Graduation Gains – One district’s success

Federal Way’s success with continuous improvement: An Interview with Superintendent Tammy Campbell

Dr. Tammy Campbell became superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools in 2015. Federal Way, located 25 miles south of Seattle, serves 23,000 students in one of the most diverse districts in the nation.  Graduation rates have risen from 76% to 87% with significant gains for each of the largest ethnicity groups.  200 additional students, per year, now have a much brighter future ahead!

Dr. Campbell’s Keys to Success (in her own words):

  • Relationships

During my 30-60-90 day entry-plan, I went everywhere: two hour visits to each school plus 100s of visits to in schools, coffee shops and homes.  “I knew I was going to be asking them to do something they hadn’t done before and wanted them to see my heart.”

  • Strategic Plan

We launched the Core Planning Team with 150 people. And an instructional team was responsible for the heart of our instructional plan.  All told more than 3000 people were involved – from chamber to students – in the strategic planning effort.  We went everywhere … with interpreters.  Asking everyone to vet our goals.

  • Accordion  

I talked to everybody.  We started with equity, teaching and learning, and community engagement.  I wanted to hear what everyone had to say.  We used an accordion process: starting with a big group; vetting with smaller groups of stakeholders; then back to the big group for decision making.  Our community was critical in that they provided feedback on how they wanted us to embed those ideas in our work.  Now the whole community feels like they understand and own it.

  • Five Big Goals

Goal #1 started with Early Learning. Our #2 Goal included the Whole Child and Equity.  Goal #3 was Engagement.  Mastery of standards was Goal #4.  And Goal #5 College and Career Readiness.  We asked schools to focus on just two goals.  Goal 2 – Whole Child / Equity – was our tight goal; every school had to work on that one.  Then most elementary schools selected Mastery of standards (Goal 4) and most high schools picked College and career readiness (Goal 5).

  • Alignment

Job roles and School Improvement Plans were aligned to reflect the district focus and the importance of equity.  We work hard in Federal Way to make sure we are operating as a system versus having individual schools winging it.  Randomness creates opportunity gaps. In randomness privilege wins. The parents with the most resources will advocate for their children and the scholars with less privilege will not have a voice at the table.

  • Each scholar a voice, a dream and a bright future

We developed three tag line themes.  Then we went to students, staff and community to hear their voice.  When people vote, they become vested and have great ownership.

  • Training

We trained everyone on racial equity so we had a common language. That helped us problem solve around gaps for our students. We started with principals so they could learn and lead the work.  Then we trained all the staff: secretaries, bus drivers, every staff member.

  • Grad Assurances

We meet, high school by high school, engaging counselors and principals every month.  Knowing students by name, credit need, social emotional need and problem solving.  We do that every month until we get students across the stage in June.  That led us – four years later – to steady incremental growth. We are now doing systemic work driven by strategies to focus at the systems level to focus on every student by student need at our high schools.

  • Theory of action

Real learning comes from the teacher with the students in the presence of good content.  And the only person that can facilitate this building-wide is the principal.   Based on research and working backward, I believe it’s about instruction and you have to get clear about that and find principals who can lead for this.

  • Speaking Greatness into Being

Some in our community objected to the term “scholar.” They said not all of our students are scholars. They’re this, they’re that.  I held firm saying we are going to speak their greatness into being.

  • Modeling

It is important to put your words into actions.  I meet with 70 high school scholars each month.  A wide variety of scholars that represent the diversity of our student body. Now we ask principals to have their own scholar advisories.  They meet with them monthly, look at data with them, walk the classrooms with them.  We can’t lead school improvement well without once consulting the group schools are supposed to serve – OUR SCHOLARS! 

  • Curriculum

Federal Way had not purchased new curriculum in over a decade.  We worked with teachers to develop written standards based curriculum which was posted electronically.  Our goal – a guaranteed and viable curriculum – as described by Marzano.  You can’t have PLC’s without having common curriculum to plan around. Randomness is the enemy of closing gaps.

  • Coherence

We do classroom walkthroughs with two board members each week.  Schools don’t know we are coming. We used to see tremendous variance.  Now we see consistent evidence of PBIS and Courageous Conversations (Singleton).  We see success targets and consistent curriculum.  There is still ample room for flexibility based on data. Now we see coherence and consistency. 

  • Policy Governance

The board sets policy and “end” outcomes. They delegate the “means” of accomplishing those ends to the superintendent.  And they agree to refer all other concerns to the superintendent.  I share everything with them.  We meet weekly.  We do three retreats a year and lots of PD.  Together we focus on appropriate governance, equity, and core values.

  • School Supervision

We work with and through (not around) our school supervisors. Four supervisors – each responsible for eight schools – are in schools three days a week.  They meet with each HS team monthly, use protocols to look at data and make adjustments to meet needs and close gaps.

  • Teachers

We were intentional about bringing teachers to the table in large numbers to co-construct solutions. I believe that this is the most effective way to work with teachers.  When they see their engagement making a difference they support the work.  We are constantly thinking about how we can work with teachers to keep positioning our students for success.

  • Feedback

Being “Liked” runs a “sprint.”  “Respect” runs a “marathon.”  In FWPS, we are building a culture where giving feedback is the norm – the norm for scholars, staff, and leadership.  Feedback is the fuel for continuous improvement.

  • Miracles for me

Educators were my heroes and sheroes.  That is the theme that drives me … that makes me fearless in doing the right things for children.  The only thing I fear is not doing right for my students.

  • Racial Equity

You have to have a culture that is willing to talk about racial equity.  It has to be real. Not just tokenism.  Ask scholars and parents:  We say we are about equity, are we?  Then act on what they tell you.  Nothing is crueler that not acting because it is too hard.  You have to take action – to keep getting better.

  • What does race have to do with it?

This question as part of every process.  We don’t wait for someone to raise the issue.  It is part of our routine for every discussion.  This prompt is ubiquitous – part of what we do. Hardwiring this question is one of the best things we do.  A simple strategy to make sure we are not stepping conveniently in and out of the equity conversation.

  • Core Values

When we make decisions, our strategic plan and our core values drive it.  As a leader, you have to live it, breathe it, make it your daily sustenance where you are constantly leading around that plan. These are the roots of the tree.  The winds will blow the leaves and branches.  And this is a hell of windstorm right now.  But the roots are still there.  Our roots are around equity, centrality of instruction, the principalship.  Those things shape us.  Know what that is for you and your team.  Know how you feel about kids.  Then when the winds come you will still be able to make those solid decisions.

Thank you Dr. Campbell for inspiring us and challenging us to lead fearlessly!

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

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