“Belief” is a word you hear a lot from Universal Academy founder Diane Harris. She talks passionately about her belief that school improvement is possible, that educators can feel empowered instead of hopeless, and that every child can learn at high levels and achieve success.
“I always used to hear people at state meetings say, ‘Can’t be done,’” says Harris. “I used to be one of those people until I came here [to Harvard].”
Harris is chief education officer and superintendent at Universal Academy (UA), a preK–12 charter school with campuses in the Dallas suburbs of Coppell and Irving, Texas. This July, she brought her leadership team to the National Institute for Urban School Leaders (USL). It was her fourth time attending a professional education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the third with a UA team in tow. Harris says that the HGSE programs’ combination of research, practical tools, and faculty with experience as practitioners have helped catalyze a shift in the whole team’s attitude.
“These are researchers who have been where we are. They all have experience in the trenches,” she says. “And these are strategies that we can use immediately, so we feel more capable and more confident.”
“It gives you the power to make a difference on a daily basis for every student,” says Sheraton Duffey, principal of UA’s Irving campus and part of the team attending USL.
Harris first came to Appian Way when a colleague suggested she explore HGSE’s professional education. She enrolled in Leadership: An Evolving Vision, designed to help experienced school leaders strengthen their leadership skills. Harris returned with her leadership team the following year. “It was so good by myself, I knew I had to come back and bring a team. It takes a team effort to make it work,” she says.
In 2013 Harris and her colleagues attended Closing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Excellence with Equity. They implemented several lessons from the program, including changing the way they conducted their mandatory parent meetings. Guided by Ronald Ferguson’s strategies for parent involvement, UA conducted an initial parent survey, took steps to ensure that parents understood the state requirements for their students, and reviewed with them assessment information that tracked each child’s progress and work. Parents were able to look at their students’ growth, or lack thereof, over time and ask questions.
“It established a trust system with the parents,” says Duffey. “They had to believe that we weren’t just ‘a school’ but that we were people who had their students’ best interests at heart and who were going to do everything possible to highly educate their child.”
The UA team also re-examined how they looked at and utilized data, realizing they hadn’t been using it to drive instruction. As a result, teachers were trained to use data to identify patterns of strength and weaknesses, and each student is now given an academic plan that is tracked by the teacher. UA also created intense sessions in each content area in its afterschool program, employing data to determine who would attend and how to meet the needs of each student.
The UA team credits these strategies for the recent gains they have seen in student achievement. In the 2014 Texas Education Agency’s accountability ratings, UA received three stars of distinction: for academic achievement in reading and mathematics and for closing the achievement gap.
“While we recognized that we still had a long way to go, we knew that we were on the right path,” says Duffey. “That is why we have continued to attend educational institutes at Harvard.”
After attending USL, the UA team is eager to implement even more tools back home, including Jeff Howard’s framework for supporting student achievement, Elizabeth City’s checklist for using data more effectively, and Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell’s breakdown of the five components of organizational culture. Receiving these actionable strategies based on rigorous research has distinguished the HGSE experience from other professional education programs and conferences the UA team has attended.
Says Harris: “The Harvard experience has been key in keeping us competitive — not against others but competitive with ourselves — to always keep improving.”