Words of Wisdom from Opportunity Culture Leaders

October 7, 2021

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, October 7, 2021

Many Opportunity Culture directors/district leads from around the country attended an online gathering in September—a great way to share insights and begin to build this community. Special thanks to those who participated in the panel discussion: Superintendent Scott Muri of Ector County (Texas) Independent School District, and Opportunity Culture directors Jessie Garcia of Ector County; Chris Hightower of Midland (Texas) Independent School District; Anne Claire Tejtel Nornhold of Baltimore City Schools; and Erin Swanson of Edgecombe County (North Carolina) Public Schools.

The panelists had much wisdom to share—here are a few of their comments!

Dr. Scott Muri first saw Opportunity Culture schools in action in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, brought the models to his posting as Spring Branch (Texas) ISD superintendent, and brought it to Ector County last year. “The reason is because it works. I’ve been doing this work for over a decade, and in each system, you saw the effectiveness with kids and with adults. And any time you find a strategy that works, you stick with it.”

Muri highlighted the power of Opportunity Culture (OC) yearlong, paid teacher residencies to help fill their teacher pipeline over time, in an area that struggles to fill teacher positions.

In Edgecombe County, the district started with a feeder pattern of three schools in a very rural area with declining population that primarily serves students of color. “We had students who had literally gone two full years without a full-time, highly qualified teacher—they were taught by a substitute,” Erin Swanson said. “Some of the students are still in our district now, and you still see the implications of that. So, we really got on board with OC because we recognized we had a huge equity issue. We really needed a strategy…to ensure that we were providing all kids with a great education.”

The district found strong leaders for those first schools, she said, and gave them autonomy to recruit excellent teachers and put them where they needed them most. Edgecombe has found that multi-classroom leader (MCL) support has made a significant impact not only on student achievement but on the district’s ability to keep teachers in buildings that previously struggled mightily with retention.

Participants wondered what the panelists had learned about a school’s capacity to successfully implement Opportunity Culture models—leading Muri and Hightower to highlight how much school leadership matters. Anne Claire Tejtel Nornhold said principals need to be open-minded, flexible, and committed to the five Opportunity Culture Principles. And, she said, “they have to believe in and use data.”

Swanson and Hightower were asked to share their biggest successes or challenges.

Swanson noted the spread of Opportunity Culture implementation: “Our superintendent, Dr. (Valerie) Bridges just says, ‘Now OC is the way we do business.’ When she’s talking to folks, she says, ‘It’s just a no-brainer!’ and I think she’s right—it just makes sense. And all of our principals, if you told them you can’t have MCLs anymore, they would not be happy about that….They’ve really come to rely on those teacher-leaders for instructional support in the building.”

In Midland, “first and foremost, we’ve seen growth in the middle of a pandemic year, so that’s an amazing thing,” Hightower said. “But the greatest success is the changing culture you’ve seen on a campus from this. You can even take a campus that has an amazing culture but take it to the next level.”

MCLs have a sense of ownership for their school and the results of their teaching teams, he said. On challenges, he said districts need to continually work to protect MCLs’ time to focus on their role and not get pulled by the many other demands within a school.

Jessie Garcia agreed that district leaders need to remove obstacles for MCLs—”just making sure that they feel supported and have the help that they need to hit the ground running and do the job well.”

In Baltimore, Nornhold said, “we tried really hard to build this community that gives [MCLs and team reach teachers] what they need but without smothering them or being too demanding of their limited time. So we communicate very well with them and get them what they need, but we communicate succinctly and not very often, so they’re not constantly getting emails from us.”

She also noted the need to support principals well, which she named as a challenge for the district early in Opportunity Culture implementation.

Opportunity Culture leaders should prioritize communications, Hightower said, so that everyone who is affected by Opportunity Culture implementation—teachers, parents, the community at large—understands what it is, rather than leaving an information vacuum to be filled by others. “Part of our job is to be ambassadors of this to campuses that don’t yet have Opportunity Culture…making sure that everyone knows what the roles are.”

Asked for the best advice for new Opportunity Culture districts, Nornhold jumped in first, saying how strongly she felt about her answer: Districts and schools need to focus on selecting the strongest people for district teams and to serve in Opportunity Culture roles. “You can overcome any challenges if you have the right people.…Put a lot of resources especially at the beginning to picking incredible educators.”

Muri emphasized fidelity of implementation along with the need to ensure solid communication of how it is aligned to the district’s strategic plan: “This is how we do business as a district—so helping every department, division, school understand that this particular initiative is one that the district holds dear… that’s a critical piece, aligning it to the overall work of the system, so it’s not just this separate thing that sits out here, someone’s pet project, but is owned by the organization.” Muri and Garcia also highlighted the value of multiple means to monitor and measure Opportunity Culture impact. Ector County’s methods include MAP assessments that follow students from K–10 and link growth results to teachers; Panorama surveys of students and teachers; monitoring the number of Opportunity Culture educators who become National Board certified; monitoring how many come through the residency pipeline, and the quality of teachers after a yearlong residency on MCL teams; and the external evaluation noted here.

“We’ve seen and really measure the effect of OC—just the innovation that is embedded with it, to affect other parts of the organization…it is having a systemwide impact,” Muri said.

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