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Beating the Odds:  Transforming the Culture of the Ithaca City School District

February 10, 2022 0 Comments

Kudos to the Board, Superintendent and Cabinet of New York’s Ithaca City School District for beating the odds by carrying out a successful decade-long cultural transformation initiative, which Board Vice President Sean Bradwell and Superintendent Luvelle Brown describe in the video interview we recorded last week.  Organizational cultures – the unique beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of interacting that characterize particular organizations – are always evolving.  But anyone who has spent much time working in the field of organizational development is keenly aware that failed attempts to plan and manage cultural change far outnumber the success stories.  I think it’s accurate to say that successful planned and managed cultural change is the exception to the rule, for a number of reasons.  One of the most important is the propensity to employ quick fixes rather than devoting the time and other resources required to effect serious, lasting cultural change.

I’m reminded of interviews I conducted a couple of years ago with school board members who had two months earlier spent a whole weekend with their superintendent and his cabinet in a facilitated retreat.  This two-day meeting, which  had been billed as a culture-shaping event, involved a half-day plenary session devoted to updating the district’s core values statement, after which breakout groups brainstormed ways to translate particular values into practice in the district.  The100 or so flip chart sheets that were generated that weekend were transcribed in the superintendent’s office and a week later shared with all participants. Now to action, right?  No, not really.  As the weeks passed, the glow faded, enthusiasm ebbed, and no significant cultural change resulted.  As I listened to one board member after another vent their disappointment and exasperation at the meager return on their investment of time and energy in the retreat, I thought to myself, “Par for the course;  another one of those QCF initiatives I’ve come across countless times:  Quick, Cheap, Futile.”  I’m sure my readers can come up with many more examples of the QCF approach to cultural change.

You’ll learn from the interview that I recorded with Sean and Luvelle that the Ithaca City School District has over the course of ten years succeeded in creating a culture that is much more student-centered, inclusive and equitable.  You’ll also learn how they managed to beat the odds in translating abstract values into concrete reality.  Four keys to the District’s success loom largest:  (1) the strong, unwavering support of a solidly committed School Board; (2) a cohesive  Board Vice President-Superintendent leadership team that has played a hands-on role in the cultural transformation process; (3) a well-designed comprehensive policy update process that after a decade of work has rewritten almost all District policies, guided by the mandate to put student needs, equity, and inclusion front and center; and (4) the meaningful, systematic engagement of community members, students, faculty, and administrators in the policy revision process.

You’ll also learn that the ICSD Board, Superintendent, and Cabinet are keenly aware that they must deal with two preeminent challenges on the cultural change front:  to ensure that the policy update process becomes a continuous, never-ending District function; and to put in place a mechanism to ensure that compliance with updated policies is rigorously monitored.

Doug Eadie