Rural Canadian District Leverages Efficacy as a Path to Improvement

When Sean Monteith became Director of Education of the Keewatin Patricia District School Board (KPDSB) in 2013, he knew that there were many challenges facing his students and staff.

KPDSB is a small, remote district with 5,180 students, 43% of whom identify as Aboriginal. Spread out across 75,000 square kilometres in northwestern Ontario, mental health and social issues are part of the daily struggle for many of these students.

In addition to student challenges, many of the district’s 1,330 full- and part-time staff were also struggling. Teachers were working in silos; many academic performance measures were declining; senior staff seemed disconnected from school administration and classroom teachers; and genuine communication between senior staff and teachers was lacking, resulting in low teacher morale.

To Monteith, this was out of sync with the district’s vision statement, “All stakeholders create a culture of learning so that students come first.”

“We weren’t going along swimmingly; we were headed down the wrong track; and as a person who had come up through this very system, I saw many things that were inconsistent with putting kids first,” explains Monteith.

But Monteith’s experience with KPDSB and his passionate staff gave him confidence that together they could achieve improvement and success.

Believing that system change can benefit from external support, Monteith sought to engage with Pearson as an outside, critical expert. He and his team opted to leverage Pearson’s efficacy framework, which is designed to help systems analyze the effectiveness of their strategic plans, to conduct an efficacy review focused on one critical question: What is the current state of efficacy of the Keewatin Patricia District School Board’s vision and strategic plan?

“An Efficacy Review was the vehicle that I felt we needed to mobilize the serious and substantive structural changes that needed to occur,” says Monteith. “We could assess, from an external and objective perspective, how the district was doing in our efforts to put kids first with every decision we made or needed to make.”

“Until we began this process, I didn’t know what the outcomes could be,” says Shannon Bailey, Principal of Evergreen School. She was heavily involved in the Efficacy Review. “I wasn’t aware of deficiencies, because this is something that our Board has never taken on before. It’s been through the review process, and with the action that followed, that we’ve realized the areas where we were struggling.”

Three of the major change initiatives that resulted from the efficacy review include:

  1. Flattening the organization and giving teachers a stronger voice in district decisions
  2. Understanding and addressing the needs of the whole student
  3. Creating a culture where everyone understands and implements the “kids come first” vision

“We basically asked, ‘Are we really putting kids first in the decisions we make?’ “What we found out was that many people purported to be putting kids first in our Board, but they really weren’t: they were putting the needs of adults first,” explains Monteith.

The day the review ended, KPDSB staff began working to create major changes across the district, with the help of three-, six-, and twelve-month check-in sessions with Pearson.

Strengthening voices and expanding services

Monteith’s first step after the review was to start the work needed to work towards their first goal - flattening the organization and giving teachers a stronger voice in district decisions. To do this Monteith envisioned converting the current top-down leadership model to a servant-leadership model. He spent three months traveling across the district, speaking with every staff member about the goals of efficacy, listening to their concerns, and answering their questions face-to-face.

He then formed a Teacher Efficacy Working Group, consisting of teachers from across the Board. The group met monthly to provide feedback, raise concerns, and ask questions about everything from plans to purchase new technology to student mental health issues. This group eventually changed to include staff from all departments across the district and is now a 35-member group called the Staff Efficacy Group. Members of this group now participate in regular Senior Administration and Board meetings.

“For instance, in the past, senior administration would make decisions on behalf of the organization, deliver that information at a principals’ meeting, and then principals would deliver the news to their staff,” says Bailey. “Now we’ve tipped the pyramid upside down. The first piece of information for consideration when making a decision is down at the grassroots level. Often teachers are now the first to have a voice, as opposed to the last.”

This in turn has strengthened voices of more stakeholders, including teachers and students.

“Our teacher voice is strengthening because we’re sitting at that table and we’re part of conversations that maybe we haven’t been privy to in the past,” says Arin Boyko, a Special Education Resource Teacher at Lillian Berg Public School. “I also think the student voice is being strengthened, because we are advocating for our students, and things are changing for the better for our students.”

KPDSB has always had high academic expectations for their students, but some students come to school in a physical or mental state that is not conducive to learning. Bailey sees efficacy work being done to support students’ mental health - part of working towards their second goal: understanding and addressing the needs of the whole student.

“We’ve connected with some amazing supports throughout the province, such as distinguished psychology researcher Dr. Stuart Shanker. He is working with our Board as of this year because we have identified that self-regulation is a really huge need for our students and not just at the early childhood stages.” she says.

From flattening the organization to focusing on the whole child, changes such as creating the Staff Efficacy group are ensuring that the needs of children are considered in every single decision. The “Kids Come First” vision - which is the heart of their third goal - is pervasive and top-of-mind in every meeting and in every classroom and hallway discussion.

As Boyko explains, she sees her colleagues working to put kids first every day. “Efficacy is helping to strengthen the resolution that kids come first. Sean is constantly saying, ‘Think about what you’re doing. If you can’t tell how or why this is putting kids first, then you need to think about it and change it and make sure you’re always putting kids first.’’

“When we have a conversation about anything; for example, about whether or not we should choose Chromebooks for our laptops, it’s not about how much money it’s going to be; it’s about what is the best tool for these kids. Are we putting kids first?”

“The students-come-first stance is a living, breathing Magna Carta for us,” explains Monteith. “That’s who we are. People mean it, they believe in it, it’s been a rallying point, and there is an empowerment and a pride in this organization that I have not seen before. That was part of the efficacy goals: that we are about kids, we are not about Board office structure.”

Successes and improvements

With better functioning administration and a renewed focus on students, the Board has already made many improvements:

  • The largest increase in enrollment in one year in KPDSB’s entire history—as a result, the Board hired more teaching and Early Childhood Education staff and has been able to expand more programs and bring more new opportunities to students and those that work with them everyday
  • Improvements in all student achievement measurements in Grades 3, 6, and 9
  • The launch of Hockey Canada Skills Academies in four communities—giving students a reason to come to school (and maintain their grades) when many did not see a reason for attending classes and doing school work
  • Securing funding for a brand new $30 million state-of-the-art high school in Sioux Lookout
  • Installing video-conferencing equipment in every school, thereby keeping staff off the roads and in classrooms and schools

The Board was able to create a new district culture where a servant-leadership model is widely accepted and students’ needs are at the center of all decisions. As a result, students now always come first, students and staff are succeeding, and the district is therefore making progress towards achieving goals.

While the list of accomplishments is long, Monteith and his staff know there is still plenty of work to do. “If you were to put this on a sliding scale, I would say 70 percent of the heavy lifting that required change in this organization has now been done. And some of that 70 percent was of the most difficult and challenging caliber. But we still have lots to do.”

“Efficacy has not been easy for some people in this system,” explains Monteith. “And I’m unapologetic for that because we are in the business of supporting children. In Northwestern Ontario we have more severe cases of high-needs kids than anywhere else in this country. So I would say the urgency is even greater; the stakes are even higher.”