Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Our Secret Formula

We sometimes will receive an email or phone call from a school district somewhere in Iowa that wants to come and learn from us. With the guidance department being a regular presenter at the annual ACT conference in Ames, and recently presenting at the National Dropout Prevention Conference in Louisville, Kentucky it is no surprise. Many people want to hear about the homework policy (see Student/Parent Handbook page 46) and are looking to replicate our results. The number of students who fail courses is very  low and the percentage of students graduating is very high. The homework policy is based on a very simple principle: doing homework isn't an option. In addition to this, academic achievement of Hudson students consistently exceeds expected growth in math and reading in almost all metrics. Further, 78% of the Class of 2014 took the ACT with a composite of 23.6  compared to a state composite of 22, and a national composite of 21. A recent caller shared that he "heard a rumor that no one was ineligible for extra-curricular activities last semester in the high school". Not a rumor--a fact.

It is always our pleasure to visit with colleagues in other school districts! At the conclusion of these visits I am usually invited to share a perspective from the district level. I typically offer the opinion that words are easy--in fact anyone can say that homework isn't an option. It is the execution of the policy that is very difficult, and requires a commitment on the part of everyone: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and board members. Admittedly I wasn't around during the inception of the policy, but have been honored to be the custodian and beneficiary of this hard work. The expectation that homework isn't optional is firmly rooted and pretty much a non-issue at this point, some twelve years or so later. Sure, there are some minor 'dust-ups' every now and again, but for the most part the system is functioning well and has become an embedded part of our culture.

Yet our story extends beyond the homework policy or the multitude of other practices that make up our little slice of Iowa. It is in the people who work here every day that hold not only the students accountable, but one another. It is about our attention to the environment and the fact that we take reported incidents of bullying and harassment very seriously. It is about backing our words up with actions. We are very careful to 'say what we mean' and 'mean what we say'. It is not by mere happenstance that our rate of founded cases of bullying and harassment are very low. It is because of a laser-like focus on the finding the truth and applying the appropriate policy when it does happen.

The other night between basketball games I had a chance to engage in a casual conversation with one of our patrons who also just happens to have quite a bit of school experience. This wizened fellow has the pleasure of interacting with students on a regular basis in our district and in many districts in the area. He shared that he really enjoys coming to Hudson and that our students are always very respectful and well behaved. That conversation wasn't out of the norm! Just a few days ago, I received a nice note from a parent who was visiting with a friend from another district. That friend went out of her way to comment on how nice and respectful our young people were.

Then there were the visitors a few weeks back that wanted to know how we did it. So we asked them, what was it that drove you to pick up the phone and call Hudson? Did you hear someone speak at a conference? Were you referred by a neighboring school district?

It was none of these. The individual stated that one of our athletic teams had recently visited their school:
"Upon entering the gym, your team noticed one of our employees moving some boxes and equipment around the gym to get ready for the game. Without being asked, your athletes simply set their bags down and began helping. I don't believe our kids would have responded in the same way. I was impressed". 
So then, after sharing the requisite policies and procedures it is important to talk about the individuals that make up the organization. For starters, without a commitment to the system the initiative or policy is doomed to fail. This type of hard work requires caring individuals with a focus to make sure everyone is held accountable for the success of our students. Success comes in a lot of shapes and sizes, and means many different things. Certainly we can point to the academic successes that we have. But equally important is that when our young people leave Hudson they leave as good people. I am proud of all their accomplishments, but nothing makes prouder than hearing stories like those described above!

I argue that the culture of our district is a large part of the success we have. Culture is tough, and it takes a very long time to mold the culture of a school. It can't happen overnight. Our culture is borne and lived out every day in our Core Purpose: To Create Effective Learning Environments That Result in Success for All Students. Our employees take that responsibility very seriously.

So what's in that 'Secret Sauce'? I would say that a lot of it has to do with our people (students and teachers alike). They are amazing.

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