Leaders can change the narrative about teaching at-risk kids through their deliberate words and actions.

To gauge a school system’s commitment to social justice and equity, all you have to do is look at its alternative programs. In too many districts, they’re little more than a dumping ground for troubled students and difficult employees.

The kids who end up in such programs tend to get reduced schedules and smaller, lower-level classes, which are sold to their parents as more “appropriate” options better suited to their needs than regular classes. The adults who work there often have a long record of poor performance, having bounced around from school to school until, finally, the teachers union and the district human resources department make a deal to assign them to an alternative setting, which serves as a kind of professional exile from the rest of the system. Nobody really expects either the students or their teachers to succeed there, only to stay out of trouble. Out of sight, out of mind.

Bleak, isn’t it? Sadly, that’s what was waiting for me when I became superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md. I knew that it was a long-standing problem that wouldn’t be easy to fix. I felt compelled to try to do something about it, in part because, as a teacher, I had worked with kids who had significant mental health and behavioral issues.

The question was, how could I change the local narrative about the purpose of alternative programs and the kinds of people who work in them? The first order of business was to learn who was serving our most vulnerable students: Did they have the skills and support they needed to be successful? Did they want to be there, and did system leaders show that they believed in their potential to help students succeed? We had about 150 middle and high school students who cycled in and out of alternative programs throughout the school year. We wanted to serve them better and help them re-enter their home school, but we also wanted to create a program that was a true alternative for students who needed something different from what a typical school provided. This undertaking required a different mindset about children and a different kind of adult who really wanted to serve this population.

This was not just about teachers, though. Often, the conversation about talent in educational organizations starts and ends with teachers since they have the most direct effect on student achievement. But we also need to focus on the people who support teachers and who manage the systems that allow great teaching to happen: school leaders, central office administrators, contracting and budgeting staff, school board members, state policymakers, and others.

Deploy vs. develop    

The school reform efforts of the past generation have been dominated by the language of human capital deployment, with too little attention given to human capital development. A deployment approach assumes that teachers (and, in some cases, principals) already know what to do; they just need to be held accountable for outcomes, and if they can’t succeed, then school leaders should find others who can. A development approach, however, suggests that the priority should be on improving the larger system so that it promotes adult learning and provides teachers and staff the support they need to do their best work.

In Montgomery County, we clearly needed to pursue both strategies at once: finding talented people who had a passion for serving at-risk students, while also creating the organizational conditions that would allow our alternative program to succeed. We started by identifying an accomplished and enthusiastic principal who had experience in similar settings, and we paired him with a supervisor (a well-respected former high school principal) who knew what kinds of support he would need. Further, we put together a team of central office program administrators to rethink every aspect of the program, including curriculum development and professional learning.

While this team spent a year designing the new approach, I worked with the school board and the teachers union to ensure that the school would be well-staffed. Fortunately, both partners were extremely supportive. Board members needed no convincing, and the union leaders were champions for equity, who agreed that our alternative program should be overhauled. They agreed to a “zero-based” approach, which meant we would have full authority to replace every staff member (though current teachers would have the opportunity to apply for positions in the new iteration of the program).

When it came time to hire teachers, I did two things to change the narrative about who ought to work in alternative settings. First, I asked middle and high school principals to nominate the teachers at their schools who were best qualified to meet the needs of struggling students and who were most passionate about doing so. I wanted to send a clear signal that the alternative program would no longer be a place to send ineffective teachers; to serve its students well, the program needed great staff.

Second, I emailed all 22,000 district employees to encourage them to apply to work there. This had never been done before, and it sent a powerful message about the value of the program and the importance of hiring people who would thrive in that setting. We provided them with more vision, structure and professional development than they had ever had. Indeed, when I visited one of their professional learning sessions and talked with new staff at the start of the school year, I was thrilled to hear many of them say that one reason they had applied was because I had communicated to them how important the program was to me and others in the system. They believed in the mission, and they wanted to be part of it.

Our approach in Montgomery County to improving the alternative program may not work for all schools and districts. But every leader ought to keep in mind the larger point: Our children, especially the most vulnerable, deserve our absolute best. We need to communicate the primacy of talent by elevating our expectations, providing support, and putting the right people in the right places.

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va.

Originally published in March 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (6), 70-71. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.