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March 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 6

What's (Relational) Trust Have to Do with It?

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Seven shifts at a Washington high school raised morale and infused hope into a school's culture.

School Culture
Walking into Sunnyside High School for the first time, Joanie Eppinga—who was visiting the school to help document how it had made great strides in improving school climate and student achievement—was startled when two sophomore girls rushed up and exclaimed, "Where did you go to college?" What was especially surprising about this was that two years earlier, neither of those girls had seen herself as someone who would even graduate from high school—and now both were weighing the merits of different universities.
Sunnyside High, located in Sunnyside, Washington, had a graduation rate of only 49 percent in 2009. But after Chuck Salina took over in the 2010–2011 school year as the turnaround principal, the graduation rate rose to 85 percent in just three years. (David Martinez was on Sunnyside's administrative team during this transfer, and Joanie and Suzann Girtz were observers documenting the changes.) The statistics representing the changes at Sunnyside are impressive. What is less quantifiable, but just as important, is the sense of relational trust that has developed between people in the school. Relational trust is the confidence that colleagues will do their jobs and will take the time to help each other. Building relational trust was a primary goal in the turnaround initiative at Sunnyside High.
When Chuck arrived as principal, he realized that trust between students and adults was absent, a reality made apparent by the physical state of the school. Hallways and classrooms were dirty; floors were littered with papers. Students' lack of respect for the school was also evidenced by a high rate of absences, tardiness, and disciplinary actions. In addition, students often wouldn't come back for afternoon class after leaving for lunch.
Counselors and teachers were dedicated, but they were tired and dispirited. Students felt similarly hopeless. When Chuck expressed dismay about the high dropout rate, one of the students responded wonderingly, "This is Sunnyside, Mister. What do you expect?"
Clearly, it wasn't just the school building that needed to be revitalized.
To increase relational trust in the school, the principal, vice principals, CTE director, and athletic director (later joined by the counselors and learning coaches) made seven key changes. These changes did not happen in a sequential order; rather, all measures were implemented in tandem. They overlapped and played off each other, all while boosting morale and bringing hope to the school's students and staff. These shifts can be applied within any school.

1. Develop a Common Language

School leaders worked to foster a sense of common purpose by promoting and modeling the use of intentional, positive language. Before the turnaround, staff had engaged in blaming and "if only" speculation (for instance, "If only the kids would get here on time," "If only parents would get more involved," and "If only administrators knew what I'm up against"). They now were encouraged to focus on what they could change and to speak positively about colleagues and students. This measure made the school safer emotionally for everyone, contributing to a culture in which the norm was to build each other up rather than tear each other down.
With the input of students, school leaders also developed slogans that summarized the school's goals, such as "Together We Will" and "One Vision, One Voice." Although students initially made fun of the slogans, leaders persisted in using them, and eventually the slogans caught on. A change in school culture became noticeable when staff overheard students using the slogans in the hallways and figuring out what the words meant for each of them as individuals. With a common and intentional language, teachers and students had more energy and focus for moving toward their collective goals.

2. Re-Assess Privileges

Administrators no longer allowed freshmen and sophomores to leave the campus for lunch. They told juniors and seniors that if they wanted open campus during lunchtime, they would have to both earn the privilege and redeem it as a class. To re-win their privilege, students would have to achieve 96 percent average collective daily attendance, individually maintain grades of C+ and above, generate good reports from the school custodians about the cleanliness of the school, and collectively refrain from getting in physical altercations.
After weeks of effort in which students encouraged each other to keep the school clean and attend class (even texting each other at home to say, "Come to school!"), students finally reached the goal. Administrators held a celebratory pep rally and made good on their promise to open the campus, which students appreciated. They felt more invested in their school and took greater pride in it. They also felt an increased sense of belonging, which research shows is crucial for raising student investment and achievement—particularly among minority children, a category that describes 85 percent of the students at Sunnyside.

3. Hold One-on-One Conversations

Chuck and the leadership team initiated frequent one-on-one conversations with staff, during which they explained his plans, listened to staff members' responses, and incorporated their ideas. Such a conversation might include getting a teacher's perspective on why so many 9th graders weren't completing their assignments and what the school could do to better support those students. These one-on-ones were a way of demonstrating a new ideal: although leaders light the fuse, staff members are the dynamite. It's the leader's job to create a culture in which the gifts of staff members can flourish. When each finds his or her role through service to others, when they truly listen and move together on common ground, the school comes alive in a way that is heartening to both leaders and staff—and students feel that and respond to it.
In addition, one-on-one conversations were a way of tempering what is often a knee-jerk reaction to change: People reject an idea simply because it is new. By soliciting staff's opinions about any given measure before taking it public, administrators built respectful relationships with them and acquired valuable insights. The leadership team never rolled out a new initiative without having first spoken individually to each person who would be affected by it. In this way, they built buy-in before the ball was rolling. Although the initial time expenditure was significant, these conversations smoothed out both logistical and emotional wrinkles in the plan. When teachers gave feedback via one-on-ones, administrators had a chance to say, "Here's where we're going. Do we have it right?"
Staff were not accustomed to being consulted about future plans and, with this new approach, they thought their voices as professionals were finally being respected when they were invited to share input. One-on-ones became part of the daily work of the school, a shift that helped to clarify that although formal leaders are responsible for the vision of the school, they don't control it—control is shared.

4. Include Support Staff

School leaders must let support staff in on the secret of where they're heading and enlist their help in getting there by holding one-on-ones with them as well. Support staff have a unique lens on the school because these employees are "on the ground" with both students and teachers; they understand the climate of the school in a way that administrators can't. They have valuable information to supply—and they will gain that all-important sense of knowing where they fit in the overall school design, giving them increased energy and commitment to their work.
Support staff often go unnoticed. Letting them know you appreciate their contributions can have large returns. Key among them at Sunnyside was a demonstrable change in the school's culture: The school is now a place where every person is valued—a sentiment expressed particularly well through the school's policy of having students serve lunch to the cafeteria workers approximately once a month.

5. Collaborative Inquiry Teams

The administrators created professional learning communities—or, as we call them, CoIn (collaborative inquiry) Teams—that were involved with action research. The teams were largely organized by department and researched such topics as ways to improve assessment, the alignment between schoolwide systems and learning outcomes, and how various systems supported the students and teachers in achieving the desired educational outcomes. The school had experimented with professional learning communities in the past, but the framework for the CoIn Teams was different. The position of department head was eliminated—no middle management. The objective was to work to the strengths of the individuals and the group. The teams set their own goals, and each member was accountable for researching something specific, such as assessment practice, the value of an in-house mentoring system, or a disconnect between a department's curriculum and that of the district. These were not new issues, but on the CoIn Teams, people had the autonomy to run with their ideas and create their own solutions. For example, a teacher realized that ELL students were having trouble absorbing the information they were given. That teacher analyzed the data and started an action group within the CoIn Team to figure out how to meet these students' needs.
At the same time, team members had to work together, which alleviated the tendency toward isolationism that had taken over some departments. Teachers were encouraged to see their colleagues as resources and to share ideas and innovations.
Attendance at the meetings was mandatory. The roles and responsibilities of each team member were specified because a clear establishment of roles is essential for building relational trust in a group setting. Once relational trust was established, staff members dropped their defenses and were more willing to engage collaboratively, making the school more open and cohesive, which in turn raised morale.

6. Build Supportive Systems

School leaders at Sunnyside temporarily dropped the focus on classroom instruction that had left teachers feeling defensive and beleaguered. Instead of immediately trying to change pedagogy, leaders worked to implement systems and programs that teachers told them they needed, including peer mentoring groups, tutoring programs, attendance councils, and character education initiatives. These systems left the teachers feeling supported in their mission of improving student achievement.
As teachers grew more confident that administrators were on their side and that the systems would support them, teachers initiated their own professional development, consulting with colleagues and trying new ideas to improve classroom practice. More important, both adults and students showed increasing respect for one another, and there was a decrease in school violence. According to Sunnyside's Data Dashboard, in-school, short-term, and after-school suspensions all declined by nearly 50 percent; long-term expulsions decreased by 80 percent. Physical fights were reduced from three to five a week to less than one a month.

7. Give Permission to Innovate

The school's leaders changed the risk-aversive culture by encouraging staff to innovate—without fear of reprisal if things didn't go as intended. "Just try something!" became the new motto. Mistakes were framed as opportunities to learn, an integral part of the growth mindset. Supported by schoolwide systems and their work in the CoIn Teams, teachers became more willing to acknowledge areas of potential growth in their teaching and to try new approaches. The shift in attitude brought about a surge of creative energy that resulted in many new endeavors, such as the formation of after-school programs and a nontraditional leadership group to help "problem" youths channel their energy constructively. As expected, some efforts worked and some didn't, but staff members appreciated being trusted to think for themselves and modeled a bold stance for students about the importance of taking risks.

When Trust Is Established

These seven efforts were the cornerstones of a culture shift that cultivated trust and reminded teachers why they went into education in the first place. Staff members felt free to concentrate on helping students learn and thrive academically, behaviorally, and socio-emotionally, which resulted in astonishing improvements in student achievement. There was a dramatic increase in the passing rate for high-stakes testing, in the number of students passing their classes, and in the graduation rate. A significant statistic cited by David Martinez is that if these new behaviors hadn't been instituted and things had continued in the direction in which they had been going, 727 students would not have graduated over the last seven years. And all this was accomplished without an alternative education program as a safety net for students who struggled most; all the students attended the regular high school.
Just as important, the change was reflected in smiles in the hallway, a fresh sense of school pride and community, and the excitement with which students and teachers alike approached their work. With these shifts, the culture at Sunnyside had become one that truly included everyone and supported each person in becoming his or her best self. By 2016, it had also become a place where 91 percent of kids graduated—and in the last five years, not a single student has been lost to gang violence. Bolstered by a new sense of achievement, safety, and relational trust, Sunnyside now has an almost palpable sense of hopefulness and vitality.
End Notes

1 Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40–45.

2 Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447–1451.

3 This topic is discussed more fully in the article "A Turnaround Success Story," published in Educational Leadership's Summer 2017 issue.

Author bio coming soon

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