Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It All Starts with a Dream

Last week, I had one of the most gratifying experiences of my professional career. During a time when everything you hear on the news is so negative…government fighting with unions; unions fighting with school districts; school districts fighting with teachers, I felt like I had been transported to another world. What a breath of fresh air to work with a community that is not playing blame games and not paying lip service to problems. No, they are actually doing something as a unified community to institute change!

A few months ago, I received an email from Dr. Mark Daniel, superintendent of the Dowagiac Union Schools in Dowagiac, Michigan. He had a “dream” for his school district – a way of teaching that was student-centered and had the values of Disney. Soon, I was engaged in a conference call with a team of four leaders from the Dowagiac community: Mark Daniel; Joy Strand, CEO of Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital; Larry Seurynck, President of the Board of Education; and Kevin Anderson, City Manager. This unlikely team that became a steering team all shared the “dream” of improving customer service in their respective organizations, but most importantly, of becoming a customer-centric community. I was amazed at their commitment to one another, and their passion for embarking upon a journey with so many unknowns.

We discussed a way to bring these uniquely diverse entities together to introduce and begin the process of adopting “The Disney Way” principles. In my 30+ years of consulting, the approach I proposed for a community-wide cultural change might have seemed daunting to the team. I know how difficult it is for even one organization to change their culture, so at first, I was thinking that the chances of several organizations coming to consensus on a culture was slim and none. But, as I came to discover…the Dowagiac steering team was more unified than some teams after years and years of development! When Mark Daniel called to schedule dates for our engagement, I felt a rush of enthusiasm about being involved in what was to be the launch of something very special in our great state of Michigan.

We began the week-long kickoff with my 90 minute keynote – “If Walt Ran Your Organization” – that was open to the entire community (650 attended, 10% of the Dowagiac population). The subsequent three days were filled with staff interviews and workshop training in which teams from four entities (school, hospital, city government and the Dowagiac community) worked hard, played hard and discovered many “ah has” together. The energy, passion and spirit exhibited by each of these teams is hard to describe…I wish all communities had a “dream” that touched so many members. Each of the Dowagiac teams is now in full swing developing their own “dreams” with great gusto.

I believe that the change that is taking place in the Dowagiac Union Schools will be the most challenging, the most dramatic, and perhaps the most exciting for the community. You’d have to live under a rock to not know that our nation’s educational process is failing our students…our future! For every TEN high school freshmen entering school this year, only SEVEN will graduate in four years. Of those seven, FOUR will go continue on to college, but TWO will need to take a remedial reading, writing or mathematics class. I don’t know of any business that can survive with an 80% defect rate!

Nationally, the finger pointing continues regarding ways to improve our educational system…blame the unions; blame the teachers; blame the administration; blame the parents; too much spending; too little spending. The truth of the matter is that for over twenty-five years, we have thrown money at the problems, drugged students who have behavioral issues and labeled them as ADHD. But the way we teach – the process – has not had any measurable positive change in the past 100 years. We must attack the process not the people.

The leaders of the Dowagiac Union School District have decided to take a stand for real educational change. Revamping a tired, ineffective process begins with a “dream”...and I applaud what they have crafted:

Imagine a place where Students have a passion for learning

….a place where the focus is student-centered

…a place where students achieve personal goals

…a place where our whole community is valued

…a place where children work together and learn from each other

The Dowagiac Dream for Education

This week, I had the opportunity to be part of the Dowagiac Union School District’s presentation of their “dream” to all their employees. I also felt privileged to assist in facilitating customer service feedback storyboard sessions with middle school and high school students. When the students identified the “ideal” classroom as: 1. exploration and discovery; 2. interaction with the teacher and fellow students; and 3. fun, I knew they were beginning to build a great future together…a feat worth celebrating. It reminded me of the Millennium Celebration at World Disney World whose theme was Celebrate the Future Hand in Hand. Certainly, being with those students reinforced my passion for student-centered experiential learning, and gave me cause to celebrate!

My personal “dream” is that other communities will look to Dowagiac as a model of what is possible when fellow citizens from diverse organizations come together to “Dream, Believe, Dare, and Do.” Witnessing an entire community collaborate, break down barriers, and embrace change is what made my week so very special. The three-day workshop experience at Southwestern Michigan College (SMC) was frosting on the cake. Dr. Fred Mathews, SMC founder and CEO of 46 years, was our host and a member of what is now known as the “community team.” SMC is a great example of student-centered education and Fred is an advocate and resource for change in Dowagiac’s educational system. What a delight it was to get to know Fred and share ideas with him!

Keep up the good work Dowagiac! It is really an honor to be a small part of your exciting journey!

Bill Capodagli

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