How to Lighten the Load on Schools
Leadership Insights

District Level Leaders: What Can You Take Off Schools' Plates?

By Terry Wilhelm September 15, 2015
How to Lighten the Load on Schools

A new academic year has begun. New legislative mandates have kicked in while none of the old rules, regulations or requirements have diminished. Perhaps the school board has insisted that some new initiative of its own be pressed upon schools. As a district, the next phases of your own improvement initiatives are rolling out.

Schools are bombarded with initiatives and mandates, but district leaders can help

Although vacations are still a recent memory, everyone is feeling the stress of “always more to do.” While district leaders and staff members definitely feel this pressure, schools take a major hit. In many districts, whatever comes down the pike simply rolls downhill to schools. Charged with continuously improving learning for students, each added layer of demands simply dilutes that focus.

Servant-leader districts lighten the load so principals and schools can focus on continuously improved learning

In some districts — I will term these servant-leader districts, borrowing the term and concept from Robert Greenleaf — district leaders proactively absorb as much of the responsibility as possible for managing new mandates in order to protect schools from yet another set of distractions. Instead of passing new responsibilities down to the principals, district leaders figure out ways to have central office staff perform the tasks.

For example, when the California legislature mandated the School Accountability Report Card (SARC) for each individual school, many districts simply sent out a template and let the principals deal with it. However, in servant-leader districts, someone with a technology background gathered the required data for all the schools and populated the SARCs with it, sending the drafts out for principal feedback and any special additions they wished to make.

Finding ways to save time and streamline processes are a hallmark of servant-leader districts

In servant-leader districts, instead of allowing the business office to create yet another report for school office managers to complete, district leaders assume the responsibility for designing an alternative method to satisfy the need for documentation — or perhaps even deciding it’s unnecessary. Instead of calling principals down to the district office to meet with various department heads or staff, servant leaders go out to school sites and meet with principals in their own offices.

Instead of allowing two departments to collect the same information from schools, with each insisting on having its own special form used for the purpose, servant-leader districts could eliminate the need for duplication by having the two departments share the information with each other. Ideally, the information is collected electronically from a central source instead of having the principals each provide it individually.

There are some tasks that, unavoidably, must be passed down to principals and school office staff. But how often does your district evaluate the number of these that schools are dealing with?

Mike Schmoker and Doug Reeves on how many school improvement initiatives is too many

In 1996, Mike Schmoker, author of “Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement,” declared that more than one area of focus is too many if improvement is desired. Schmoker’s views had not changed in 2000, when the second edition of his book was published, nor in 2006, when he wrote “Results Now.”

In his webinar “Closing the Implementation Gap,” Doug Reeves begins by asking participants to make a list of all the initiatives they are currently juggling. He advocates “weeding the garden” so that the most important initiatives can flower.

What weeds can you pull as a district leader?

As a district leader, would you have the courage to ask your principals to make such a list? Would you be willing to collect them to see what you could take off their plates — what weeds could be pulled? A flower to the business office may well be a weed to principals. In the bigger picture of improving learning for students, which perspective should you favor?

It can be argued that district office staff become overloaded as well. Department heads may wish to protect them by asking schools to do more, or it may just be a habit that has been formed over time to automatically let new buckets of work be assigned to schools, rather than absorbing them.

It is easy to forget that the district office would not exist at all if it weren’t for schools.The schools are where the students are. Sometimes it really boils down to the question: Who is serving whom?

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