A Successful Start to a New Leadership Position
My first experience using an Entry Planning Approach was as Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Bedford Central School District in Westchester County, New York. My Superintendent directed me to take the first month or so to do an Entry Plan. At the time, the district hired Barry Jentz to meet with each administrator monthly throughout the year. He worked with me on my first Entry Plan.
Subsequently, I followed the same process for 24 years as Superintendent of Schools in Upper Saddle River, NJ; City of Orange, NJ; and Summit, NJ; and as the Interim Superintendent of Schools in Montclair, NJ. The Entry Plan, regardless of the district size and demographics, has been essential to my career and also essential to district and building level administrators new to their positions. Each setting is unique and the entry process enabled me to learn critical information that otherwise I might not have learned. The entry process in the City of Orange helped strengthen curriculum and instruction. As a result, student achievement increased significantly.
The City of Orange Story
Soon after my retirement from Summit, I received a call from two of my former colleagues from the City of Orange Schools. This call forced me to reflect on my career. My former colleagues were putting together a book called Breakthrough Results In Education (2016) and asked if I would write a chapter about my service as Superintendent of Schools in the City of Orange.
During my term in Orange, student achievement jumped significantly. Initially, 37% of the 4th grade students were proficient in math. Within 5 years, 87% were proficient. During the same time, graduation rates increased 40%. My challenge was to figure out what caused these larger than expected increases in student achievement in a relatively short time. Spurred on by my former colleagues, I wrote a chapter for their book, Breakthrough Results in Education called “Systemic Change: Unlocking the Potential of Low-Income Children.”
The chapter describes four initiatives that led to increased student achievement and improvements to the entire school system. “(1) Board of Education’s commitment to raising student achievement, (2) the Superintendent of School’s Entry Plan, (3) creation of goals with broad support, and (4) close collaboration and networking with New Jersey state department officials.”
The most important initiative was the Superintendent’s Entry Plan. The Entry Plan enables a new leader, as he/she onboards, to acquire a detailed and concrete understanding of all district functions and key players. I started using The Entry Planning Approach, developed by Barry Jentz, in 1985. I continued to use the entry process throughout my career. I found this systematic approach helped me to prioritize my time, develop a close relationship with my Boards of Education, avoid pitfalls, enhance my collaboration and build trust with staff, students, parents, and community members.
Framework for Understanding the Entry Process
“Seymour Sarason (1971,1982) and Barry Jentz (2007) take the position that leaders’ understanding of the culture and behavioral routines of an organization are essential. Unless you know the lay of the land, sustained institutional change is unlikely to occur. Learning the culture and behavioral routines of a school district takes time, and this fact goes against a popular notion that leaders need to “hit the road running.” Based on decades of research and practice, Jentz advocates that leaders once hired, instead need “to hit the road learning” by creating an Entry Plan. He provides a step-by-step process for a new leader to learn the strengths and weaknesses of a school district, to develop three or four district-wide goals, and to create a work plan for achieving these goals.”
The City of Orange Experience
In Orange, I implemented a detailed Entry Plan. The Plan included one-on-one structured interviews with key leaders within the school community and the city of Orange. Among those interviewed were student leaders at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, each Board of Education member, each district cabinet member, each principal, the president of the teachers' union, two or three teachers from each school, and the presidents of the PTA/PTO’s. I also interviewed key city officials including the mayor and police chief and a number of religious leaders. Those interviewed will vary for other roles such as Director of Curriculum and Instruction or Elementary School Principal
I reviewed historical documentation, such as test scores, college admissions, graduation rates, administrative and teacher evaluations, the website, minutes of the Board of Education for the last several years, and press reports. I visited classrooms in every school and attended as many events as possible, such as assemblies and sporting events.
After analyzing the responses from all my interviews and information gleaned from documents and visits to schools and events, I recommended that the Board of Education adopt the following three goals:
∙ Increase Student Achievement
∙ Raise Aspirations
∙ Increase Parent Involvement
The Board of Education, parents, staff, and community members supported the adoption of these goals. Many told me how well the goals reflected their own feelings. Action Plans were developed for each goal. Some of the key curricular and instructional interventions included: (1) Universal high-quality Pre-K for 3/4-Year-Olds, (2) Literacy and Math instructional coaches in each elementary school, (3) Middle and High School Small Learning Communities, (4) Board funded PSAT and SAT administration, and (5) Family & Student Advocacy: 45-minute weekly 12 student check-ins.
One of the goals, raising aspirations, requires special mention, as I believe it was key to overcoming accepted practices within the schools. We often see raising expectations as a school district goal, but not raising aspirations. Raising aspirations suggests things are possible that before were thought not to be possible. I think this opened the minds of people to think out of the box and to begin to believe that students in Orange could achieve at the highest levels.
The City of Orange experience is a vivid example of the importance of the Entry Planning Approach to improve student performance and improve curriculum and instruction. It was essential to a successful start for me as a new Superintendent of Schools.
In summary, the Entry Planning Approach helped me onboard successfully and strengthen the curriculum in all of my positions. I was able to avoid pitfalls that many other new administrators encounter. My guidance to administrators I hired during the entry process helped ensure their success. Although they were all talented, the entry process enabled them to avoid pitfalls and leverage their talents. At this point in my life, I am looking to share lessons I have learned with others. I would be happy to support the efforts of those starting a new position and to those supporting others new to their positions.
Cunningham, Margaret J. (Nathan Parker: Contributing Author), Breakthrough Results in Education. New Jersey: Hope and Success Ventures, 2016
Jentz, Barry. Entry Plan Approach: How to Start a Leadership Position Successfully. Boston: Leadership and Learning, 2007
Sarason, S. B. The culture of the school and the problem of change, (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1971/1982
 Ms. Faith Alcantara and Ms. Margaret J. Cunningham
 Direct quote: “Systemic Change: Unlocking the Potential of Low-Income Students”