Change management is how leaders approach pursuing, achieving, and sustaining systemic change. As leaders at Liberty Public Schools in Missouri will tell you, the change management process can be wrought with challenges -- but the key is to start with a strong vision and bring people along with you, every step of the way.
Serving 12,800 students just northeast of Kansas City, Liberty Public Schools has been on an impressive change journey over the last few years. With a new profile of a graduate as its north star, the district has made an intentional move towards social-emotional learning and, now, a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) to support the whole child.
We recently had the chance to sit down with district and school leaders from Liberty Public Schools, including Christopher Hand, director of assessment, evaluation, and testing; Jessica Meisenheimer, Ph.D., director of special programs; and Chris Gabriel, principal.
We talked with Christopher, Jessica, and Chris about the district's approach to change management, how they've brought educators along on the journey to implement SEL and MTSS, and how they're providing ongoing skill development to sustain change. Here’s what they shared.
How do you typically begin the process of leading change at Liberty Public Schools?
Cristopher Hand: It begins with staff mindsets as you roll through that change -- thinking through, why are we going through this change, what would happen if we made this change, why not go through this change, and the obstacles that will happen as you go through that change. Mainly, you have to understand that, as you're leading change, you need to seek the unexpected. Often we're faced with problems that do not have the easiest solutions, but we have to have quality mindsets.
Chris Gabriel: The biggest piece is painting that vision. What do we see ourselves becoming, and what is it we want to achieve in partnership with our students, families, and staff? That helps us avoid changing for the sake of change.
Another piece of the change process is to let go of -- or unhinge from -- past practices that may have been great for us. There needs to be an evolution of thinking and practice along the change journey. We should be asking our students to do this every day, so why not engage in this as adults: "I've tried this out, I've done my best, and maybe it didn't work." So, let's study that, figure it out, and do better or differently next time.
Dr. Jessica Meisenheimer: One of the things our district does really well is meeting people where they are and honoring the experience they bring to the table. We ask people what their vision is, and we help tie that to the broader vision of the district. We also allow for a lot of building-level autonomy. While the district sets the vision, we give each building the autonomy to create the system that will work for their specific staff and students. Another big piece is allowing people to make mistakes. It's really important to have a leadership team who understands that it's OK to make mistakes -- because that's how you're going to get better.
"Two years ago, we ran focus groups with building leaders, teachers, district leaders, and students. We found that we were data rich but learner information poor. We had all of this data about students, but not a lot of learner information. That led us on a journey towards social-emotional learning."
–Christopher Hand, Director of Assessment, Evaluation and Testing
How have you brought those principles into the launch of your new strategic plan?
JM: In launching our new strategic plan this school year, we started by orienting around a graduate profile. We mapped out the characteristics that we want our students to have when they leave us, so we could understand: What are the gifts and tools we need to give our students? All of the action steps in the strategic plan were built around that graduate profile.
CH: The profile of a graduate helps us look to the models of the future, instead of clinging to the models of the past. It is focused clearly on student results and student successes. And our commitment to social-emotional learning within that portrait of a graduate led us to our critical friends at Panorama. We were looking for tools, resources, and playbooks that would help us work with students at the ground level on SEL.
At Liberty, you talk a lot about moving from "feel" to "real" with data. How did you go from "feel" to "real" with social-emotional learning?
CH: Two years ago, we ran focus groups with building leaders, teachers, district leaders, and students. We found that we were data rich but learner information poor. We had all of this data about students, but not a lot of learner information. That led us on a journey towards SEL and Panorama.
JM: To achieve our graduate profile, we knew we had to move towards thinking about the whole child. We knew we needed a way to look at everything the child is bringing to the building, so that we could craft our educational programming around their needs. Panorama gives us the data we need to have whole child conversations: What do we need to do instructionally to ensure that wherever our students are today, we're guiding them towards that graduate profile? We're now measuring students' social awareness, self-efficacy, grit, growth mindset, self-management, learning strategies through the Panorama SEL Survey.
CG: As a building leader, I can look at SEL data at the building, classroom, and individual student levels. The data has helped us differentiate our supports for kids on a different level, going beyond academic intervention protocols. We can now look at what students are saying about how they feel in school and how they relate to others, and then build structures around it.
Panorama helped us move from "feel" to "real." Teachers do a phenomenal job of knowing their kids, but having the tangible data to validate those feelings -- that was a catalyst to move into action for our kids. On the social-emotional side with Panorama, it sometimes becomes a chicken or egg conversation. Is the social-emotional piece preventing me from accessing learning, or are my learning struggles manifesting itself as social, emotional, or behavioral challenges? The data allows an educator to lean in and take action in partnership with the student.
"Panorama helped us move from 'feel' to 'real' with SEL. Teachers do a phenomenal job of knowing their kids, but having the tangible data to validate those feelings -- that was a catalyst to move into action for our kids."
–Chris Gabriel, Principal
Different people may be in different places when it comes to SEL. How have you brought teachers and staff along on this journey, while honoring their autonomy?
CH: You have to start with the heart before you get to the head. The heart is the strongest muscle in the body. We've done a lot of professional development with our teachers that starts with the heart. We use student stories to look at this data from Panorama. In addition, Panorama's professional development gave us a language for how to speak to one another regarding change. So instead of using negative terms, it's saying "I wonder" or "I noticed." When we talk to principals and teachers about change, it's "I wonder why Timmy is having a hard time in class" or "I noticed he's been doing poorly here, and what strategies can we use to help Timmy?"
JM: The approach that has worked for our district is starting with a subset of schools that are interested -- even if they don't know what to do yet or will need guidance and training along the way. We find that, once those schools get up and running and are seeing success, then that next subset of schools wants to step up and get started too. If you see others taking that risk and finding success, then you're willing to come along in the next round, or in the round after that.
How has your district approached rolling out a multi-tiered system of supports that incorporates SEL?
JM: We're just getting started building MTSS. It's a big undertaking and takes a lot to move everyone in the same direction. We've started by simplifying it into three buckets and educating our school teams on those buckets. The first is data: What data sources do we need to be looking at to make decisions? The second big bucket is teams. Once we have our data, what teams do we have in place that will come together to talk about that data and make instructional decisions? And the last bucket is our tiered instruction and supports. What are we providing to all students in academics, SEL, and behavior, and what are we providing to some and few students in those same areas?
We're also embarking on using Panorama Student Success to support our MTSS. I'm excited about having a dashboard that looks at all of the different aspects of students, because you can't separate a student's academic performance with their attendance, behavior, or SEL. Now, with this greater dashboard, we can put all of this data in one place so we can have more cohesive conversations about students.
"You can't separate a student's academic performance with their attendance, behavior, or SEL. Now, with Panorama Student Success, we can put all of this data in one place so we can have more cohesive conversations about students."
–Dr. Jessica Meisenheimer, Director of Special Programs
CH: A lot of people overestimate the risk of trying something new or different. But I like to say that you can't underestimate the risk of standing still. Embarking on our journey with social-emotional learning, MTSS, and Panorama was something different. But the truth is, before this, we were standing still by just looking at academic data. We weren't moving towards SEL, MTSS, and the work that needs to be done in these areas.