One District’s Quest for Student Engagement

One District’s Improvement Work 


Learning by doing is key to improvement.  The Washington Superintendent Network meets quarterly to discuss key issues, share their work and learn from each other.  This month, Selah School District shared their improvement plan. I was impressed by their focus on purpose – equity, engagement and “growth producing relationships” – as well as their intentional follow through with data collection and support for teachers. 


Selah School District serves 3500 students.  1/3 are Hispanic and ½ qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch.  Achievement scores have remained steady as diversity has increased.  They are concerned about the wide gap between White students and students of color.  Their improvement science work focuses them on increasing student success. 


Our Goal is to meet the needs of the whole child by creating an equity centered, engaging and personalized learning experience in an emotionally and physically safe environment for each child in Selah.


  • Rigorous and Engaging Classrooms
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Positive Behavior Intervention and Support
  • Social Emotional Learning
  • Trauma Sensitive Practices
  • Family and Community Engagement
  • Future Ready

Each of these strategies has been studied and best practices identified.  thought through with specific.

Rigorous and Engaging Classrooms

This is one example of how they have identified practical down to earth strategies:

Inviting Classrooms with positive teacher and student interactions:

  • Students names are used
  • Students interests are incorporated into learning
  • Teacher makes daily contact with each student

Growth Mindset language that encourages learning and risk taking.

  • Teachers and students focus on effort as well as achievement
  • Mistakes are embraced as opportunities to learn
  • Equitable distribution of response opportunity and feedback

Problem of Practice:

For their improvement science work they are focusing developing growth producing relationships with specific students.  This focus comes from their data; only 36% of students in upper grades say they have an adult that cares about them.

Leadership Team:

Their guiding coalition of 35 helps steer their work.  Using root cause analysis, they focused on:

  • Building awareness and knowledge of why relationships matter
  • Addressing personal beliefs and experiences
  • Providing tools and strategies

Trauma Informed Support:

They launched the school year by providing support for trauma informed classrooms.  32 guest speakers – including many staff – showed why relationships are more effective than punishment.  They received the best feedback ever for a start of school event.

Other Strategies:

Since the start of the year, they have:

  • Shadowed students and conducted empathy interviews to see what their day is like; often boring.
  • Conducted empathy interviews with teachers. Trying to understand teacher core beliefs.
  • HS plotted interactions with 1100 students; correlating what students say about caring adult at school and student behavior incidents.
  • Made time during the school day for classroom meetings to work on Social Emotional Learning.
  • Provide support for teachers with the most referrals: no change; coaching; & supervision
  • Posted expectations widely and encouraged community to provide positive feedback on post cards widely available through the community.


The Superintendent, Shane Backlund, shared Selah’s progress at a Superintendent Network meeting in January.  That was followed by questions, discussion and wonderings from the group:

  • What might we learn from the positive outlier teachers about how they approach behavior issues?
  • What might a scripting session look like for principals? Sharing ideas on how to intervene with negative outlier teachers in a positive way to help them see potential improvements?
  • What approaches are we seeing in our SEL work that might apply most directly to reducing referrals?
  • Can we gain momentum around a few key strategies that we agree (including the majority of teachers) are good strategies for all of us to use?


The final step of the consultancy protocol is reflection on the questions / discussion / feedback.  Shane’s final thoughts after the discussion:

  • Figuring out the barriers to change is a good idea; it is hard to change beliefs; changing culture takes time; culture eats strategy for breakfast.
  • Understanding what people value; helping them feel valued; being user centered
  • Go to the source and ask … what is holding us up?
  • Share small wins to build self-efficacy; change the outlook
  • What can we do as leaders to help participants be a part of the problem solving?
  • Small wins and accomplishments will help us create the culture we want to see


Selah is being very intentional about the use of data and understanding root causes before moving forward.  Their problem of practice is very specific – increasing positive “growth producing relationships.” Clear and compelling ‘purpose’ is apparent in their materials, their training and their strategies.  They identified and provided the supports that teachers and students might need and followed up with empathy interviews to learn more.  And they continue to collect data that will help them get better.  What a great example of collaborative inquiry.  Yes, they are focused on improvement science and getting better.  They are equally focused on purpose, support for teachers and creating a culture of professional learning for all.


Posted in
Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: | 425-418-4398 |