Systems Thinking

Transformation Through the Storm’s Eye

by Rhonda Neal-Waltman

There we were, a tired and rather rough-looking leadership team of central-office staff and 100 principals crammed into a dark school library with no lights and no air conditioning in early September 2005. Just days before, Hurricane Katrina had left Mobile, Ala., and the entire Gulf Coast with massive destruction, ravaging floods and thousands of families homeless.

And all we could think about was …

• How do we restore some sense of normalcy for our 67,000 school-age children and their families?

RhondaNealWaltman.jpgRhonda Neal-Waltman

• How do we rebuild the lives and learning for our own children and families — as well as the thousands who fled to Mobile as a safe haven, the first coastal city east of Louisiana and Mississippi that had not been destroyed?

• How do we keep our teachers and staff motivated when many of them have lost everything they own in the destruction and flood waters?

National education experts visited Mobile during the weeks that followed and applauded our rapid recovery efforts. Along the way, we realized our recovery was linked to our reform efforts.

Yes, But …
The Mobile County Public Schools set a trajectory for major systemic change long before Katrina struck her devastating blow in 2005. In fact, in 2001 when the community voted for the first property tax increase in almost 50 years, it was a “Yes, but …” vote. And the “but” meant we had to change the way we did business.

Under the dynamic leadership of Harold Dodge, a former state superintendent of the year, our schools and community developed and implemented a completely co-owned strategic plan. And not your typical plan that gathers dust on the shelf. This plan was based on our community’s vision for what schools should provide for children, complete with accountability mechanisms using the Baldrige criteria for performance excellence.

Of course, the plan focused on the usual school district reform suspects — improving curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional development. But the plan also put student learning supports as an equal player at the reform table with instruction and governance. Educational leadership theory teaches we must be effective instructional leaders and efficient managers. But what we also know is this: Reforming governance and instruction sometimes is not enough.

Improving student achievement is an equity issue — equity of opportunity for all children. Comprehensive transformation must counter a wide range of factors that interfere with effective learning and teaching. Student learning supports provide the third piece of the reform effort.

A Support Model
The framework for improving learning supports in Mobile was based on the research-based best practice model of Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor of the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools. We literally took the framework of Adelman and Taylor, “got up on the balcony” as I call it, and looked at every support program, initiative, pet project and/or sacred cow within student services and other divisions. We worked diligently to stop redundant, fragmented and ineffective initiatives and programs.

The learning supports model requires the following: (1) a policy commitment; (2) an operational infrastructure that fully integrates learning supports into planning and decision making; and (3) priorities for planning and implementing the first set of interventions at the school level.

The framework organizes learning supports into six categories of classroom and schoolwide support: (1) enhancing regular classroom strategies to enable learning; (2) supporting transitions; (3) increasing home and school connections; (4) responding to and, where feasible, preventing crises; (5) increasing community involvement and support; and (6) facilitating student and family access to effective services and special assistance as needed.

Finding Daylight
As assistant superintendent of student support services, I had spent several years teaching principals and principal interns about how governance, instruction and support were equal players at the school improvement table. I even restructured my central-office division from a compliance model to a service model. We dissected our organizational design so much that my supervisors of health services, guidance, social services and transportation thought I had really lost it!

When Katrina hit us with her best shot, the staff of the student support services division stepped up and led support efforts through the eye of the storm to the light on the other side. All of a sudden, some of the most effective principals in the district walked up to me and said loudly, “OK, Rhonda, I get it now. It doesn’t matter what my teachers have planned to teach or even how they plan to teach — right now, in the place where our children are, we have to remove the barriers to learning before the teachers can teach and our children can learn.”

Then and there, I knew without a doubt, that transformation had not only arrived, it had found a home in Mobile, Ala. And then I retired!

Rhonda Neal-Waltman runs Neal-Waltman & Associates, a consulting firm, in Mobile Ala. E-mail: