Leading Through Change: A Conversation with Elizabeth Dozier

When Elizabeth Dozier, a board-certified teacher, arrived at Chicago’s Fenger Academy High School in 2009, the school was failing. The dropout rate was 20 percent; attendance was just 69 percent, and the graduation rate was only 40 percent. Over 300 arrests had occurred in the school building. Earlier that year, a Fenger student was murdered while walking home from school. The school was making national headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.

Not anymore. The school’s graduation rate has doubled. The dropout rate is just 2 percent. And Fenger and Principal Dozier are appearing in the national media as examples to follow. Dozier and her work at Fenger have been featured in Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed” and in the 2014 CNN documentary “Chicagoland.” We talked to Dozier to learn more about how educators lead schools through change.

Change can be overwhelming because there are often so many different things that need to be tackled. As an educational leader, how do you set priorities?

For us, the first priority was establishing order in the building, establishing a culture of calm. That was our first priority because the chaos in the school environment was a glaring red light that had to be addressed immediately.

After that, it’s a matter of honing in and looking at data to figure out how kids are doing, and then asking why.

For example: Our dropout rate was 20 percent. Why? Well, kids are having issues with getting to school, so they stop coming. Why is that? They were in the neighborhood, but then they moved 10 miles away.  Why is that? Well, the parent is homeless.

We push to get to the root of the issues so we can come up with creative solutions to address those particular issues, and those solutions become our priorities.

How were you able to create such dramatic change in such a short time?

First, we’re still a work in progress. We still have gang issues and kids coming in who can’t read. We still have areas where we’re not doing as well as I’d like. People want quick solutions in education, but real change, especially at a school like this, takes at least 10 years. We still have a long way to go.

The fact that we were able to get this far is a result of the team and the support structures I was able to put in place to help that team grow and thrive in this particular environment.

A mistake we sometimes make in education is looking for one-size-fits-all solutions. Oftentimes, the approach seems to be, this program worked here, so we’ll just put it everywhere and everything will be great.

I came in as a leader with a different approach. I knew we needed to survey the land and get our bearings. We needed to talk to the kids, the parents and the community before moving forward.

Our team also did a whole bunch of research. Parts that ended up being key for us include the Boys Town Education Model, Paul Bambrick’s work on data-driven instruction, the Leadership Challenge and [Ron] Heifetz’s work about technical and adaptive change.

As a leader, one of the biggest pieces I had to tackle was adaptive change — not just the technical changes, like establishing a restorative justice program, but helping people adjust their views. If you only focus on technical steps, but don’t address the adaptive changes that need to happen, you’ll have problems in the long term.

As a principal, you have the power to say, ‘These are procedures we’re going to follow,’ but that’s going to have limited success unless everybody really buys into the change. How do you help people adapt to change?

It has a lot to do with getting people to see the larger picture and how it impacts not only them but others. As the principal, I have the authority to institute a restorative justice program in the building. The adaptive work behind it is helping people understand why this is important, having them really connect to it and believe in the work we’re trying to do. That requires a leader to establish emotional connection points and an environment that allows people to discuss and wrestle with the changes and ideas for a while.

Educational leaders need to communicate with teachers, students, parents and the community at large. How do you effectively communicate with different populations?

Every principal approaches it differently. Personally, I’m not one for assemblies; I prefer to build relationships one on one.

Today we had a student who was in violation of our uniform policy. I could have sent her to the dean, but I brought her in my office and I asked her, “Hey, what’s going on? Why don’t you have your uniform shirt on?” She told me she washed it and it shrunk; it didn’t fit anymore. So I got her a new uniform shirt and taught her how to wash it in the future.

I think it’s in those type of interactions that we build relationships with students. And that’s important, because then when you have to communicate some large thing, it becomes easier because you already have a relationship.

I do the same thing with my teachers and parents.

What tips do you have for other educational leaders regarding leading through change?

For me, a big part of it is becoming centered and clear about what I’m trying to accomplish. Once you’re clear on that, it becomes a lot easier to lead folks in the direction you need them to go to.

It’s also important to make hard decisions about who needs to be on your team. If you’re trying to lead a really big change initiative and the wrong people are on the bus, it becomes so difficult.

Learn from the mistakes of others. Some educators spend so much time trying to reinvent.  Instead, do research, go visit other schools, make connections and establish partnerships. Join a professional learning community where you can really talk through and solve problems together.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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