First, a couple of foundational statements: I am a huge fan of Animas High School, Mountain Middle School, Durango School District 9-R and education, in general. My kids are students at both charter schools and are seasoned district attendees as well.
They have, through these experiences, developed their various strengths and found the appropriate places to hone them. It is pretty amazing, really, to have a seventh-grader say – every day – “I LOVE my school!” Such words never occurred to me at that time.
All of this hunky-dory educational bliss – which, by the way is far more muted in my high-schooler, but a mother knows (or hopes) – springs from a wonkier story that underpins AHS’ and MMS’ success as charter schools in Durango. It is also endemic of organizational development far and wide: in business, nonprofit and education alike.
Both schools began with big goals and equally significant hurdles. Durango’s charter school history is storied, and while some earlier attempts at offering “choice in education” were initially successful, none has endured. That was heavy baggage both for charter school champions and the school district. Overcoming it required energy, perseverance and passion. That is rarely embodied in one human, but choosing a leader who can rally the requisite troops to the cause is critical. At both Animas and Mountain, the respective founding board of directors did so.
In both schools’ early start-up years, their heads of school – Animas’ Michael Ackerman and Mountain’s Jackie Oros – were instrumental to the institutions’ success. They are both engaging, dynamic leaders who are deeply committed to educating young people, well-versed in the high-tech high educational model and not afraid of taking on seemingly insurmountable tasks. This is exactly the kind of leadership appropriate for young organizations. It is particularly effective when teamed with a board of directors or leadership group that is equally engaged, can provide support, guidance and expertise to round out the administrative leader’s skills. The success of both schools is testament to this structure’s existence.
That is not to say that everything was rainbows and unicorns during those early years. The leadership styles that sparked the schools’ momentum did not necessarily fit with what Animas and Mountain – or any organization – needed as they matured. This is a natural, frequent occurrence that is often a nevertheless challenging transition for organizations to navigate. Divisions can and often do occur.
Stepping back to an organizational theory perspective, though, shows that it is a completely normal and necessary – if too often painful – step for schools, businesses, nonprofits and even people to take. As entities mature, their needs change. Where once, survival depended upon gathering support, engaging new audiences and growing a base, an established organization requires stability, demonstrating consistent results and deepening roots in the community, building on the great many strengths of its early years. The latter springs from the former. Today’s leaders would not have been possible without the bold achievements yesterday’s visionaries produced.
The fallout that these transitions can engender is difficult and can be particularly troubling in the educational context. As one who, despite my inherent cynicism, remains hopelessly optimistic, I consider the unifying value held by everyone I know who is a professional educator: a deep commitment to improving the lives of young people, helping them realize and grow into their strengths while recognizing and meeting their challenges.
My younger sister is a Teach for America alumna. Her TFA years were spent in Tulsa, where she shepherded high school students with little outside support to academic success. She attended baby showers for students, was asked to be a godmother more than once and broke up more than a handful of fights. This past spring, she flew from Denver to Tulsa to attend the graduation of her first group of students. She does this because she cares deeply for them and is incredibly proud of their achievements.
Her commitment has intensified with her career as a teacher, and she is hardly an anomaly in education. Her passion is endemic of that I have seen in many – if not most – educators, but the strengths that each has fill different niches. Animas High School and Mountain Middle School are built from these varied strengths – both of founding board and current board members as well as the leaders and teachers they have selected. Each in their time has contributed something essential to these schools’ accomplishments, and that of their students. The passion that teachers, parents, students, board members and school administrators – from the founders to today’s leaders – feel for their institutions is incontrovertible evidence of that commitment and its results.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.