Failure Is Not an Option is not just the title of a best-selling book; it's a mantra for many high-performing districts. The Mansfield (Texas) Independent School District adopted this motto in 2007 and hasn't looked back.
The district—the second-largest in Texas with over 35,000 students—was far from low-achieving, although it was experiencing rapid change with the addition of over 2,000 students each year. Located outside Dallas, Mansfield has had to add a new school each year for the last 13 years to keep up with enrollment. It currently has 40 schools.
While the district was far from fractured, says Area Superintendent Sarah Jandrucko, district leaders wanted to find a way to keep up with its rapid growth. "We needed something to help focus our direction and make sure we weren't letting any students slip through the cracks," she says.
According to Jandrucko, district leaders felt the growth could best be handled by an outside party, so the district partnered with the HOPE Foundation (Harnessing Optimism and Potential in Education). "Sometimes it's good to have someone from the outside. I've often wondered if we could do this internally without them, and I'm not sure we could have. You have to have somebody with a clear vision. They had a vision of where we were and where we wanted to be," says Jandrucko.
The HOPE Foundation's president and founder, Alan Blankstein, is the author of Failure Is Not an Option, which offers six principles that together provide a comprehensive framework for creating a high-performing district. The principles are simple in theory and identify a direction most districts want to head in.
The six principles are (1) a common vision and goals throughout the district; (2) a comprehensive system for intervention and prevention with students; (3) collaborative teaming for teaching and learning; (4) data-driven decision making for continuous improvement; (5) engaging family and community members; and (6) building a sustainable leadership capacity.
"The principles don't act as independent units; they're all interconnected," says Blankstein. "This language articulates what they are doing and provides strategies for a reference and a real specificity around what it looks like.
Starting at the Top
The district's transformation began with intense professional development from the top down. Four times each year, administrators, principals and approximately five teachers from each school team up and meet with teams from all schools across the district to discuss the problems they're facing in the classroom and how they can be solved. For instance, teachers examine test scores or attendance levels in their school and pinpoint what interventions could take place to raise them.
These Courageous Leadership Academies—a name coined by the HOPE Foundation—allow members from each school to work with HOPE counselors to engage in deep conversations about their students. The counselors attend every CLA meeting and meet periodically with the district, particularly in the first year during the implantation phase. After the meetings, team members create a "re-entry strategy" detailing how they will re-enter their school and relay what they've learned to their colleagues.
"During the first year, the conversations were limited and there wasn't as much trust," says Jandrucko. "After the second and third years, I had people telling me that the conversations about students were richer. Also, in the beginning the principals were the leaders of the table. Now you can't even tell who the principal is. Everyone brings something to the table, and we are building leadership capacity."
Teachers and administrators debate core values and share best practices and what they expect to see in a classroom. Jandrucko says the trickle-down effect is seen in every school and every classroom. "The real responsibility comes back to the educators. The conversation becomes what I can do differently with this student to make them successful, what I have tried and what I might try next if this doesn't work," she says.
Blankstein says the three-year model is necessary to create sustainable change. "The first year has to do with getting everything aligned and orienting the six principles. There's a heavy amount of implementation. Year two and year three are all about embedding and sustaining the effort. The goal is for us to leave and get the district ready for the next decade."
From Good to Great
A report released by the American Institutes for Research and the HOPE Foundation found that three years later the district saw strong results in 34 out of 40 schools and had a high-rate of success among English language learner, minority, and low-income students. The district average in mathematics rose from 83.1 percent proficiency in 2006-2007 to 86.6 percent in 2008-2009. Mansfield ISD achieved the status of "Recognized" by the state of Texas, the second-highest ranking on the Texas accountability scale.
According to the report, there is a correlation between organizational and structural district conditions, such as teacher collaboration, flexible scheduling and principal support for teachers with student achievement. The report also states that student achievement is improved with quality instruction.
Moreover, the morale among teachers and students has improved, and parent engagement is at an all-time high. "We're redefining our culture," says Jandrucko. "At-risk students are more engaged, including low-income and some minority students."
Failure Is Not an Option has sold over a quarter of a million copies worldwide. The HOPE Foundation has worked with districts in Mattoon, Ill.; Wichita, Kan.; and Fort Wayne, Ind.; and it will soon be working with a network of 100 schools in New York City. Although Mansfield ISD found great success through the HOPE counselors, Blankstein says any district—no matter its developmental level or size—can find success through the book's principles.
"It really has to do with [the district's] readiness, motivation and willingness," says Blankstein. "The monetary investment is minimal. It's about finding the time, focus and commitment—and leveraging the commitment that's already there. We created the construct for them to share their excellence and make it the norm. In any district, they already have the solution for almost everything."