FRONT OFFICE TEAMWORK: SPREADING SUCCESS

TBCBillyThompsonA Conversation with Billy Thompson, Vice Principal
A+ Academy, Rylie Academies, Dallas School District, Texas

THE BREAKTHROUGH COACH: Mr. Thompson, can you tell us about Rylie Academies and how you came to be Vice Principal of A+ Academy?

BILLY THOMPSON: The Rylie Academies are a separate Pre-K – 12 charter school district within the Dallas School District. There is a Head Principal for Rylie Academies and a Vice Principal for each of the individual schools within the charter district. The A+ Academy is the high school. I’ve been in the district for 10 years and at A+ for 4 years.

I graduated from high school in Dallas, (along with some of my current students’ parents), and after graduating from college, began teaching history and English at the elementary school. I went back to college for an M.E., became a reading specialist, then went back to school again for a masters in administration. I started at A+ Academy in the 2006-’07 school year.

TBC: What did you find when you came to A+?

BT: I was really reluctant to move up to the high school. It had been in operation for 8 years by then. Student achievement was at an unacceptably low level, and enrollment was below capacity. There was high staff turnover, low pay and low skill levels among the staff that remained, and no use of data for measurement. In short, there was chaos and a desperate need for leadership. The job seemed overwhelming.

I had a hard time determining exactly what my role was. I felt almost as if I was the school parent: there were lines down the hall to see me. I spent my days putting out fires and resolving conflicts – everything seemed to be an emergency – and I was buried under piles of paperwork. I felt more like a counselor than an administrator. Everyone else’s stress became my stress. My secretary and I shared an office, which added to the sense of chaos as well.

TBC: How did you become involved with The Breakthrough Coach?

BT: The Dallas School District’s school improvement team saw that we were struggling and recommended coaching. Our head principal found out about TBC and in the spring of 2007, sent me and my secretary to TBC’s 2-Day Program.

Frankly, on Day 1, I wasn’t sure if TBC’s approach would work. The underlying concepts were really new and it took time for me to begin to think differently about how leading a school could be. Then, on Day 2 when our secretaries joined us, it all clicked – especially as I observed my secretary’s reaction. She bought in to the process immediately and as we began to talk, I realized how overwhelmed and frustrated she felt too. Sharing an office was as uncomfortable for her as it was for me. She also realized that she needed to be able to say “no” – to set appropriate boundaries for her role up front. TBC gave her a sense of what those boundaries should be.

TBC: How did things change when you returned to work after your TBC experience?

BT: We did some simple things, like re-locating the staff mailboxes so that people weren’t in our office and around our desks all the time. We adopted TBC’s request-routing system which helped with those boundary issues. As I started to get out of the office more, she had more privacy. We were able to arrange it so that each of us had more specific office hours – much easier and the lines of people waiting to see me disappeared.

TBC: So, by the end of the ’07-’08 school year, you and your secretary were an efficient team and all set for the ’08-’09 year.

BT: We thought so, but it turned out that the superintendent was looking for a new secretary and by then, my secretary had a great reputation. She was transferred to the superintendent’s office – absolutely the right move for her, but I had to start all over with a new secretary.

TBC: How did that go?

BT: At first, not very well. My second secretary and I got off to a rough start, in part because I was unconsciously comparing her to her predecessor. I tried to implement TBC’s methodology with her, but it just wasn’t working and we regressed. At this point, my secretary, along with the head principal’s secretary, pressed for us to attend TBC’s 2-Day Program again. We did and things began to go really well after that.

TBC: That brings us to 2009-’10. What happened?

BT: Believe it or not, both my new secretary and the head principal’s secretary were “stolen” again! It got to the point where people began to wonder what was wrong because I kept losing secretaries. This time, I didn’t wait – I registered my third secretary and me for TBC’s 2-Day Program immediately, and that put us on track much more quickly.

TBC: How has the culture at Rylie changed as a result of the TBC process?

BT: It’s been pretty dramatic. Our head principal is now in classrooms regularly. My office, “impeccable” according to TBC’s standards, has inspired others to look at their workspaces in a whole new way. There’s a much higher level of respect for the position of secretary – our staffs know that our secretaries really do speak for us. And as my secretaries moved on to other offices, they spread this culture change.

I’ve had time to be a true Instructional Leader and assess our staff from top to bottom. Discipline issues are down dramatically because I’m in classrooms interacting with the kids in a positive way. Our enrollment is at capacity with a waiting list. We have virtually no staff turnover. Academically, we’ve made double-digit gains. We’ve gone from Needs Improvement status to being a Recognized Campus. We are only 3 points away from “Exemplary”!

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