Superintendent's Blog

Community Efforts Withstand Trial by Fire

Last month in this column I wrote about the theory of “collective efficacy”: the shared belief in a community’s collective ability to organize and take action for the common good. This month we put that theory into practice.

On the evening of Tuesday, July 3, the Lake Christine fire ignited in Basalt, and local fire departments, law enforcement, and emergency workers rallied instantly. A refugee shelter was quickly established at Basalt High School for those evacuated. Over the next day, the fire quickly spread, causing the evacuation of many more homes in the valley. A second refugee shelter was established in Roaring Fork High School late at night on July 4.

Over several days, as Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt proclaimed, local and national “superheroes” fought heroically to staunch the flames, save structures, and protect human lives.

They are superHeroes, with a capital “H,” who risk personal injury, work around the clock, and go beyond the call of duty. They look and dress like superheroes, with their body armor, utility belts, weapons, and other gadgets. And they deserve our gratitude and praise, because without their heroic efforts, many more homes and maybe some lives would have been lost. One firefighter fought the fire even while his own house was burning. These superheroes did save the day.

At the same time, many small “h” superheroes rallied to the scene. First they came in organized waves under the banner of the Red Cross, county human services, and animal rescue. Then they came one-by-one in pickup-trucks and cars carrying supplies: ice and coolers, food, clothing, and toys.

That was the moment of true collective efficacy -- a community rallying spontaneously and selflessly for the common good.

Some heroes offered goods and resources. Local coffee shops dropped off urns of coffee. Bakeries brought doughnuts and pies. Pizza boxes flowed abundantly. Restaurants and grocers donated food.

Other heroes volunteered time and contributed skills. Teachers and childcare workers dropped in to lead games and activities with children. Interpreters provided help with translation. Medical and mental health providers offered their services.

Community organizations rallied heroically. The Lions Club served meals for days on end. Valley Settlement hit the streets to make sure everyone in the immigrant community had a place to stay.

Heroes who worked for the school district chipped in without being asked. Britni, the custodian at Roaring Fork High School, heard that the school was being used as a shelter on the 4th of July and came over just before midnight. She stayed up until three in the morning cleaning the showers, stocking the restrooms, and straightening up around the evacuees. She slept in the office in case anybody needed help during the night, got up the next morning, and started her shift cleaning the building. Britni was among the dozens of employees who showed up to work extra hours and contribute their time.  

Unlike in the movies, the victims didn’t just stand by while superheroes did their thing. I saw a volunteer named Joe setting up and cleaning up for three days at the evacuation shelter in Basalt. I asked him if he worked for the Red Cross. But no, he had been displaced by the fire, had a place to stay with friends in Glenwood Springs, and just wanted to help out.

Government services were vital in addressing this crisis. At the same time, the collective actions of the entire community led it to go as well as it did. The fact that there were over 500 homes evacuated but fewer than 200 people slept in shelters shows that the entire community opened its doors to its neighbors. As one of the veteran federal firefighters stated at a community briefing, “I’ve never seen the love and support like we’ve seen on this fire.”

The smoke from the fire will be with us for months to come. Families whose homes were lost or property damaged will take time to rebuild and restore. Let’s hope that the social bonds that tightened and held us together during the days of the fire will remain in place.

The Power of Believing in Collective Success

Schools have a lot to learn from other sectors. One idea from developing safe neighborhoods in the 1970s has promising implications for education today. Certain kinds of neighborhoods, those with a strong sense of “collective efficacy,” have been shown to have great reductions in crime and other improvements.

Collective efficacy, the shared belief in the collective ability to organize and take action for the common good, relies on social cohesion. Neighborhoods with strong bonds--long-term residents, close relationships, extended families, sense of identity to the place--and where residents are willing to intervene to create the conditions they desire, tend to be cleaner, safer, and better functioning. Collective efficacy has been proven to change neighborhoods, increase team success, and influence student outcomes in schools.

In a school setting, collective efficacy starts with a few fundamental principles. First is educators’ belief that they are, in fact, responsible for students’ learning. Study after study shows the power of self-fulfilling prophecies: When we believe that our students can learn, they learn. The research shows a significant effect size of three to ten times greater student outcomes when teachers believe they are capable of helping their students succeed compared to other variables, including teacher-student ratios, which reading or math program we select, or how much homework we assign. Unfortunately, collective efficacy works both ways. As a society, we have work to do to overcome our biases so that we never count a student out.

Second is a willingness to let teachers participate in school- and district-wide decision-making. This is tough for many leaders and policymakers because, well, aren’t we supposed to be the ones making the decisions? Teacher efficacy requires that leaders let go of their own solutions and trust the practitioners to come up with the answers.

Third, however, is educators’ shared commitment to common goals, norms, and measures. Teachers have to be willing to surrender the “me” of classroom freedom and autonomy for the “we” of common goals and assessments. Collective efficacy requires teachers to be willing to teach to a common assessment--not to the state tests, but to school- or district-adopted assessments--so that results can be studied and compared, and promising outcomes can be replicated in other classrooms and teams. Teachers and principals have to know what each other is doing, see what results each other is getting, and be willing to share and adapt to what is working. The social unit of organization for collective efficacy isn’t the rugged individual but the team.

All of this takes enormous trust: that educators have the capacity and, ultimately, the will to get the results they want to attain; that leaders not to be punitive with data or when schools don’t get the results we were hoping for; and that we can appear vulnerable, ignorant, and ineffective to one another as we experience frequent setbacks and false starts on the road of continuous improvement. Schools need the social bonds of close neighborhoods where we’re all in it together if we are going to be more efficacious.

How does this look in Roaring Fork schools? Principals receive professional development around teacher involvement in school strategic planning and using building leadership teams for teacher-led decision-making. Teacher-led teams determine what curriculum will be used across the school district in middle-school math. Elementary reading teachers establish common goals and daily pacing guides, administer common assessments, and agree upon which instructional practices to use in their classrooms. Teams of teachers in a middle school look together at common outcomes and decide how they can collectively do better. We are already doing a lot of good work to build collective efficacy in our school community.

Given the magnitude of the impact of collective efficacy, why don’t we do more of it? Because it’s hard--it takes time, effort, and a willingness to fail many times on the way to success. Because we can’t control it--we have to give autonomy to teams of teachers rather than giving them scripts or off-the-shelf remedies to follow. Because it gives authority to educators as opposed to policymakers or school board members who are elected as the deciders. Collective efficacy requires a commitment to shared norms, shared actions, and shared responsibility.

Of course, moving toward collective efficacy is a process, and it doesn’t happen all at once. It starts in neighborhoods and spreads where conditions allow. It isn’t a quick fix, but a long-term strategy for continuous improvement. As a community, we still have work to do to help build collective efficacy in our neighborhoods and schools--to inspire our collective belief in the possibility of all children succeeding--so that all of our children have a real opportunity to thrive.

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