Good to Great: A Community Forum

The PMHS cafeteria is usually empty on Saturday mornings, but a good 50 people gathered there from 10 am –12 pm on February 16th for the Good-to-Great Community Forum.  The phrase “good-to-great,” made famous by the pioneering management expert Jim Collins, is a way of thinking about how to move an organization from average to exemplary.

The Pittsfield Forum was both a celebration of how the schools have been moving toward excellence and a call to action to keep the momentum going in the community.

“While 2008 may be best known for the economic downturn in this country, in Pittsfield, it’s also known as the beginning of a period of significant change in our schools,” said Superintendent John Freeman in welcoming the diverse crowd of students, educators, parents, and community members. Special outside guests included Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education, newly elected State Senator John Reagan, and Bruce Mallory, Director of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

The impetus for change in the District came from the Pittsfield School Board, after the last of several nearby towns seceded to form their own single-district or cooperative district administrative units.  While it was a blow to Pittsfield, the Board also saw it as an opportunity to break the mold. Over the next few years, the Pittsfield School District successfully secured several grants to jumpstart the change process, including a substantial one from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in 2011.  According to Freeman, a newly established group, the Community Advisory Council (CAC), secured that grant, creating the blueprint for a 7-10 year plan to redesign the educational system. 

“It is now time for us to move to the next level of engagement, from planning to implementation” said Freeman about the reason for convening the Good-to-Great Community Forum.   The Community Advisory Council, he explained, would sunset, with a new continuous improvement advisory council – the Good to Great Team – as its successor.

The Good-to-Great Community Forum was facilitated by Bill Bryan, lead technical consultant for the District and Vice President of Leadership and Organization Development for the Center for Secondary School Redesign.  Bryan led the group in two interactive exercises. In one exercise, attendees, who were seated at tables of 6-8 people, introduced themselves to one another.  In the second exercise participants worked in teams to identify questions about the redesign and about the role of the new Team.  Each team shared their questions with the larger group. 

Many of the questions were addressed in a presentation given by Susan Bradley and Tobi Chassie, Co-Project Managers of the District Level School Change initiative.

“Progress has little to do with speed, but everything to do with direction,” said Tobi Chassie in a presentation about the District’s five areas of focus for change.  “In my 22 years in the District, this is the most exciting and dramatic effort I’ve ever seen.”

Chassie and Bradley articulated the five areas of focus for change in the District:  Ensuring student ownership for learning; raising student achievement; 21st century skills and civic responsibility and social-emotional learning; redefining adult roles and performance expectations; and engaging the community.   All of these elements, they said, are geared toward providing an enriched, student-centered experience.   They explained that for young people to thrive in a complex and rapidly changing workforce and society, they must master a much broader set of skills and competencies than what was expected of previous generations.  These increased demands require that learning be more personalized so that every single student achieves proficiency.  In this new era, “failure is not an option,” said Chassie.

Flexible scheduling, creative use of technology, redefining the role of teachers, providing internship and job shadow opportunities in the community, and increased leadership and decision-making for students were a few of the elements of the redesign that were featured.

The PMHS Site Council, a governing body that sets school policy, also spoke at the Forum.  The Site Council consists of students, faculty and members of the community, with students comprising majority membership.  Three students—Noah Manteau, Max Tuttle, and Rebecca Adams —shared some of their experiences on the Council, as did their adult advisor, Derek Hamilton.  Their short presentation, which included a video that moved many in the audience to tears of joy, was the introduction to a longer and more formal presentation they were recently invited to give at the prestigious National Association of Secondary School Principals Breaking Ranks 2013 School Showcase in Washington D.C.  Pittsfield was one of just 21 U.S. high schools to be invited.

The IMPACT team, a student group at PMHS that focuses on the social-emotional aspects of school, discussed its proposal for a new disciplinary system at PMHS.   Julie Dyer, Madison Johnson, and their adult advisor, Jenny Wellington, explained that the new system is called “restorative justice.” It focuses less on punitive measures such as detentions and suspensions, which have been largely ineffectual, and more on the ways that students should be held accountable to their community by “fixing what they broke.”

Toward the end of the Forum, Bill Bryan charged attendees with another assignment:  to discuss in small groups what they would envision as a process for continuous improvement, a way to keep the ball rolling in the Pittsfield School District.   “We have made good progress,” said Bryan, “but we aren’t all the way there yet.”  For example, one challenge will be to align the 90-plus teams that exist in the District so that everyone is moving in the same direction. Another challenge will be to continue building public will for the redesign so that “we keep supplying the system with energy,” said Bryan. 

Ted Mitchell, local businessman and chair of Pittsfield’s Economic Development Committee, talked about his work on the Community Advisory Team and the importance of the redesign to the entire Pittsfield community.  “I have been able to see the big picture of how the educational system and the economy of our town are tightly connected,” he said.  “We all need to come together—including businesses and community colleges—to make sure our students are getting the opportunities that will prepare them for good careers.” 

The Continuous Improvement Advisory Council is expected to begin its official work in the fall of 2013.  Scott Brown, former School Board member and Chair of the Community Advisory Council, said the effort is now underway to recruit 40-50 people to serve on the Council.  Members will attend monthly meetings and engage in some committee work. 

“This is a unique opportunity to take our District from good to great,” said Brown. “We take it on the chin (in Pittsfield) for our reputation.  We need to get the message out about the great things that are happening here. Talk to your friends, relatives, and neighbors and celebrate what we’ve accomplished,” said Brown. “Because of this work, our community will be much stronger and our school system will have a reputation that is second to none.”

A follow-up meeting to discuss the Continuous Improvement Advisory Council will be held on March 7, from 5:30 – 7:30 pm in Room 113 at PMHS.   Dinner will be served and all are welcome.