Harnessing Rural Strengths for Schoolwide Transformation

This self-proclaimed City Girl has always preferred to live and work in areas filled with people.  My first teaching job was on a team in an elementary school that had eight sections of first grade, each with 26 or more students. Yes, we were big.  And I liked it that way.

My first assignment with SWIFT was Local Education Agency (LEA) Facilitator in Oregon.  In this role, I had the opportunity to facilitate the implementation of SWIFT in one of the center’s largest urban districts (Portland) and three rural districts (Pendleton, Redmond, and Sisters).  I was thrilled with my new position, but was haunted by the thought of facilitating SWIFT in three RURAL districts.  This was new territory for me and I wondered what all city dwellers wonder: How do rural schools face the same complex challenges as urban schools and solve them with so few resources?

What I learned is that “small town charm” isn’t just a cute saying; it is the foundation of rural livelihood.  Small town folks do whatever they have to do to ensure the families in their community, some of whom they have known for generations, have what they need to succeed.  And they are extremely creative in the process. Principals sometime serve as bus drivers.  School buses sometimes double as community mobile hot spots.  Gymnasiums are sometimes the primary community gathering place.

The most important lesson I learned is that rural schools really aren’t too different from urban schools.  They want facilitators to spend time discovering the unique strengths of their context and then harness those strengths to help them improve their educational practice. The beauty of SWIFT implementation is that it is designed to honor the unique characteristics of every context – large or small.   I encourage you, schools and districts in even the most rural settings, to consider how the SWIFT transformation practices can be modified to honor the values, traditions, and charms of YOUR setting.  Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Transformation Teaming – It is likely you have a small staff.  Create a leadership team that reflects your staff, even if it only has a few members.  For example, a single-school district might choose to combine district and school leadership to create one cohesive leadership team.  SWIFT has a set of Transformation Teaming tools to help you define your team’s purpose, ensure strong communication structures, and record your efforts.
  • Visioning – This practice is just as critical in your smaller school setting.  Many rural school districts report the importance of involving the community at large in determining a future vision. Involving community members builds unity and can uncover untapped resources.
  • Data Snapshots – Data-based decision-making is important in every school, no matter the size.  SWIFT district and school Data Snapshots may need to be modified or combined to fit your smaller setting.  If you have a single-school district and only one leadership team, use the school Data Snapshot and consider how district level resources and personnel can support efforts at the school level.
  • Priority & Practice Planning – We recommend schools and districts focus their attention on two or three priority areas.  However, just one priority area at a time might be appropriate for your rural setting.  The goal is to commit to realistic priorities and set reasonable action steps to ensure progress.
  • Resource Mapping and Matching – Resources are often thin in rural settings.  However, rural communities have a unique way of pulling together and getting creative to ensure their kids have what they need.  SWIFT Resource Inventory Form will help you think about all of the current facility and personnel resources you have and how they can be reallocated to match your future vision.  Think outside the box.  Are there community members who can help fill a need?  Can older students support younger students?
  • Coaching & Facilitation – Small staffs can make forming an ongoing coaching plan especially challenging.  Ask yourself, are there other rural districts in your area that would be interested in partnering to allow your teachers to discuss their practice or create a professional book club?  If meeting in person is not possible, perhaps staff members can connect virtually, over the phone, or via social media.

-Jessica Meisenheimer

Headshot of blog author.Jessica Meisenheimer, Ph.D. has worn many hats in her years as an educator … teaching first grade students to graduate students … working in urban to suburban settings … instructing as a general and special educator. Jessica’s current work as a Research Project Coordinator for the Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) Center applies her knowledge and experience for the benefit of diverse students across the U.S. She is passionate about finding ways to better serve all students by implementing inclusive school reform, examining educational policy, and utilizing multi-tiered systems of support.

Transitioning to an Inclusive Setting: Five strategies for districts, schools, and families

For his first five years in public education, Simon attended a self-contained classroom in the school across town with other students who were labeled with “intellectual disabilities.” Every school day, a bus designated for Simon and his classmates pulled into Simon’s driveway and delivered him to school, where he was met by his special education assistant and escorted to his self-contained classroom.  When he wasn’t working on “life skills” with his class, Simon joined his non-disabled peers for recess on the playground and during music class.  At the end of the school day, he returned home on the bus and spent his afternoon watching TV or playing with his brother and sister.

SWIFT Implementation Gains: Supporting Teachers First

As SWIFT Center’s New Hampshire and Vermont LEA Facilitator, I am often asked, by non-educators and educators alike, what I do.  I reply with some version of the following: “I help create systems, structures, and frameworks that support the work of the classroom teacher so that he/she can help every child learn to his/her greatest capability.”

Recently, at the SWIFT National Leadership Collaborative meeting in Kansas City, I learned that two of the SWIFT Framework domains—Administrative Leadership and Inclusive Policy Structure & Practice—had the most implementation gains during our three years of partnership with 64 schools.  In SWIFT schools, strong and actively engaged administrative leaders are committed to improving teaching and learning within a system that empowers educators and school personnel.  Inclusive policy structure and practice includes a supportive, reciprocal partnership between the school and its district or local educational agency.  As I interpret these gains in equity-based inclusive education, our partner schools are increasingly supporting their teachers “from the outside in” and “from the inside out!”

In order for teachers to consistently use evidence-based classroom practices with fidelity in ways that allow all students to learn and enjoy learning in their community classrooms and schools, administrative leaders at the school, district, and state levels must show teachers that their work is valued and supported.

Administrative Leadership gives teachers the opportunity to share their expertise and contribute to meaningful decisions through distributive leadership structures placed in the school and district.  Inclusive policies and practices empower teachers to talk about the barriers to their work in the classroom with certain knowledge that they will not only be heard, but that their concerns will be addressed in a timely manner.  Teachers can also be confident that when they share what has worked for them, their experiences will be used in ways that expand evidence-based practice in their schools, districts, and states.

SWIFT partners have worked diligently to foster school cultures that honor the strength, commitment, and knowledge base of teachers.  SWIFT implementation teams bring these problem-solvers and “can-doers” into the action and provide a role and a voice for their invaluable perspective.  Through an initial focus on Administrative Leadership and Inclusive Policy Structure & Practice, SWIFT schools support teachers, which set up the conditions for all students to learn and grow in their community classrooms and schools through a Multi-Tiered System of Support with an Integrated Educational Framework in Partnership with Families & Communities.

-Maura Hart

Photo of author blog.I began working in Education as a middle and high school English teacher, during which time I earned my Master’s of Education Degree with Antioch University New England and began adjunct teaching for them. While I LOVED teaching in the public schools and working with my students, my life path took me on a different course. During the time when I had two babies and stayed home with them, I went to UMass to get my Ph.D. (it seemed like a good idea at the time…) This work brought me to consulting with schools and districts as a team facilitator and teacher trainer and coach. My experience with a district in Vermont introduced me to the SWIFT Center where I now work with amazingly talented and passionate educators who are committed to including all children in all classrooms.

A group of people sit around a conference table.

SWIFT Implementation Begins with Teams

In 2013, SWIFT entered intensive partnerships with 64 schools from 16 districts in 5 states.  Implementation science and our collective past experiences told us that we needed to engage the whole system—school, district, and state education agency (SEA)—to achieve sustainable results, and told us that we need to begin with establishing collaborative teams at each level.  We also knew that the people in each local educational system had valuable knowledge and strengths upon which to build.  Our job was to prepare them to implement a transformation they envisioned for themselves—and so we began our technical assistance with TEAMS.

What makes an effective and efficient team where all members want to be there, contribute ideas, respect differences, and work together to accomplish a common goal? Structures for participation! How many of our SWIFT partner teams: school transformation, district implementation, and state leadership practice these:

  • Shared and rotating roles for team meeting participation including the meeting facilitator, note-taker, snack provider, jargon-buster, and other valued contributions?
  • An agenda that is sent out by the assigned facilitator in advance of the meeting?
  • An agenda that always begins with celebrations and ends with a summary of the agreed-upon actions and plans for the next meeting (time, date, roles)?
  • Note-taking in a way that documents key items, decisions, and follow up actions, and is not simply a list of bullet points of everything said in the meeting?
  • Minutes that are distributed within a day or two of the meeting?
  • Follow up, including materials preparation, research, and other communications by members per their assignments?
  • Discussion that respects differences, engages quiet members, and values the input of all?

The teams engaged with SWIFT implementation are focused on planning and overseeing the use of the 6 SWIFT TA practices that help schools, districts, and states, develop action plans and evaluate their impact. We ask our teams to VISION: generate a collective agreement about their vision for schools that are fully implementing the SWIFT Domains and Features, and successfully including all students. Our teams use a DATA SNAPSHOT process to look at their data on student performance and progress, implementation of SWIFT, and organizational structures that support student success through school-wide structures for all learners. Teams then PLAN PRIORITIES AND PRACTICES for development at the school, district, and state levels: as schools implement evidence-based practices, districts and states build their capacity to support equity in educational practices and outcomes for all students. As teams begin to plan forward, they identify the breadth of all possible available by MAPPING AND MATCHING RESOURCES across local, state, regional, and national arenas that will help with implementing new practices or improving upon current ones. Teams identify the personnel strengths to be developed, and the organizational structures that will support implementation of transformed practices – all with the goal of including all learners, and achieving successful student outcomes.

SWIFT technical assistance staff and their state/local partners follow protocol for facilitating this work and COACHING our local partners for fidelity to the technical assistance process. The key, however, are the TEAMS, and the ways in which they work. They are key to implementation of SWIFT and the practices that lead to improved capacity and transformation of education for all learners.

Carol Quirk, Ed.D.

I am… a wife, mother, sister, gardener, reader. I work in the field of disability and education, mostly in Maryland, and occasionally traveling for work. I love my family and friends.

Implementing SWIFT? Hone Our Adaptive Leadership Skills!

This topic is near and dear to my heart. While I lean to the tidy side when it comes to my space and belongings, it’s the complex and not so tidy aspects of working together with others in leading change that is my life fuel!  Transforming our schools to be learning environments where each and every one of our students can thrive can be challenging indeed. A commitment to SWIFT implementation requires what Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky (2009) refer to as technical and adaptive leadership approaches and skills. Let’s distinguish their differences.

Technical challenges are more clearly defined and can be largely managed or controlled in a hierarchal fashion. A leader or small group can make the decision on what needs to happen and put in place a system for monitoring its implementation. The other side of that leadership coin are adaptive challenges. These challenges are not easily defined; they require learning to create shared understanding about all the facets of a topic or issue, then dialogue and deliberation to determine the best way forward. With adaptive challenges, leaders engage a representative body of stakeholders in a collaborative learning conversation so that the solutions to systemic, complex issues can be created and sustained. An adaptive leadership approach is rooted in the belief that the wisdom resides within the system for many of the issues we face. Knowing how to tap the collective intelligence of that system is key. A glimpse into the adaptive leadership toolbox reveals four sets of interrelated skills:

  • Communication
  • Facilitation
  • Conflict competence
  • Systems thinking

Going deeper, reflected in those skill sets are some core values to which masters of adaptive leadership cling:

Honest and open communication. Humility. Service. Growth and development of self and others. Creativity and open-mindedness. Teamwork – positive, trusting relationships. Compassion. Courage. Determination. Appreciation. Leadership from any chair. Achieving. Personal responsibility. Respect. Integrity.

SWIFT implementation is chock full of adaptive challenges. “All hands on deck for all kids” rolls off the tongue easily, but it’s a complex endeavor to make real. It necessarily involves changing roles and relationships within school communities and engagement with stakeholders across the whole educational system. In short, our dreams for equity based inclusive schoolwide transformation can only be realized to the extent that our individual and collective leadership practices make it possible. And because our inner game runs our outer game, our core beliefs and values deeply matter. In experiencing adaptive leadership, we can look for the reflection of those values “being lived” in every conversation—oral, written, or email; how meetings or work groups are facilitated and accountability to our norms made visible, and how conflicts are surfaced and managed productively.

In our SWIFT partner states, districts, and schools, it is impressive to witness our colleagues from across the system manifesting these core values as they skillfully exercise adaptive leadership in their SWIFT implementation efforts. They are fully engaged in harvesting the intelligence and mobilizing the strengths of system stakeholders (e.g., educators, staff, students, family and community members, educational governing boards, higher education representatives, mental health service providers, legislators, and the business community) in multiple ways to reach desired goals and sustain results over time. These adaptive leaders clearly recognize that just like our students, we’re better together.

Linda Beitz

Photo of blog post author.Linda is on staff at the SWIFT Center as a member of the State Education Agency (SEA) Facilitator Team and the Capacity and Sustainability Team. Her passion is supporting educators’ in a positive relational approach to systems change, leadership effectiveness, and personal/team conflict competence. She’s the mother of two wonderful young adults and an avid (seasonal) bicyclist along Chicago’s lakefront.

SWIFT Guide Logo

Introducing SWIFT-FIG!

I like to think of the SWIFT features as the “Top 10 ways to make your school fully inclusive,” and SWIFT-FIG is your guide for understanding those features.

Student with teacher after graduation

Teaching the Teacher

Parker reminded me of the power teachers have to make or break a student. Positive teacher-student relationships matter. I am grateful Parker taught me this lesson.


It’s About the Team

The team is everything. Whether it is a family team working together to care for a cat, or an educational team working together to educate a child, the team makes things work (or not).

When Change Comes

Fear. Panic. Overwhelming sadness. Those were some of the emotions I felt upon hearing that our beloved principal of 12 years was being transferred to a new school. What would happen to our school? What would happen to all that has been built to support students and their success? Who would lead the charge to continue the successful practices established here?

Once I got a handle on the raw emotions that came with the announcement, I took time to think about our school, our staff, the hard work, the dedication, and all that had been established over the years to make our school a place where ALL students are accepted, loved, and given the support they need to learn and be successful. That was just it! Although the vision of a school where all students were supported, provided with opportunities for success, and expected to learn started many years ago with our principal, the reality is fully in practice today with a school-wide community that believes and practices those very basic principles daily. What an opportunity we now have to share those principles and belief system with a new administrator and new colleagues!

I know that our school and its success with students will survive this change. However, it’s not enough to “just survive.” We need to “thrive!” But how will that happen?  By continuing the practices we know are effective with students and families, and living the philosophy that the success of each student is non-negotiable.

Staff members already model for each other and function as teacher experts in a variety of areas—technology, curriculum, best practices, accommodations, supports, and lesson planning. It will be especially important for existing staff members to model and encourage the basic tenants of successful practices for new staff members. Sharing our successes with students, families, and with each other will help those practices ripple throughout the school community. Sharing our ideas and successes with elements of the curriculum—as well as best practices and accommodations that work for and with students—will help those same positive ideas and successes spread to other teachers and classrooms. Engaging in and sharing those elements of our positive practices will encourage new staff members—as well as the new principal—to want to become part of the success and support its continuation.

Continuing an atmosphere of ongoing problem solving will also be especially important. When a community is focused on problem solving, it leaves little room for negativity, defeating comments, and emotions. A problem solving attitude and expectation gives staff members a positive outlet and direction upon which to focus when things occur that are not exactly what would like to be seen or experienced. It also ensures that meeting student needs and making adjustments to meet those needs remains the focus.  This is particularly important since each year is different and student needs are ever changing.

New school-based leaders will step up to work with already established leaders to influence the continued positive student-centered decision making. Consequently, it will be imperative that effective communication continues to occur among staff members, students, families, school, and the community. Established staff must be willing to speak up, share philosophies, ask questions, and continue to problem solve to determine successful strategies and practices. Those of us who have been part of this school community cannot expect new staff members to automatically know what to do, why things are in place, and why we do what we do unless we tell them. We have to be willing and committed to talking to and with one another, as well as respectfully speaking up when we have questions or concerns. We also have to be committed to listening to one another, even if we may not agree with the other’s perspective. With the willingness and determination to keep the lines of communication open and functioning, it will ensure that, although every decision and situation may, and probably will, not be easy, it will be possible for our school to continue on a positive trajectory.

Yes, there will be differences this school year. Differences are inevitable with a change in leadership. However, it does not mean that those differences will, necessarily, fundamentally change the established positive practices of our school. It is the responsibility of those staff members who remain at our school, the families of the children we serve, and the community to look for the philosophy and practices that have, over time, proven successful and beneficial for all our students to be continued and improved upon. The bar is definitely set high.

Through the challenges and successes of the new elements of this school year—as well as in coming years—it will be imperative that we all support and encourage one another.  We will repeatedly need to remind each other why we are here, why we do what we do, and why it is important that we continue on this path.  It’s about the kids. ALL kids. When we focus on the kids and what is important for them—no matter who the other players are at the school—everything falls into place. It can and will continue to be a place where ALL students thrive.

– Teri Jones

Photo of blog author.Each day is important to every child – so we all need to make every moment count! If my thirty years in the classroom have taught me anything it is that. To me, teaching is not just a job, it’s a life’s work! My passion is helping ALL children reach their potential and I am blessed to work with some amazing professionals and even more amazing children. I hold a Master’s Degree from the University of Florida and I currently serve as the lead ESE teacher at Newberry Elementary, in Newberry, Florida.