High reliability school: Continuous improvement in West Ada

“What are you really proud of, and what’s making you crazy?”

West Ada Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells asks her team a lot of questions. She listens and gathers information. The question above was her way of ascertaining some of the things that were frustrating her team, and some things they thought were going well.

What she found was frustration around the Professional Learning Community process in the District. As a large, fast-growing district, PLC members were increasingly feeling isolated and collaboration was suffering. Even though Richard DuFour’s popular model had been implemented in the District for some time, there was a need to “revive PLC”, in Superintendent Ranells’ words.

So, at a [PLC] conference in Arizona, Ranells expressed her team’s frustration to old friend Robert Marzano, who recommended that West Ada look at High Reliability Schools. Ranells asked a team of West Ada principals and district administrators to visit with Marzano. The team left the visit with a vision for systemic school improvement across 55 schools focused on research-based indicators, stakeholder transparency, and targeted professional development.

Superintendent Ranells and her team credit district-wide implementation of the High-Reliability Schools framework with the revitalization of the PLC strategy in the district, and with improving collaboration and communication in West Ada. The framework has provided a common language of effective school improvement practice and strengthen school cultures where high levels of learning are valued above all else.

The HRS framework is based on evidence-based practices where schools demonstrate successful completion of improvement indicators in the five areas outlined in the model above, beginning with “Safe, Supportive, and Collaborative Culture” and proceeding to “Competency-Based Education”. In 2018-19, after certifying all schools in the first level Safe, Supportive, and Collaborative Culture, West Ada’s Continuous Improvement Plan now includes a goal focused on High-Reliability Schools and states By May 1, 2021, 100% of West Ada schools will qualify for Effective Teaching in Every Classroom certification as measured by the District Certification Team review process and anchored to the academic measures of the West Ada Continuous Improvement Plan.  District-wide progress toward their CIP goal is well underway.  

School leadership teams are already celebrating evidence that convicts them of successful progress in level 2 Effective Teaching in Every Classroom.  Meridian Elementary, initially the pilot school for HRS in West Ada, led by Principal Debbie Aholt is anticipating certification in Level 4 Standards-Referenced Reporting this Spring. Susan McInerney, Principal at Heritage Middle School and her leadership team are certifying in Level 2 Effective Teaching in Every Classroom, this spring as well.  Schools such as Meridan High School, led by Principal Jill Lilienkamp, are excited for the results of their HRS journey and note the value of clarity through a district-wide language of school improvement and laser-focus on learning above all else.   
With a renewed focus on learning through effective PLCs, West Ada administrators feel that, as their communication and collaboration have improved, they can model those skills for teachers in every school. They now have a common language that is used to describe progress and to delineate goals, so that folks are comfortably “speaking the same language” of improvement across the District.
In Level 1, the goal is not just physical safety, but safety in terms of feeling comfortable and vulnerable, a difficult achievement. Superintendent Ranells shared a story of a teacher who was “on board” with the direction of West Ada HRS goals until the school decided to do “peer visitation” to help improve instruction. A conversation ensued about the purpose of the visits so that the teacher felt safe in having the observations, and understood that there was a shared purpose.

The team that spoke to us indicated that they wanted to go beyond the ISAT and IRI in order to illustrate success in other areas. So West Ada is now using HRS surveys to gather valued input from staff, students, and parents to show status in many other areas of school improvement areas that impact student achievement, such as prioritizing standards.  Priority Standards are in effect District-wide, but teachers have the wherewithal to establish how they instruct for those standards, staying within the “banks of the river” established by the District. The locally developed assessment provides assurance that students are on track for achievement on state-mandated tests.

Superintendent Ranells calls her administrative team “our wonderful learning leaders” and that was certainly evident in our conversations with this dynamic group. They are believers in the HRS system and have the evidence to feel confident it is helping West Ada reach its goals of continuous improvement.

Back Row L to R: East Regional Director Marcus Myers, Central Regional Director David Moser, North Regional Director Geoff Stands, South Regional Director Mandy White, Curriculum Director Bret Heller; Front Row L to R: Meridian High School Principal Jill Lilienkamp, Heritage Middle School Principal Susan McInerney, Superintendent Mary Ann Ranells, Meridian Elementary Principal Debbie Aholt
Wil Overgaard and Don Coberly

About Wil Overgaard and Don Coberly

Overgaard and Coberly are retired Idaho school district superintendents and currently Co-CEO’s of RISE TVEP. Overgaard is from Weiser and Coberly is from Boise.

Read more stories by Wil Overgaard and Don Coberly »

Republish this article on your website