Category Archives: Chris Kennedy

Relentless Restlessness

As Pixar’s Academy Award-winning director Brad Bird puts it, organizations that spread and sustain excellence are infused with a “relentless restlessness”—that often uncomfortable urge for constant innovation, driven by the nagging feeling that things are never quite good enough.

I had the wonderful opportunity to work with West Vancouver Schools and Superintendent Chris Kennedy this past week, and share my learning on “The Innovator’s Mindset” with some of the admin team as well as several educators.  I have always enjoyed my conversations with Chris because we do not always agree on things, but we both have the focus on doing what is best for kids, and we push each other on this basis.  I truly believe this makes us both better but neither of us takes it personal as we know we are challenging ideas, not the person. To be able to have people that you can openly disagree with and become “critical friends”, really can take your own learning to the next level.  I know that I have grown tremendously from my interactions with Chris because of this connection.

As we walked over to work with his admin team, I asked Chris what made his district so strong.  The first word he said was “culture”.  We talked more about it, but what I saw reinforced that notion.  Although West Vancouver Schools has an amazing reputation, many of the educators that I connected with weren’t focusing on what they have done, but what they want to do moving forward. This is not to say that they weren’t proud of their work, but with every single pat on their own back, they seemingly used that same hand to push themselves forward further.  They constantly ask questions to move forward and become better for their students, while they could easily be satisfied with what they have done.

This mindset is evident when they received a perfect score on the “Fraser Institute Rankings“, and Chris responded to how he felt about the process:

School success much more than a number

Some readers may have seen a recent front page article in the North Shore News about the annual Fraser Institute Elementary Report Card School Rankings, released in early May. Ecole Cedardale, one of our two French Immersion schools, was the only public school in the province to score top marks. While we are pleased with the result, the rankings provide only a small sliver of information about what our community values in schools.

The Fraser Institute has been compiling data from Grade 4 and Grade 7 Foundation Skills Assessment to produce reports on student achievement, in an effort to help parents decide which schools perform best academically. They produce a similar report for high schools, based on the previous year’s average examination results in Grade 10, 11 and 12 courses that include a mandatory provincial exam.

These reports reflect an old view of education: that we should compare schools and compete with one another. Our philosophy and success is based on a new model – that our schools are all connected, and should work together to improve. Collaboration — within districts, among districts and around the globe —  is the key to building a stronger education system.  Student learning is not about labeling winners and losers.

We appreciate the dilemma that a parent new to education — or new to a region — may be facing when they choose a school for their child, and know that it’s tempting to rely on a number in a complex world with so many choices. But educators know that using test scores to measure school performance is deeply flawed. It may provide some interesting insight at the student level, but beyond that, the measures tell us very little.  It is just silly, for example, to look at one year’s scores and make broad generalizations about a school’s achievement.  Cohorts of students are different each year – what is interesting to me is individual students’ progress over time.

If there was one piece of valuable information I might glean from the data, it is the small gap between our highest and lowest performing schools. While individual school performance in the West Vancouver School District goes up and down year over year, the range in results in our district is the narrowest in Metro Vancouver. This year, for example, there is only a 2.4 point gap between the highest and lowest test scores.  Given the consistency in data between our schools, and over time, the message that emerges is that all West Vancouver School District schools are consistently strong achieving schools on tests in core skill areas.

So how does this link to selecting a school?  The best choice for most families is the neighbourhood school.  That is the choice my wife and I have made for our four kids.  We know that the community connections and friends in the neighbourhood are good reasons to make a local school choice.   That said, I know there is increasing choice for families.  As you look at schools – whether for elementary or high school, please don’t decide based on a test score.

Instead, we ask parents to visit our schools, meet with teachers, administrators and students, learn about the school’s unique programs and opportunities, and make a decision based on the right fit for their child. In West Vancouver, we offer a broad range of programs, and with strong academic performance well in hand from one end of the district to the other, we successfully focus on providing a broad range of educational and programming options that provide a richly woven learning experience for every child.

While others could have easily said, “look at our results”, Chris actually challenged them.  But what I saw this day is that it is not only Chris; this is the culture.  They know that the story of a child or a school cannot be told by a number, and that these numbers often represent more than what is done in school, but also the community where the schools are located, which the rankings have not historically taken into account.  There are factors that these same schools

Relentless restlessness.  The constant need to get better.

In a world that constantly moves forward, if we choose to stand still, we will eventually fall behind.

The culture and the educators that I was able to connect with showed me that “great” is never quite good enough.  Although I only had a brief glimpse, the pursuit to constantly become better for their kids was the culture that was embraced throughout the organization.

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What “Innovative Leadership” Looks Like

In my last post, I tried to define the term “innovative leadership” and what it means. Here is what I came up with:

Innovative leadership is the ability to both think and influence others to create “new and better” ideas to move towards positive results.

One of the comments in the post from a good friend and inspiration, Bill Ferriter, really stuck with me:

One of the things that I think needs to be added to your list is some kind of statement that recognizes that creating new and better while trapped within traditional systems sometimes requires creating space or providing freedom/protection from the demands of the system — which aren’t always supportive of innovation.

Here’s an example: One of the best leaders that I ever worked for would explicitly tell us which district initiatives that we had to give our best efforts to and which we could gloss over and finish without real thought.

His goal was to create time for us to innovate. While he couldn’t give us permission to completely ignore district initiatives, he could help us figure out which were priorities and which were not.

So I guess that innovative leaders need to serve as filters for their teachers, helping to identify places where time and energy can be saved by focusing on the right things instead of everything.

Not sure how to word this, but innovation is often stifled simply because we are buried in work that other people want us to pull off.

There are two things that this comment made me think of.

First of all, although “innovation” is crucial to education, there is also the context of school that we work in.  For example, although we talk about “innovation”, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t also focused on the “basics” of reading and writing; these are not only assumed but crucial.  We need to push our thinking forward, but also understand the context in which we work. This is assumed in the work. This is the balance of “leadership and management”.  We do not need people who are either “leaders” or “managers”; we need both. “Management” without “leadership” is uninspiring and focused on the maintaining the “status quo”. “Leadership” without “management” is where vision does not lead to action.  I love this quote that may help clarify what I am thinking:

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This leads me to the second idea.  Since we work within certain constraints, I really believe in the idea of “innovating inside of the box”, which I discussed in “The Innovator’s Mindset“.   How do we take our current realities (testing, budget constraints, physical space constraints, government initiatives that make no sense, and on and on and on) and still move forward?

Here is a great example of this that I read today from Chris Kennedy:

We have been offering academy programs for just over a decade.  It started with hockey and soccer.  For many years, students interested in a particular academy program would have to transfer to one of our high schools to participate.  We have changed this over time.

About four years ago, we began to talk about the idea of “one district, three campuses”.  This is based on the principle that students should be able to attend their local secondary school with their friends, but have access to programs for part of their schedule at another site.  It has not been a simple move.  There have been logistics to overcome – calendars had to be aligned so high schools all had the same professional development days.  Timetables also had to be coordinated.  In our case, we now have timetables at each of our high schools where the blocks in the morning rotate and the afternoon blocks are fixed.  So students have the same last period class each day.  This allows us to bring together students from multiple sites each day in the afternoon. (Emphasis mine)

Our school schedules are built so students can complete core areas in the morning, and if interested, pursue specialty programming in the afternoon.

This coming year we now have 10 different academy-style programs open to students from all schools.  We continue to be strong with sports – offering academy programming in soccer, hockey, basketball, baseball, rugby, field hockey, and tennis.  We have also now added mechatronics robotics and dance for next year.  The majority of these programs occur in the afternoon, with some classes before school and on weekends.  In addition to these programs we have several courses that are open to students from all schools – YELL (an entrepreneurship program that runs after school and partners students with business leaders in the community, FAST (First Aid Swim Training, where students earn credentialing towards becoming a lifeguard) and a District Honour Choir (that practices in the evening and performs locally and beyond).  In Art West 45students can attend their own high school one day and every other day participate in a program that allows those passionate about arts to get extended time in this area.  It is the same principle for ACE-IT Carpentry where students attend the program every other day working towards their Level 1 carpentry credential.

In all we are now at about 15 and growing in the number of options we have available that allow students to pursue their passions as part of their school program – coming together with students from across the district who share these interests.

There is wonderful value in students attending their local school but we also need to find creative ways for students to pursue their passions.  Five years ago none of the programs existed that would allow students from a variety of schools to attend.  Now they are part of our culture.  A culture where talented teachers share their passions with students who are thirsty to pursue these areas.

What I love about what Chris has shared here is the ability to find a way in pursuit of “what is best for learners”.  What is important to note about this (and I making an educated assumption here), is that this isn’t the first, nor will it be the last iteration of this idea. Far too often we have meetings in education that go round and round on ideas that never come to fruition, yet here there is action taken with an emphasis on creating better opportunities for students.  There is no waiting for “perfect” because “perfect” is never going to arrive.  I am sure the students in those schools appreciate these opportunities today, as opposed to hearing about them happening years after they left school.  We are often too focused on what we can provide for our students in the future, that we forget about the kids we are serving right now and need these opportunities as well.  I also believe that taking well thought out risks like this sends a clear message throughout the district; we can always innovate within the context of our realities.

Whether it is a large initiative like this, or innovating within the context of your classroom, or for even one student, it is apparent that our willingness to think different, leading to “new and better” opportunities for our students, is crucial. This is why this type of leadership needs to spread, as opposed to be reserved for a select few.