then when you're in the classroom, we're not okay with just average lessons. They need to be high energy, high impact lessons that are going to ensure that students who are here for-- what is that? Nine hours a day? Are making sure that during those nine hours that they're here, they're not getting, eh, four to five hours of great instruction. But they're getting as close to nine hours of great instruction as possible.
Mark: Burn-out is something that we have to deal with, but we work hard as administrators to find ways to relieve teachers and kind of try and provide some balance in a job that's inherently unbalanced. You know, we do things like making sure they have common planning times. So that they aren't having to meet after school. After school they can spend time with students, or if they need to go home and spend some time with their families, they can do that, but try and maximize the time that they have in school. So common planning times is one of them. We also have a weekly early dismissal on Wednesdays where teachers gather to do professional development. And sometimes if we don't have something really well-planned, then we'll do something fun like have a staff volleyball game, or a staff picnic or a staff barbeque. Just something to continually draw on our strength of relationships with each other.
Mark: We don't have fights, because we don't allow fights. And I believe that if we lowered that bar-- just like if you lower an academic bar, if you lower a behavior bar, what it ends up doing is it makes things permissible that shouldn't be permissible. And if we're going to call ourselves a family-oriented school-- now, I know families fight-- we're not going to have people getting in fist-fights in the hallway, and say, "That's okay," by allowing them to stay. And thinking about the course of this year, we've had two fights, and for a middle school and a high school, I mean, it's remarkable. And I guess you can write it off and say, "Oh, yeah, well, you got to hand pick the student who were here, and so they're not prone to fighting." I would disagree. A) We didn't handpick them, because we do an open enrollment lottery; B) Middle school students and high school students, period, are prone to fighting. And what we need to do is educate them about the alternatives. And so we have a social worker on-staff, a full-time social worker. We're looking to expand that role. Every day students are in advisor meeting with a group of teachers. So we're looking for ways not just to say, "Oh, students don't fight," but how do we educate students so that fighting isn't their first choice, they have other alternatives.
Mark: The first group that came here, they left, and their parting words to me were, "This is possible. We can do this." And I believe that, right? It's possible. Is it going to look exactly like what we do? No, I don't think you can take it and just kind of cookie-cutter, lay it on top of whatever you're doing at your school. But are the ideas here? Are they possible? Absolutely. And what you have to have is a sense of a possibility. I mean, it's not going to be easy, and we've been working at this for ten years, and we still have a ton of stuff to do. So there aren't any quick fixes, I don't think. I think it requires a ton of hard work, and I mentioned this earlier, and I believe this, that it involves people seeing education as much more than just a job that you go to, but you would give it the same passion that you would give it if you truly believed that someone's life was in danger. So I think about a doctor. If a doctor is saving someone's life, they're not going to stop because the workday ends. They're going to keep going and doing whatever it takes to make sure that happens. And if you had more people thinking like that, that this would-- that our nation's health depends on how well we're educating our students; if you had more people completely bought into that idea, that their welfare is directly tied to the students' welfare, I think it's absolutely possible.
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