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Navigating the Seas of School Improvement

By Dina Lemmer, Ph.D. - August 16, 2022

The process and functions of “school improvement” can be overwhelming for school leaders, especially when a state agency is involved. For a ship sailing the seas, a captain can chart a course through the murkiest of waters with the support of a navigator and the right set of tools. In the first blog of our series, we explored how Dr. Dana Kinley, executive director for the Center for Systems of Support, and Mrs. Christine Paxson, director of ESSA/IL-EMPOWER at the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), built the foundation of IL-EMPOWER. This blog will examine the planning and development of a three-pronged approach to supporting IL-EMPOWER coordinators (IECs) as they develop the skills needed to help their schools navigate the seas of school improvement.

Charting the Course

If the principal is the captain of their school’s school improvement planning ship (the SIP ship), the IECs are the ships’ navigators, who steer schools through coaching and support as they chart their course through the seas of school improvement. Mrs. Paxson and Dr. Kinley recognized the importance of helping their navigators (the IECs) develop the expertise and coaching skills needed for this role and provided them with a set of navigational tools to assist schools and districts along their journey. To help build the IECs capacity, Mrs. Paxson and Dr. Kinley worked with Region 9 Comprehensive Center to develop a three-pronged approach for supporting the IECs: (1) developing IEC coaching skills, (2) developing a series of tools to help navigate the school improvement process, and (3) supporting IECs as they practice using those tools with schools and districts.

Learning to Navigate with Improved Coaching Skills

Although the navigator is responsible for staying on course, the captain ultimately decides the destination. Mrs. Paxson noted the importance of coaching as a skill for the IECs as a way to help pose questions and provide support to each of their schools’ captains (the principals) as they determined where their ship is ultimately heading and how they will get there. To do so, ISBE’s IECs engaged in a monthly Community of Practice, facilitated by the R9CC, as well as book studies selected to hone their coaching skills. The monthly Community of Practice was established for the IECs with the goal of enhancing their coaching conversations with practice using data reports, having difficult conversations, and role-playing data meeting facilitations. The book studies for both “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier, and “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown were selected to develop the IECs’ coaching and facilitation skills. The internal collaboration space was redesigned and reframed with coaching as a forefront. The IECs were not in schools to be the captain or even have all of the answers; they were there to serve as a navigator while the captain led their crew. Casey Wills, one of ISBE’s IECs, supported this when she noted that “[the IECs] job is to be the coach and coordinator.”

Navigational Tools to Guide School Improvement Planning and Implementation

ISBE recognized the importance of having a set of common tools for IECs to use to help schools navigate the seas of school improvement, much like a map. R9CC provided support to ISBE to develop this set of common tools, which includes the Year in the Life: Planning Year, Year in the Life: Implementation Years, and Monthly Topics and Tasks documents to guide school and district leaders as they chart their course. These documents note all of the crew members (stakeholders) aboard the school’s ship and their roles and responsibilities throughout the year. Mrs. Wills noted that the Year in the Life documents describe everything in concrete terms and is helpful and easy to read, both for herself and the school leaders. Another IEC, Nicholas Heckel, found the Year in the Life “very helpful, especially as someone who was a principal back in 2018 and received a letter saying that we were a targeted school and…couldn’t find things readily. I was able to pull up the year in the life document and…the monthly topics and tasks document, which directly correlate with the year in the life documents so [a principal] knows what the next 6 months of [their] life will look like.”

Navigational Practice by Using Data to Inform Continuous Improvement

The final resource for IECs came by preparing a compass, or guidance on how to use school data to inform both their coaching conversations and the overall school improvement process. In collaboration with R9CC, Mrs. Paxson created a data meeting protocol and series of agendas to help IECs navigate data-driven coaching conversations and stay on course toward school improvement. With a map, compass, and several other navigational tools in hand, the IECs are now well-equipped to help school leaders navigate the seas of school improvement with their crew.


In the words of Rudyard Kipling in his poem, Together, “When a crew and a captain understand each other to the core, it takes a gale, and more than a gale, to put their ship ashore.” ISBE found coaching capacity and consistency of their IECs to be critical to the success of IL-EMPOWER. As Mr. Heckel noted, “consistent expectations and guidance are important, so things stay on track.” ISBE provided several key supports to help IECs captain their schools through the sometimes troubled waters: coaching development for IECs, proven tools for navigation, and practice with mapping out a course.

Bridina Lemmer, PhD., is a Technical Assistance Consultant in District and School Improvement at American Institutes for Research (AIR). She has more than 15 years of experience in science and STEM education, project-based learning and assessment. Her primary responsibilities include partnering with clients at the school, district and state levels to provide support in aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessments. Previously, Dr. Lemmer was a principal consultant for the Illinois State Board of Education in charge of developing and administering the science portion of the large-scale state assessment system for Illinois, where she oversaw the review, adoption, and subsequent implementation efforts for the state and served as state level expertise in the development of balanced assessment systems and a new state science assessment blueprint to accompany the new standards.


Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash