These 3 practices revolutionized Penn Manor's school culture

Learn how to gather feedback in the round, delete sit-and-get training, and take student feedback brick-by-brick.
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Free and open source software is the catalyst for Penn Manor School District's award-winning student learning programs. For one, they save the school district more than a million dollars on its technology budget. Besides fiscal savings are the open leadership principles that foster innovation among teachers and students, help to better engage the community, and create a more vibrant and inclusive learning community.

As school leaders prepare to launch a new academic year, here are three open leadership ideas that create a more open, transparent, and collaborative culture in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, school district—please take, use, and modify for your own.

1. Gather feedback in the round

It takes courage to take criticism, particularly when the feedback comes from thousands of stakeholders. But wide-ranging public feedback is essential for public school administrators leading complex academic institutions. Penn Manor's board of directors facilitates an online, 360° survey to solicit feedback on district and superintendent performance. The feedback survey is available to everyone in the Penn Manor community, including all district faculty, staff, and administrators. Participants can interact openly and confidentially with all nine school board directors.

First launched in 2005, the online 360° survey is a collection of individual feedback surveys customized by stakeholder group. Teachers, support staff, administrators, and parents each receive separate question sets. The ensuing data provides comprehensive feedback from all branches of the Penn Manor academic community. And the feedback instrument serves as a central resource for the school board when working to establish and measure district strategic goals. Community feedback informs the board's yearly superintendent performance evaluation and guides discussion of superintendent goals at public school board meetings.

The 360° survey process is not exclusive to the district's board of directors and superintendent. District leadership, assistant superintendents, building principals, and the IT team also conduct 360° feedback surveys.

2. Delete sit-and-get training

Professional development is the main ingredient for a successful academic program, technology or otherwise. But massive, top-down, single-shot lecture-style injections of professional development rarely induce lasting effects. A modern learning organization should be open, organic, and agile, not static and stationary. So Penn Manor School District eliminated "sit-and-get" training.

This school year, teachers have the freedom and the flexibility to create a personalized professional program based on their interests and needs. Teachers follow a choose-your-own-adventure format where they self-direct an individual learning path and design a personal schedule of professional development activities. Elementary teachers choose from a dozen learning pathways with topics inspired by faculty input and workshops led by peers. Middle and high school teachers are mass-customizing their professional development in collaboration with colleagues in their department and discipline.

Supervising and coordinating individual workshops and learning pathways for 400 faculty and professional staff requires fastidious administrative coordination and major time commitments. However, the results are well worth it. Teachers receive the professional development opportunities they need to grow and best serve students. And the program leverages the expertise of the district's most valuable organizational asset—teachers.

3. Take student feedback brick-by-brick

Schools commonly solicit community feedback and insight when planning building construction projects. But why stop there? Providing student voice and choice in their learning should extend to their academic spaces as well.

During the early planning stage of the district's Penn Manor High School building construction and renovation project, a team of students was enlisted to contribute feedback on the design and layout of the future school facility. The focus group participated in a visual listening exercise where they shared their ideas on interior concepts, classroom models, and common learning spaces. Student opinion was, as you might expect from a high school team, deliciously frank and unfiltered. But the student feedback provided valuable design perspectives. And even though the student feedback team would never reap the benefits of the remodeled high school facility, they were deeply honored to shape the future of a school that will serve both their younger siblings and future generations.

How does your school leadership team promote a more inclusive, agile, and open school culture? Please tell us in the comments.

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Charlie is the CIO for Penn Manor School District in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and the author of The Open Schoolhouse.


Great article Charlie and very timely too with school right around the corner. I love 'delete sit and get' training. That is the bane of most PK12 teachers. I love that you included students in your feedback loop. I don't think we pay enough attention to what they offer.

One of things I find interesting about this article is how we can apply the three practices that Charlie describes to other areas of life -- work, family, open source projects, organizations, and more.

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