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Leading for Innovation

June 17, 2019

As the 2018-2019 school year wraps up, I have been reflecting on the impact of our collective efforts to be an innovative school district.  Saline Schools is focused on continuous improvement; acceptance of mediocrity in the classroom is not tolerated. While there is some comfort in the status quo, doing what we have always done does not promote curiosity, innovation, or growth.

There is, nonetheless,  a shadow side to this important focus. Fatigue, teacher burnout, and frustration can set in if the initiative does not feel aligned and purpose driven.

As the superintendent, making strategic leadership decisions often feels like a balancing act between competing priorities.  When implementing a new instructional innovation such as the learner profile (the SAS Compass), this struggle is amplified. It is particularly problematic when teachers, students, or parents are tasked with changing the way they work, interact, and learn. Change is difficult. Growth involves making difficult decisions. As the district leader, it is essential that I communicate clearly the overall vision for the district. Part of that vision includes helping all stakeholders to understand the “why” of each initiative.

While some teachers are eager to embrace new ideas, others loathe steering away from what “works” or what is comfortable. There are building and department leaders in Saline Schools that strive to improve every aspect of the operation.  Yet, those talented leaders may resent the loss of autonomy that comes with district-wide initiatives. While showing those leaders that their work and talents are appreciated, I continue the work of ensuring equitable access to programs for all students. For all of our students, the vision must be communicated with coherence and consistency.

I relish the summer break. It’s never a “break,” but a time to reflect and plan.  Planning, visioning, and implementation take time. It seems that taking the strategic plan to scale is what is necessary. Yet, terms like “scaling” echo the factory model that schools have been built on for the past century.  I think we’re better than that. So, it’s not just the terminology that I’m wrestling with, it’s how to best articulate the Saline Area Schools vision for strategic leadership and growth.

Saline Area Schools – Class of 2019

June 2, 2019
Photo Courtesy:

Saline High School
Senior Class Survey

Recently, the members of the Class of 2019 completed an online survey to indicate where they would be sending their final transcript. The results for the 425 responses are below:

Michigan Colleges (337) 79%
Out of State Colleges (88) 21%

Michigan Public Colleges (306) 55%
Michigan Private Colleges (31) 7%

Interesting Numbers:

Michigan Private Schools
Adrian College 8
Albion College 4
Alma College 2
Calvin College 2
Concordia University – Ann Arbor 1
Hope College 3
Kalamazoo College 2
Kettering University 1
Lawrence Technological University 1
Northwood University 6

Michigan Public Schools
Central Michigan University 6
Eastern Michigan University 32
Ferris State University 6
Grand Valley State University 23
Michigan State University 65
Michigan Technological University 9
Northern Michigan University 0
Oakland University 0
Saginaw Valley State University 1
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor 38
University of Michigan – Dearborn 3
Wayne State University 3
Western Michigan University 22

Michigan Community Colleges
Lansing Community College 1
Schoolcraft College 2
Washtenaw Community College 59

Public Out of State Colleges
Bowling Green State University 3
Colorado State University 1
Indiana University 3
Miami (OH) University 3
North Carolina State 1
Ohio State University 1
Ohio University 1
Penn State University 2
Purdue University 1
University of Alabama – Birmingham 1
University of Alabama – Huntsville 1
University of California – Los Angeles 1
University of California – Santa Cruz 1
University of Cincinnati 1
University of Colorado – Boulder 2
University of Findley 1
University of Kentucky 3
University of Louisville 2
University of Nebraska 1
University of Pittsburgh 1
University of South Carolina 1
University of St. Andrews – Scotland 1
University of Tennessee 1
University of Texas – El Paso 1
University of Toledo 1
University of Wisconsin at Madison 3
Utah Valley State University 2

Private Out of State Colleges
Amherst College 1
Ashland University 2
Bethel University 1
Brown University 2
Butler University 2
Cleveland Institute of Art 1
Cornell University 1
Duquesne 1
Elmhurst College 1
Furman University 1
Heidelberg University 2
High Point University 1=
Houghton College 1
Indiana Wesleyan University 3
Lewis & Clark 1
Lourdes University 1
Loyola University Chicago – 2
Northwestern University 1
Notre Dame 1
Rhodes College 1
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology 1
Savannah College of Art & Design 1
Wellesley College 1
Westminster College 1
Xavier University 2

Community Conversation – May 17th

May 16, 2019

I have the opportunity tomorrow afternoon to host a quick Community Conversation from 1:00pm-2:15pm. The intent is for an open discussion on issues you want discuss.

As always, there are a lot of issues we can discuss – district growth, school calendar, social & emotional health, and many more… You bring the topics.  

The event is Friday, May 17th from 1:00pm-2:15pm at Carrigan Cafe, 101 S. Ann Arbor St. Please stop by, say hello and bring any thoughts about the district you feel I should know.

If you can’t make it, feel free to use “Let’s Talk” and let me know your thoughts.

Thank you,
Scot Graden

Thank you everyone for a great Community Conversation.

The Courage to Challenge Insensitive Comments

April 30, 2019

At a recent community conversation, a discussion arose regarding ignorant and insensitive comments.  When considering equity, diversity, and inclusion, how should one address a speaker when culturally insensitive comments are made? It is awkward, at a minimum, to confront or challenge a passionate speaker. Yet, failing to do so gives the subtle impression that we are in agreement with the speaker. Beginning the conversation is a start, yet few have the skill set or requisite background knowledge to interrupt and correct a speaker. Knowing when to interject with sensitivity and stop derogatory comments takes confidence.  Fortunately, modeling inclusivity and assertive speech are skills that can be taught.

In group settings, individuals may make insensitive, hurtful, or thoughtless comments about others. Such comments may be racist, sexist, or rudely offensive. These comments can come in the form of jokes or slurs. Usually, speakers are unaware of their own biases, old terms, and blind spots. How should one respond?

  • If a comment is made maliciously or deliberately, respectfully state that the comment is inappropriate and ask the speaker not to say it again.
  • If the speaker is unaware of the faux pas, take the person aside later and explain how the comment may have offended others.
  • .If you have a question about a comment that you are about to make in a group setting, err on the side of caution.  If you feel that a comment could be misinterpreted, misconstrued or viewed as insensitive to the group, hold the thought.  For example, using the term, “Pow Wow,” when referring to a meeting or gathering is disrespectful toward a Native American tradition.

We can all get better. Read, talk, and share experiences. Agree to group norms at work and set hard lines where tolerance is concerned. Building an inclusive culture takes time, just as learning takes time. Start by having conversations at work. Discuss an article, such as this one, published by Harvard Business Review.  How to Respond to an Offensive Comment at Work Once the adult conversations begin, talking with young people is much more comfortable. Being confident in the conversation and knowing when/how to correct another’s offensive, condescending, or derogatory comments is a skill that we can all develop with practice.

Ambiguity Tolerance

April 28, 2019

Years ago, I introduced the concept of being good at “change” by scheduling meetings with building staff and then sharing what I thought was a simple and direct message.  After my first visit, (sorry, Heritage School staff) I learned that the message was anything but simple. My message intended to convey the idea of being flexible and open to positive change; a growth mindset comes to fruition.  Unfortunately, the talk invoked a fear of unwanted and needless change. Staff members interpreted my message as “change for change sake” rather than one of encouraging growth.

In reality, change is inevitable.  School leaders must become adept at dealing with uncertainty. That skill, known as ambiguity tolerance, involves embracing unpredictability and the unknown, both as vehicles for positive growth.

School leaders notoriously control the environment and seek order.  Helping leaders to learn how to let go of the desire for control is challenging, yet necessary. Once school leaders can accept the discomfort that comes with not always having the answers, growth begins. To be effective in my role as Superintendent, I need to resist the urge to move too quickly.  The desire to solve issues expeditiously or rush to innovate without enough information can result in poor implementation. While I may have a vision for what needs to take place, unless I carefully weigh all possible outcomes, involve critical stakeholders, and trust the process, the vision will fail.  

Conversely, not embracing the need to make sound decisions and move forward means accepting the status quo. Mediocrity might be comfortable; however, it is not future-focused and innovative. Those of you familiar with Saline Area Schools mission, vision, and learner profile and know that accepting the status quo is not an option.

Does educational nostalgia hold us back?

April 24, 2019
Liberty School in the 1970's
Liberty School in the 1970’s

Earlier this week, we received the picture (above) of Liberty School. It was pleasing to see the building in the background with the students (and pony!) in the foreground.  This is Liberty School, constructed in 1959, in its infancy! Ann Arbor-Saline Road certainly looks very different! I reflected on that era and thought about the many positive aspects specific to the social and emotional health of young people during that time. A simpler time, no doubt. However, I also began to reflect on the limitations to educational options and technological access in that same era.

The 1970s in Saline pre-dated the concept of inclusion for students with special needs. The curriculum was narrow, there were limited extra-curricular options, and most students followed the one-size fits all path toward high school graduation. Society has changed dramatically over the past forty years. What society asks – even demands –  of public education has changed as well. Primarily, the curricular changes must reflect the needs of the students as they prepare for the adult world. That adult world is changing at exponential speed, however. Some of the careers that today’s high school students will enter do not even exist today. Building upon the strong foundation that has historically been the Saline Area Schools is a calculated approach, tradition-bound, yet future-focused.

I am proud of the foundation that Saline Area Schools was built upon, including the 1970s era. I also look thoughtfully at present and to the future.  We must continue to focus on curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular improvements that benefit the student experience. Ultimately, preparing an informed, involved citizenry is our most essential task.

Does school have to be boring?

April 7, 2019
Saline High School
Hornet Hub at Saline High School

The New York Times published an opinion piece on Sunday, March 30, 2019, entitled, “High School Doesn’t Have to be Boring.”  The authors spent six years traveling about the US, visiting schools, and talking with students. Remarkably, nearly 75% of elementary-aged school children report feeling challenged by the schoolwork. This percentage drops to less than 35% by grade eleven. Older students do not feel academically challenged. To “cover the curriculum,” teachers skim, noting dates/times/events, yet rarely engage or challenge students to dig deeper into difficult content.

Surprising to the researchers was the discovery that the deeper dives into the curriculum were not happening in core academic classes. This discovery-type learning was occurring in extra-curricular areas, elective courses, and clubs. Personally, I was struck by the quote,

“As we spent more time in schools, however, we noticed that powerful learning was happening most often at the periphery — in electives, clubs, and extracurriculars.”

In these spaces – labs, theaters, studios, businesses, and outdoor learning environments – teachers and students are actively engaged and working in concert to discover, innovate, create, and learn. The authors report that these high school students were already engaged and motivated; no additional innovation was necessary. Activities such as these were seen in all high schools, not just those that were typically “high performing.”

In Saline, we are often criticized for the perceived over-emphasis on extracurricular activities.  The reality is – we do put a lot of emphasis on these experiences for our students. As the researchers learned in the New York Times article, the importance of a variety of elective courses, clubs, sports, and music/drama/theater activities is as important as a rigorous academic curriculum.  Saline High School boasts 81 different clubs and thirty-three varsity sports. These clubs and sports provide a plethora of critical and engaging learning opportunities. For some students, these clubs, athletics, and elective courses pique the students’ interests and keep them in school. The benefits that students receive cannot be measured by a test score or a grade. These co-curricular and extra-curricular experiences help shape students into well-rounded adults who become contributing members in society. For some students, a club or sport is the reason they stay in school. It is crucial for us to remember the value if these experiences beyond the surface of the activity itself.

Saline High School Wind Ensemble

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