Being innovative is “sort of in my DNA,” says Linda L. Clark, the superintendent of the West Ada school system in Meridian, Idaho.
“I’ve had a mantra for a long time: Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir the soul,” she said. A great-aunt often shared that philosophy, and Ms. Clark has taken it to heart as she has led the 37,000-student district—the largest in Idaho—since 2004.
West Ada, which at $4,500 per pupil last year ranks among the lowest rates of funding in the nation for districts with more than 10,000 students, has drawn national attention for Ms. Clark’s ability to leverage innovation to get results with few resources.
Those results are spelled out as “key performance indicators” on the district’s website—which track nine measures—from reading- and math-assessment results on the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress to senior projects.
Ms. Clark, who is 65, has been making big-picture plans as an educator for more than four decades. “I became an administrator very young, as a new elementary school principal 35 years ago,” said the 11-year superintendent. “We were first to do a lot of things.”
The list she rattles off includes having the first computer lab in a school in the Northwest United States, being among the first principals to videotape teachers and meet with them to coach improved performance in 1980, and playing a role as an early educational adopter of the “continuous improvement” model used in business and making decisions based on data from key indicators.
- Communicate Often: You cannot overestimate the value and importance of communication. The bigger your operation is, the more challenging communication becomes. It’s essential that people understand all the pieces along the way and that you keep them in the loop.
- Involve Everyone : The leader cannot dictate from the top down. The leader has to have the vision—the big picture—and engage people in that. It takes buy-in and cooperation. It takes everyone to make that vision successful.
- Share the Successes: Find a lot of ways to tell the story of the process as it’s unfolding. Use the stories of success to help other people develop.
“What we’re engaged in now is changing everything we know about teaching and learning, the structure of our schools, almost from the ground up,” she said.
Five “superstar” teachers in West Ada were given the opportunity in 2011 to develop the 21st-century classroom of their dreams. All chose a rotational model, using laptops, iPads, and interactive whiteboards, rotating students through stations, “much the way elementary teachers have successfully taught, but now with digital tools,” Ms. Clark said.
Those five classroom successes became a model for 125 21st-century classrooms, and soon, six buildings in the district that will be fully digital. In this digital environment, “teaching and learning capture the power of technology,” with students taking greater responsibility for their learning and solving real-world problems, she said. “When I go to those classrooms, I see every student engaged. They’re not doing rote learning but analysis, synthesis, the higher-level thinking,” Ms. Clark said.
‘From the Ground Up’
Failure while trying such new approaches is not only an option, but an expectation, said Ms. Clark, who did her doctoral research through the University of San Francisco, visiting China to study the process of change and the role that education, economics, and leadership played in that country’s economic change in the mid-1980s.
Ms. Clark “stands out in that she believes innovation does not happen at the district level,” said Sara Schapiro, the director of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, a national coalition of 57 school districts willing to share their innovation successes and setbacks. “She believes innovation happens only when teachers feel empowered to make changes in their classrooms.”
West Ada was one of the original district members of the league, and as its superintendent, Ms. Clark is a charter member of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization authorized by Congress to spur innovation in education.
For instance, educators in West Ada are encouraged to apply for technology-innovation grants that will directly benefit their own classrooms. Since the 1980s, teachers have sought grants from the local education foundation. In 2009, Ms. Clark hired a part-time grant facilitator, who helps locate available funding, write grants, and track results.
Within two years, Ms. Clark found that “leading edge” teachers were seeking grants for digital tools. Then the district began seeding them in 2012 to spur the digital conversion. Two or three times a year, West Ada provides a pool of $50,000 to $60,000 to award competitive grants of $2,000 to $3,000 per recipient. Teachers’ applications are blindly scored for fairness in selection.
In the most recent round, $89,000 more in grant requests was submitted than there was funding to fulfill, said Ms. Clark. She saw this as evidence that the “from the ground up” grants-selection process and showcasing results has caught on, “signaling that our more reluctant teachers were now eager to begin the digital transition.”
Not everyone is a fan of Ms. Clark’s approach.
Penny L. Cyr, the president of the Idaho Education Association, takes exception to that way of encouraging innovation. “To force teachers to be competitive with colleagues to get ahead, that’s crazy. If you have technology money that can make it good for all students,” then it should be applied equally to all classrooms, she said.
Thanks in large part to West Ada’s high-profile involvement with the League of Innovative Schools over more than three years, Ms. Clark was invited to participate on a panel about empowering teachers when more than 100 superintendents met at the White House late last year. The occasion was President Barack Obama’s launch of the “Future Ready District Pledge,” a seven-point document that defines a district’s commitment to effectively integrate technology for teaching and learning.
Ms. Clark told the gathering: “Our secret sauce is our staff, our teachers,” as they work to make strides under the constraints of a tight budget. “They’re very dedicated, very hardworking.”
Ms. Clark, her staff, and their innovative approaches attract visitors from across the country and abroad.
Steve Webb, the superintendent of the 24,000-student Vancouver, Wash., district, is sending a team to West Ada to learn about its blended learning rotation model at the elementary level this year. Ms. Clark has also collaborated with Vancouver in setting up a technology showcase, in which companies that partner with the district hold an expo to demonstrate the benefits of their partnerships with the schools.
“What I appreciate most about Linda’s leadership is that she understands that culture trumps strategy,” said Mr. Webb, whose district is also a member of the innovative schools’ league. Her focus is creating “the context and conditions where ubiquitous innovation can grow and thrive,” he said.
Another colleague from the league credits Ms. Clark—whom he calls “pretty unassuming”—with leading a digital transformation about as efficiently as anyone in the country. Steve C. Joel, the superintendent of the 35,000-student Lincoln district in Nebraska, said: “This is not about going out and acquiring all the nice stuff others acquire; this is about a certain philosophy of transformation and how it will augment the great work you do.”
What we’re engaged in now is changing everything we know about teaching and learning, the structure of our schools, almost from the ground up.
Among the more unconventional ideas Ms. Clark has shepherded to reality is the hybrid use of buildings for the district. It started when she identified a warehouse that had been vacant for four years and decided it would be a perfect place to consolidate the district’s administrative offices, which at the time were spread across 11 buildings over the district’s 380 square miles. But renovating a warehouse is a costly undertaking.
Ms. Clark identified a partner in Idaho State University, which needed space. Today, the warehouse is an educational campus that houses district headquarters, a comprehensive International Baccalaureate high school with 600 students, and a professional training center that shares a lunchroom, library, and other space with the university.
“There were people who thought that idea was absolutely crazy, including a former superintendent. After it opened, many of them said they were wrong,” Ms. Clark said.
The next frontier for Ms. Clark? Another shared-building project with a new elementary school, the YMCA, and a local library, again spearheaded by the superintendent. The idea came after a $104 million bond issue failed narrowly. The proposed elementary school, budgeted at $12 million, would now cost $10 million, thanks to the shared-use approach.
“They’ll use our computer lab. We’ll use the YMCA gym,” Ms. Clark said. This school, which is part of a $96 million March 10 school district bond issue, will have a special focus on healthy living.
It’s another “large plan” that would, no doubt, make Ms. Clark’s great-aunt proud.
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week