Culture Reboot

Despite the fact that she’s well into her tenth year as a superintendent, Dr. Mary Czajkowski continues to see herself as a student, with much to learn from her community. So her first year leading Cape Cod’s nine-school, 4,100-student Barnstable Public Schools has been marked by her commitment to listening and collaborative decision-making.

“My approach back in 2002 as a first-year superintendent in Agawam Public Schools, also in Massachusetts, was fragmented and more piecemeal,” says Czajkowski. “I wasn’t focused on outreach, so it took me years to develop a sense of culture and community.”

Collaborative approach

By contrast, she came to the Barnstable interview process armed with a 90-day plan that included engaging with all her constituents—parents, teachers, business leaders and community members. By establishing that the entire community is responsible for providing Barnstable’s students with the best possible education, she also established herself as a leader who listens.

While Czajkowski had worked with K12 Insight to take the pulse of the Agawam community, she had not taken the systemic approach which is now allowing her to gather a wealth of information in a short period of time.

As her first year at Barnstable Public Schools comes to a close, she can point to measurable results.

Giving staff a voice

One of her first actions was to establish an ongoing dialogue and assessment as part of the school improvement plan. While she had already been meeting and speaking with teachers and administrative staff in a variety of venues, she wanted to ensure that all staff members had the opportunity to have their voices heard. So, in early 2012, she launched a survey asking about issues focusing on core values, communication processes, challenges at individual school sites, teaching resources, professional development, staff engagement and parent involvement.

Since Superintendent Czajkowski’s arrival on August 29, 2011, how has the Superintendent’s Office been doing at keeping you informed about issues impacting education in Barnstable Public Schools as a whole?

More than 600 staff members participated, for a strong 76% response rate, with the majority saying the district does a “Good” or “Excellent” job of abiding by the core values and that the Superintendent’s Office keeps them well informed. Czajkowski was pleased to learn that staff felt positively about their collective dedication, Barnstable’s high-quality academic programs and the district’s overall strong sense of community. But she needed to immediately address concerns voiced about school choice resulting in declining enrollment, insufficient staff resources to keep students engaged in learning, and a lack of staff awareness regarding district leadership responsibilities.

The survey also reinforced Czajkowski’s suspicion that the majority of teachers and staff were not feeling part of the decision-making process. In written feedback, more than 400 respondents shared their desire for increased engagement, specifically asking for improved communication from administration to keep staff in the loop. They also requested that both staff and student input be taken more seriously and that non-teaching staff have an equal voice.

“I think staff really became engaged in telling their story,” says Czajkowski. “And we learned that, while we value collaboration, I’m not sure that’s actually happening. One of our themes is communication in decision-making. How we communicate in general, and how we communicate our decisions.”

Learning from feedback

To continue her collaborative, systemic approach, Czajkowski and her assistant superintendent met with the district’s principals to discuss each school’s results.

“Overall, the principals said the survey provided them with good information and data,” she says. “But they were caught off guard by some of the responses because they thought they were good communicators and that they were involving teachers and staff in decision-making. I view that as the adaptive, rather than technical, challenges. The principals said, ‘I knew we didn’t have enough smart boards and computers, and I knew discipline was a problem in my school.’ But leadership is where they fell short and didn’t realize it.”

Now that problem areas have been identified, each principal is responsible for putting together a team to look at the data and identify three areas of concern which he or she will work on with staff next year. An ongoing dialogue and assessment is a mandatory part of next year’s improvement plan for each school, with every principal responsible for presenting evidence that effective changes have been implemented.

Identifying enrollment challenges

Along with improving communication between administrators and teachers, Czajkowski is also committed to identifying the root cause of Barnstable’s declining enrollment, which has resulted in the closures of three schools in the past three to four years.

While Barnstable is a school choice district, Czajkowski sees many parents eschewing public education in favor of smaller private schools, which offer better personalization in the way the schools communicate with their stakeholders. Barnstable parents are actively involved in their children’s education, says Czajkowski, and, as is usual in a small town, everybody knows everybody. The power of word-of-mouth cannot be underestimated.

Adding to the district’s challenges are the numerous transitions students undergo as they move from one school to the next — from a small K-3 school to a more impersonal, 800-strong 4-5 school, onto intermediate school (6-7) and, finally, high school (8-12).

Czajkowski acknowledges that grades four through seven can be a difficult time for students and believes strong leadership in the form of a visible, approachable principal is critical. The key, Czajkowski notes, is in creating a more nurturing environment with more personalized communication, such as a note or call home, a buddy system or perhaps small schools within larger schools.

Reaching out to the community

Meanwhile, the outreach continues, with Czajkowski instituting regular Superintendent House Calls, during which she visits with a group of parents in an informal setting, complete with potluck dishes. “What I’m amazed at,” she says, “is these sessions are not about their individual kid, but about what we can do as a school community to help all children. They’re offering suggestions and feedback, and I’m following up on that.”

Czajkowski also spends one day a week at district schools, observing instruction in one school’s classrooms in the morning and then eating lunch with students in another. She hopes her approachable, concerned leadership style will become the norm for all Barnstable administrators.

“By proactively reaching out to teachers and staff, we were able to reassure them that their feedback matters,” says Czajkowski. “And I have become a better leader by listening.”