“This is a social justice issue,” Superintendent Demond Means tells a room full of educators and community members. “All means all! We made a commitment as educators when we walked into our classrooms for the first time that we will reach every kid in our classroom. We didn’t make a commitment to reach 75% of the students.” (Promoting Excellence for All: A report from the State Superintendent’s Task Force on Wisconsin’s Achievement Gap, page 8)
You might not expect to hear these remarks from the superintendent of the district named the #1 K-12 district in the state of Wisconsin the past three years, whose high school achieved an ACT composite score of 26 and whose middle school, it was learned just the day before, is being recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School.
Dr. Means, now in his eighth year as superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District, is passionate about closing the achievement gap. He is fearless in his pursuit of excellence, because of a deeply held sense of responsibility for each and every child in our state. As Chair of the State Superintendent’s Task Force on Wisconsin’s Achievement Gap, he led the state’s effort to identify proven-effective school and classroom practices that do just that – close the gap for children of color, English language learners, students with disabilities and students living in poverty.
The challenge facing high-performing organizations like Mequon-Thiensville is convincing people that improvement is needed. In this case, their greatest accomplishments will be their greatest challenges. In the words of our friend and professional colleague, Kathy Larson, “change is inevitable, improvement is optional, transformation is a courageous choice.” Transformation is what Dr. Means is all about. The courage comes from within and is fueled by his commitment to justice, not test scores. His responsibility is to frame the transformation as a journey toward a larger vision of a culture that “supports and challenges all students to achieve their full potential” (Mequon-Thiensville Strategic Plan). The job of educational leaders is to build capacity not just for great results, but for continuous improvement of the learning experiences that students and adults have within the organization and the community.
The educators and community members who Dr. Means was addressing were there to learn the SMART School Improvement Process, an approach that he and four of his central office administrators had been trained to lead as internal trainers and coaches. After a year of study, the team crafted a plan to engage all of the district’s school-based leadership teams, district departmental teams and a community partnership team in learning the process. Over the course of this year, the teams will learn and practice the process, ultimately returning to their respective schools and departments to lead the entire district in building a culture of continuous improvement.
As I think about the outstanding educational leaders I have met over the years, a distinct pattern of core values is clearly evident in their behaviors and their dispositions. They don’t view their jobs as a set of tasks to be done on the way to somewhere else. They view their jobs as their life’s purpose. They are driven by a passion for improvement, guided by the belief that we have what it takes to achieve a vision of excellence for all, for it truly is a matter of social justice.