Greeley Evans: A Whole Community Approach to Student Retention & Engagement

Dr. Rhonda Haniford

America’s Promise leads the GradNation Acceleration Initiative, which includes work in three communities and two statewide programs to improve graduation rates for students from varying backgrounds, including students in foster care, low-income students, and English learners. Out of a large pool of applicants, Greeley-Evans School District 6 was selected at one of the acceleration communities. Their mission: work with Zero Dropouts to help more students graduate from the Greeley Alternative Program, which enrolls students at risk of leaving high school or who face barriers to success in traditional high schools by providing an innovative instructional program combined with wraparound services.

Under the leadership of the Superintendent of Secondary Schools, Dr. Rhonda Haniford, District 6 is already seeing increased on-time graduation rates and decreased dropout rates. To help share what worked, we asked Dr. Haniford about her vision for student success, transitioning from a school-by-school vision to a district-wide approach, and much more.

What is Greeley-Evans District 6’s vision for student success?

District 6’s vision for student success is simple: educate today’s students in partnership with families and communities to succeed in tomorrow’s world. It’s a simple statement but one that will involve many complex steps. To make it work, we developed an extensive strategic plan, Innovation2020, with four goal areas:

1. Student Learning and Achievement;

2. Climate and Culture;

3. Strengthening Partnerships; and

4. Operational and Organizational Effectiveness.

Our vision requires all members of the district team and community to work together so every student is career and college ready upon graduation. In short, our vision is to graduate students on time and prepared for their post-secondary plans. While we have made significant graduation rate gains from 76.9 percent (2015) to 81.7 percent (2019), we must keep working to reach our goal of 90 percent by 2021.

How does District 6 support this vision?

It’s one thing to have a vision, but it’s a totally different thing altogether to actualize that vision and put it into motion. We found that the most successful strategies develop from empowering school and district leaders with their staff, students, and families. This process required district teams to change the way we supported schools and their communities. District leaders had to further develop their skills and knowledge to analyze student data for strengths and growth areas, target resources to schools, provide “just in time” professional learning and frequent feedback (daily/weekly) to principals and teachers, while also monitoring improvement efforts just as frequently.

Empowering students and families required the district teams to re-think how they engaged students and families. We needed to create relationships with our families and provide them a safe place where their stories were heard. Using an assets and strengths-based model, we launched our third year of cultural proficiency training for all district and school leaders, and each of our schools has created an equity team to ensure culturally relevant practices are occurring each and every day.

How do you manage the balance between supporting individual schools and supporting a district-wide vision?

It’s critical for a district to have a clear strategic plan where every school sees how its work directly advances shared goals. For instance, to reach the goal that by 2021, 90 percent of students will graduate on time, the secondary principals convene monthly with district leadership at the Graduates Initiative to advance the key metrics that drive on time graduation rates for students - attendance, behavior, and credits. We collaborate on what’s the best for instruction, weekly data meetings, early warning systems, system changes, and building the principal’s capacity to drive the work at the school level. Then, as the Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Leadership, I coach the principals weekly at their school sites to implement and monitor the actionable steps we established. Using the “See It, Name It, Do It” framework from Uncommon Schools, we observe classrooms and weekly data meeting teams to accelerate the school’s goals that are shared district goals.

We know that District 6 operates collaboratively, and that even includes making school-wide or district-wide decisions using your unique “Consensus” approach. Can you tell us how the process works, and why you use it for decision-making?

A few years ago, we implemented Consensus as the decision-making process throughout the district. Consensus uses protocols to ensure equal voices and ideas are discussed in the room, and recognizes that a decision requires everyone’s support to proceed. Teachers, district leaders, and key stakeholders sit in a circle and pose questions to each other, share their concerns, and identify and act on concrete next steps to make change. Consensus helps eliminate the barriers to advancing goals within a shared vision, as well as develop emerging proposals for the team to consider. It is only after listening to and understanding the needs, fears and best hopes of every member that we can successfully create a truly shared plan together. Consensus has been used to implement two middle school Innovation Plans, and consensus was used to reach a two-year negotiated teacher contract for the first time in many years. Although reaching consensus will take longer to achieve, it undoubtedly accelerates the plan once achieved.

What does it take to move from a school-by-school vision to a district vision?

Are there any unexpected challenges or surprises?

Moving from a school-by-school vision to a district vision takes constant communication and understanding of everyone’s needs and aspirations. Schools are thoughtfully connected to their immediate communities, while the district strives to be thoughtfully connected to the wider region it serves, which can span multiple municipalities, chambers of commerce, local non-profits, industry sectors, parents, and many other stakeholders.

One of our district’s strategic goals focuses on building and strengthening partnerships throughout our district and schools. Because the district and schools use consensus to advance goals, we are in constant communication with each other -- sharing ideas, resources, local non-profit supports, and much more. However, this has not always been the culture. It took renewed leadership at the district level to re-envision our roles in the ways our communities support schools. The superintendent restructured the Cabinet and increased the capacity of the assistant superintendents to report directly to her while directly supporting schools. This restructuring shifted the focus to supporting schools so that leaders from the district and schools became genuine partners in the work. One overarching lesson learned: leadership matters – at both the district level and school level