Wisconsin School District Captures State Quality Awards By Collaborating For Continuous Improvement
Making the Case for Quality
Wisconsin School District Captures State Quality Awards by
Collaborating for Continuous Improvement
by Janet Jacobsen
When Dr. Lisa Snyder became principal at Viking Elementary in 2002, the school was the lowest per-
At a Glance . . . former in the district and there were real concerns about achievement gaps and systems alignment. While
random acts of excellence were evident in the school, the staff wasn’t working collaboratively to serve its
students. With 38 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunches, Viking was eligible
• Six years ago significant
achievement gaps at for a comprehensive school reform grant from the state of Wisconsin. Perhaps equally significant to the
Viking Elementary School grant’s three-year $150,000 annual award was the requirement to implement a research-based continuous
in Holmen, WI, led the
improvement framework, which continues to fuel a culture of excellence throughout the district.
school to apply for and
subsequently receive a
About the School District of Holmen, WI
state school reform grant.
• The grant stipulated that
The School District of Holmen, located in southwestern Wisconsin, is composed of six municipalities
recipients commit to a
just north of La Crosse near the Mississippi River. Approximately 335 certified staff members serve
framework. To comply, nearly 3,600 students, with another 240 people employed in full- or part-time support services roles.
Viking adopted the Malcolm An ASQ K-12 Organizational member, Holmen is a generous leader in sharing its continuous improve-
Baldrige Education Criteria ment experiences with other school districts both near and far.
for Performance Excellence.
All Aboard the Baldrige Train
• The continuous improvement
effort, based on the Baldrige
Faced with selecting a continuous improvement framework to meet the grant requirements, district
spread throughout the
leaders ultimately chose the Baldrige education criteria. “We felt the Baldrige framework had the most
district. The plan, do, study,
potential to help us identify the root causes of our achievement gaps and to move forward in a clear
act (PDSA) cycle and a
sharp focus on teacher and united way,” explains Snyder, who now serves as principal at Holmen Middle School.
collaboration to maximize
student achievement Viking’s pilot implementation was the district’s first systematic approach to process improvement.
were key factors in the Rick Johnson, the district’s pupil services director, notes that earlier improvement efforts simply
resulted in silos of excellence where some processes were effective but were not linked to an overall
• In 2004, Viking system. “It was hard to measure performance because we really didn’t know our performance
Elementary became the
targets,” recalls Johnson.
first K-12 applicant for
the Wisconsin Forward
With the bulk of the Baldrige implementation effort taking place at Viking, bringing the district’s five
Award, a statewide
other schools on board took time. Superintendent Dr. Fred Frick understood that fully embracing the
and in doing so earned a Baldrige framework districtwide was crucial to engaging all schools in the process. Johnson remem-
Proficiency Level Award. bers a turning point four years ago when Frick announced to a district leadership team, “The Baldrige
train is leaving the station and you had better be on it.”
• Then just one year later,
Holmen Middle School
captured a Wisconsin Holmen leadership believed the Baldrige framework was a good fit for the district as a whole because:
Forward Award at the
Commitment Level. • The focus is on teaching and learning.
• It stimulates the use of learning-related research.
The American Society for Quality www.asq.org Page 1 of 3
• The framework offers the potential to expand the body of • What is collaboration?
• What qualities make every team great?
knowledge of successful teaching and learning practices.
• What are the challenges?
• Using the framework connects the district with a network of
quality schools facing similar challenges.
The council then completed a force field analysis on the driving
and restraining forces for successful collaboration.
Utilizing the PDSA Cycle to Fuel Continuous
The early dismissal sessions focused on developing collabora-
tion skills to build capacity and to better share knowledge. One
By the summer of 2006, Holmen teachers and administrators
after-school session focused on the steps to collaborative com-
were familiar with quality tools and a continuous improvement
munication, as shown in Figure 1. “It’s been really exciting to
philosophy, but most had little or no experience in using tools in
see how the teachers are building on this. We’re moving toward
an integrated problem-solving approach. At this point the district
common assessments and are identifying interventions to better
began working to ensure that every leader and supervisor would
help students progress,” explains Richert, who has worked in the
become confident and comfortable in facilitating the plan, do,
Holmen district for 32 years.
study, act (PDSA) cycle at his or her school or program level.
ASQ instructor Ann Haggerty-Raines presented a week-long Through a train-the-trainer model, teacher leaders were equipped
intensive PDSA cycle and tool introduction course to a group of to facilitate the collaboration sessions rather than the principals.
teachers, administrators, and curriculum specialists. Haggerty- “This really helped build capacity and buy-in,” states Snyder.
Raines believes it was this blend of participants that created During the sessions the teacher leaders used quality tools for
a little bit of positive pressure that helped make the training a decision making and analyzing data collaboratively. Action
big success. “They tried so hard [prior to this training] without plans were created at the end of each session to help teachers uti-
PDSA and tools to make improvements. Once they became lize those tools with students in the classroom. This is just one of
engaged with the training, I think they realized they’d found the the district’s strategies for driving quality to the classroom level.
missing piece of the puzzle,” she notes.
An added benefit to the collaboration focus is the opportunity to
The PDSA cycle has worked well for schools in the Holmen dis- reduce fear and build trust about sharing data. “Data can be very
trict, especially in determining root causes of achievement gaps. scary for some people so we’ve worked to reduce fears about
opening up in a group of colleagues,” Johnson explains. He says
“Through the PDSA process you can align and create an action
that a big part of collaboration involves helping educators over-
plan that has impact because you’ve determined the cause of the
come the fear of looking at data because in the past, data may
problem. You aren’t guessing, but using a solution that is directly
have made some staff members feel like failures. Johnson believes
aligned to meet the needs of the root cause,” notes Snyder.
that collaboration and the use of data in decision making have
Building Capacity and Gaining Momentum substantially reduced fears among the teaching staff and have led
Through Collaboration to more subjective discussions about student achievement.
Snyder echoes Johnson’s thoughts about the power of collabora-
To fulfill the challenging requirements of the Baldrige criteria,
tion, especially when teachers work collaboratively on the topic of
administrators and teachers had to work together as a team, all
student achievement data. “That’s when the most change happens
pulling in the same direction with the same vision. Through
because they have a focus and come to a consensus about how to
negotiations with the teacher’s union, leadership team initia-
address [achievement] gaps. Coming to consensus about strategies
tives, and feedback from teachers, the district recognized a need
and actions plans—that’s where the power is,” remarks Snyder.
for greater teacher collaboration and involvement. Once again
Holmen called on Haggerty-Raines to lend her expertise on the
Capturing Statewide Honors
topic by leading a workshop last summer to develop a vision for
the collaboration process. Then in July 2007, a district collabora-
Just two years after adopting the Baldrige continuous improve-
tion council was formed to design a system of staff development ment framework, the hours of hard work by teachers and
to promote a high level of cross-district collaboration. The administrators were rewarded in a very public way as Viking
council developed a mission and purpose for this initiative: to Elementary School captured an intermediate level Proficiency
maximize student achievement through teacher collaboration. Award in the Wisconsin Forward Award (WFA) program.
Sandy Richert, director of instructional services for the district, Figure 1 Steps to Collaborative Communication
recalls that the timing for the collaboration training was perfect.
• Coming to consensus on goals and objectives (a willingness to compromise)
The teacher calendar for 2007-08 had just been finalized and
• Seeking/honoring contributions (maintaining an open mind)
included one day per month for early release, thus providing an
• Listening with respect and interest
ideal opportunity for teachers to meet for two hours each month. • Reinforcing the positive, dealing openly and honestly with conflict
As the collaborative council planned the early release sessions, • Problem solving/critical inquiry
members discussed these key questions: • Reflecting as a group or by individuals
The American Society for Quality www.asq.org Page 2 of 3
Viking was the first K-12 applicant in this statewide program, For more information:
which bases its criteria on the Baldrige Award education criteria.
• A wide variety of quality tools and templates, as well as school
One year later it was time for another celebration as Holmen
improvement plans, presentations, and information about
Middle School earned the beginning level Commitment Award
systems alignment, is available through the District of Holmen
for effectively demonstrating continuous improvement principles
Web site: www.holmen.k12.wi.us.
and practices. The rigorous WFA application process served as a
• Information on implementing a Baldrige-based continuous
valuable learning experience for the district, as Snyder explains,
improvement framework is available from the Community
“Receiving that feedback was just incredible, not just to refocus
Consolidated School District 15 in Palatine, IL. This 2003
our efforts and look for further opportunities for improvement,
Baldrige Award winning school district’s Web site is found
but to validate that we were on the right track.”
• Leaders in the Holmen district recommend visiting the
Wisconsin Forward Award recognition levels Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Web site at
www.cr.k12.ia.us/. This site contains a section devoted
in the district’s
Four recognition levels in the Wisconsin Forward to continuous improvement and provides a wealth of
Award program reflect an organization’s information, including quality tools, templates, best practice
progress in achieving performance excellence:
research, and more.
Commitment—beginning level • The School District of Holmen has partnered with David
the creation of
Proficiency—intermediate Langford International; visit the organization’s Web site at
team and the
• Learn about Wisconsin’s state quality award based on
use of a shared
the Baldrige criteria, the Wisconsin Forward Award, at
Visit www.forwardaward.org/process.html for more
information on each level.
• To learn about training opportunities in quality tools and
techniques designed for schools and classrooms, visit
two years into
this process at Viking, Frick requested funding from the school
board so that all schools in the district could form leadership
teams to work collaboratively with principals on improvement
efforts. Now these teams are well established in every school in
the district. Each school conducts summer data retreats where
Charting Your Course: Lessons Learned During the Journey
staff members analyze student achievement data. To promote
Toward Performance Excellence, by John G. Conyers and
systems alignment, every school has a strategic plan, sets goals
Robert Ewy, tells the story of 2003 Malcolm Baldrige National
in the same format, and utilizes quality tools.
Quality Award winner Community Consolidated School
District 15 of Palatine, IL. The book is available through ASQ
Quality Press at www.asq.org/quality-press/display-item/index.
Having gained valuable experience in preparing a WFA applica-
tion, the district is planning to submit a more comprehensive,
There is Another Way!: Launch a Baldrige-Based Quality
district-wide application in the next year or two. “We believe
Classroom, by Margaret A. Byrnes with Jeanne C. Baxter, rep-
that [a district-wide application] is one of the important next
resents a way to use the Baldrige criteria to improve classroom
steps in getting the feedback to take us to another level of perfor-
systems. This training guide is designed for classroom teachers
mance,” Johnson remarks.
at all levels, as well as teachers in training. The book is avail-
able through ASQ Quality Press at www.asq.org/quality-press/
While the district prepares its next WFA application, teachers
and administrators will also focus on moving continuous
improvement activities to the student level in all schools. The
Future Force: Kids That Want To, Can, and Do! A Teacher’s
idea is to offer students a variety of tools to help them achieve
Handbook for Using TQM in the Classroom, by Elaine
self-learning by working responsibly and managing their
McClanahan and Carolyn Wicks, provides details on educating
and training children to deal with and contribute to the ever-
changing demands of the future with continuous improvement.
Both Johnson and Snyder highly recommend the Baldrige frame-
ASQ Quality Press offers this handbook at www.asq.org/quality-
work to other school districts. Johnson notes the importance of
celebrating success and encourages leaders in other districts to
share results and acknowledge people for their effort and com-
About the Author
mitment. Snyder offers this advice: “Don’t give up, because it’s
worth it. It’s worth the time, money, and effort to achieve at a Janet Jacobsen is a freelance writer specializing in quality and
higher level and to have an excellent organization that delights compliance topics. A graduate of Drake University, she resides
both your students and parents.” in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The American Society for Quality www.asq.org Page 3 of 3