Closing the Opportunity Gap

There I sat in in a room with over one hundred of our country’s most innovative school Superintendents who had been invited by the White House to commit to a pledge of cultivating a culture of digital learning in their school districts by working with students, educators, families and members of the community to become #FutureReady.  It was truly one of the most incredible life-changing opportunities that ever came across my way.

I was completely moved from the speeches by Education Assistant to the President Roberto Rodriguez, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 2014 National Superintendent of the Year Alberto Carvalho and most importantly, the President of the United States, Barack Obama.
As I sat and listened to each one of them speak, I suddenly found myself inspired to take action. But the question that kept running through my head was what action could I take that would make the greatest impact on not only my school community (#bettpride), but for students and families across Iowa and across the country.  How would I confront the challenges and move forward with a sense of urgency so that the passion, hope, and energy I felt over these two days in Washington D.C. would not simply fade away into the pitfalls of the daily grind once I returned to Iowa.
As I perused the notes on my phone on the plane back home, one comment in particular that was shared by Secretary Duncan struck a chord with me, “We must close the opportunity gap first before we can begin the work of closing the achievement gap for kids.” 
So it begins, a call to action for us to commit to begin to identify and provide OPPORTUNITIES for ALL members of our school communities as well as with those members of our personal and professional networks.  The work is too great for the load to fall solely on the shoulders of Superintendents to bring about #FutureReady opportunities that will lead to #FutureReady change.  Our focus needs to shift to providing OPPORTUNITIES for #FutureReady leaders, teachers, and students to come together on a regular basis to help carry the load.  If we truly believe that every individual has the capacity to lead, then perhaps the success of our organizations should be measured by the number of OPPORTUNITIES we provide for others to demonstrate their leadership and impact on both the personal and professional learning by all members of our school communities.
#FutureReadyChange (#FRC) requires….

1.   Opportunities for Model Leaders…..to come together more often. Taking on a leadership role at any level is tough. It takes courage, resiliency, and toughness to withstand the barrage of challenges, negativity, and stress that comes with most leadership roles.  And yet here we sit trying to navigate this journey alone, our thoughts, ideas and worries isolated from our peers and sometimes our own families.  #FRC will require us to surround ourselves with a network of excellence in order to grow and nurture our own need for personal and professional growth.  We must take action by cultivating opportunities for teams of leaders to come together in more meaningful ways. One recommendation I recently shared with some Iowa Superintendents was to make the time to come together in each other’s school districts during PD/meeting days and learn from each other by observing model programs, sharing resources and discussing best practices. I encouraged them to take advantage of every opportunity to come together as a consortium of leaders and turn it into a learning opportunity for themselves and for their school districts by visiting their neighbors in surrounding school districts across the state regularly rather than meet in an isolated meeting location. 

 Signing the #FutureReady Pledge

2.      Opportunities for Model Teachers…to grow and develop their craft.  Let’s admit it.  Being a life-long learner is no easy task.  It takes time, effort, commitment, focus, discipline, desire and a sense of vulnerability to want to push ourselves to the next level. And yet, I still believe that with the right support and level of trust, most of our staff not only aspires to reach the next level, but wants to achieve a greater sense of accomplishment for themselves in order to have a greater impact on their students.  As leaders, it is our responsibility to purposefully invest in new teachers, but we must also make sure to find opportunities to invest in our veteran teachers.  #FRC will require us to provide meaningful teacher-led professional development by both new and veteran teachers in order to cultivate a culture where all teachers feel valued for their expertise and contribution to a school’s success.  We must find ways to highlight their work as well as their students’ work around the building, utilizing social media and local media to showcase the great lessons, projects and learning that is happening in their classrooms.  We will also need to invest, re-invest, and trust in our teachers by providing opportunities for them to attend state and national conferences as a team in order to support a collaborative culture that will move the needle on the barometer from pockets of excellence to a network of excellence.

2014 National World Language Conference in San Antonio 

3.       Opportunities for Model Students…to showcase their character, talents and brilliance.   The question comes down to this.  Do we truly value our students’ voice in the decision making process?  Or do we simply give it lip service?  Creating a platform to spotlight #stuvoice requires trust, belief, high expectations, patience, intentional fortitude, and a mindset that a student can provide meaningful content, conversation and feedback and can represent our schools in a positive manner in any given situation.  And yet as far as we have come in providing students a stage to demonstrate their learning in authentic, non-traditional, and meaningful ways, we have landed short in trial after trial of flattening the hierarchy that exists in schools today when it comes to placing a value on the student voice.  This opportunity gap is even more noticeable at the elementary and middle school levels. Although we have made some progress in amplifying student voice, #FRC is going to require us to be more consistent and thorough in providing student led initiatives that give students a voice in curriculum offerings, school policies, design of classroom and other learning spaces, lesson/unit design, student-led conferences and feedback on teacher effectiveness in the classroom.  In addition, we will need to see more shifts in classroom instruction with consistent implementation of practices such as genius hour, 20% time, gamification activities, project-based learning, student presentations, and other student led learning options that require students to demonstrate their learning through presentation, modeling, and performance.

BHS students speak at 2014 State Iowa Association of School Boards Conference
It has been less than two weeks since I witnessed over one hundred of the best, most creative and innovative Superintendents from across the country sign off on the #FutureReady pledge, committing to work as one.  Two weeks of OPPORTUNITIES to bring teams of school community members together to close the gap have passed since the pledges were signed.  We cannot continue to sequester our leaders, teachers and students if we want to inspire our communities to be #FutureReady.
There is a #FutureReady in all of us, but we must think beyond ourselves and not look at this challenge as an individual, school or district competition, but as an opportunity to come together as a collaborative community to be the #FutureReadyChange for a nation of schools our children deserve.
Will you join me?
“I believe in leading from the front and not asking people to do something that I will not do myself.”  – Alberto Carvalho, 2014 National Superintendent of the Year, Miami- Dade County Public Schools, Florida.

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10 Comments

  • This is exactly on target! When you and your team at the high school were kind enough to fill in for me while I was out learning and networking with other elementary principals, I believe that you all had a chance to grow as much as I did. We have to walk in each other’s shoes to support and lift each other up when tough days come as we know that they will. You know I am on board and would love to pioneer more student voice at elementary, but need a network to bounce ideas off of along with my own team. Thanks for being tomorrow today, Mr. Casas 🙂

  • Jimmy Casas says:

    Lisa – You are exactly right regarding the value and importance of surrounding ourselves with a network of support. One thing that I have always appreciated about you (among many other things) is the way in which you challenge our admin team to think outside the box and focus on what is best for kids. Your ability to challenge our practices continues to cause us to reflect. And we know that with reflection comes growth. Thank you partner! – jimmy

  • Love it Jimmy. Your words and reflections are always so motivating and refreshing as many different mind sets can challenge us each ad every day. The network of support is so important in so many aspects. It can be new ideas, challenging mindsets to tune and idea, refreshing and validating, yet motivating and encouraging. Thank you for all that you do and the opportunities you provide,

  • Jimmy Casas says:

    Thank you Kristy! I know how blessed I am to be surrounded by a tremendous team that values each other and strives to bring their best every day to our students, staff and families. Thank you for modeling excellence every day. You are the best! – jimmy

  • Christie says:

    As students, teachers, and leaders, we all become #FutureReady when we are given the opportunity to surround ourselves with a community of excellence. I appreciate your reflection that it is especially important that leaders reach out to each other to create these opportunities for themselves and for their teachers and students. We grow as we work together, learning through collaboration. Thank you for continuing to share your learning with us so that we can grow, too.

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Christie, – thanks for taking the time to comment. Agreed, our work is to great and too complicated to try and go at it alone. I know early on in my career I thought I could manage it all, but I quickly came to the realization that as a school community we could do so much more if I focused on building the necessary leadership capacity. Thanks again. – jimmy

  • krismitzner says:

    Jimmy – This is a FABULOUS reflection post! I do believe that it is going to be the networks of educators that are committed to preparing #FutureReady students that will begin a movement to equip our students with the capacity to create, connect, collaboration and communicate and solve global challenges. We are preparing students for a digital world that we cannot comprehend! Thank you for inspiring so many of us to be the change…and personally, I thank you for being in my PLN!

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Kris – thank you! This is so true and I think we have just seen the beginning of an evolution of connectivity that we have never seen before on such a global scale. I know one thing, I hope I am still around to see it all evolve. Looking forward to seeing you in a couple of months. – jimmy

  • Ben Gilpin says:

    Jimmy,

    A couple of things really spoke to me in your post. The first was the quote by Arne Duncan. This is what I see, I see students that need/desire opportunities. As educators we must understand and try to give them the experience, before we can expect the knowledge. Opportunity needs to be a priority!

    The second, was your talk with Iowa Superintendents. I love the idea of a consortium that works together to learn from one another. This concept has been attempted at local levels, but you are taking it to a new level…I applaud your vision!

    As always, thank you for BEING THE CHANGE!

    -Ben

  • Dennis Schug says:

    Jimmy,

    I am always inspired by your relentless forward motion and how you consistently push the outer limits on your leadership. Being a willing learner who is able to leverage influence is, in itself, a special quality.

    Your added willingness to include others and to invite and foster collaboration adds a dimension that “rank” doesn’t define our contributions or the impact we can have.

    Insisting that students, staff, and community play a central role will inform best practices and will fuel invested, meaningful momentum, leading to progress and positive change. It sends such a powerful message, that we must work together to be great.

    I appreciate having the opportunity to learn so much from you, my friend, and appreciate how selfless a leader you are.

    Dennis

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