- APS committed to culture change, with award-winning results
- Leaders focused on building a strengths-based, high-performance culture
- As employee engagement improved, so did student performance
Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has been on a multi-year journey to rebuild its organizational culture. It's a journey driven by the belief that bringing out the best in children requires bringing out the best in those responsible for their development. It's a journey that is changing lives and putting strengths into action.
APS created an award-winning culture that gives employees what they need to provide the world-class performance its students deserve. To achieve such a culture, APS focused on engaging, supporting and encouraging students and staff, creating community trust, and putting students first.
The summer of 2011 was a turning point for APS. The governor of Georgia announced an investigation into allegations of some school leaders and staff changing students' incorrect answers on state tests to correct answers. The outcome of that investigation became what many referred to as the cheating scandal.
Three years later, Atlanta Public Schools leaders embarked on an intentional journey to change the culture in the district. "Our goal was to realize a mindset shift -- from what's wrong to what's strong -- to better position students to excel," explained Travis Norvell, Senior Director of the Strategy Management and Organizational Culture Team.
The Culture Change Initiative That Transformed APS
APS partnered with Gallup. The district committed to maintaining a strengths-based culture -- one that celebrates employees' strengths and accelerates student success by helping leaders become stronger individuals, coaches and managers. Strengths became the lens through which all APS employees see themselves and their colleagues.
APS leadership created momentum through their unwavering support for building a strengths-based, high-performing culture. The district developed and implemented a cultural change initiative, and it fueled a strengths-based culture that focuses on change management and employee engagement.
APS also dedicated a work team to help achieve its goals -- the Strategy Management and Organizational Culture Team. This unique team -- whose members also became Gallup-Certified Strengths Coaches -- worked with leaders, teams and staff to build a districtwide strategy and culture. The team provided strengths-based tools, resources and professional development to new and existing employees, leaders and teams to help them understand how leaning into their strengths can lead to a thriving professional and personal life.
Employees in a variety of roles throughout the district also had the opportunity to apply to become a strengths coach. In addition to their regular job responsibilities, these coaches received training on the science of CliftonStrengths.
They learned how to support individuals and groups in understanding their individual and collective talents to do their best work alone and in collaboration with others. Their areas of focus aligned with the APS Culture Maturity model: from individual awareness and performance to team awareness and performance to organizational performance.
Strengths-based tools and resources became especially important during the COVID-19 disruption and urgent conversations about race in the United States. The Strategy Management and Organizational Culture Team created a webinar series called "Rising to the Challenge" to help employees cope and thrive during uncertainty.
The district committed to maintaining a strengths-based culture -- one that celebrates employees' strengths and accelerates student success by helping leaders become stronger individuals, coaches and managers.
The four-session webinar used Gallup's research on the four needs of followers -- trust, hope, compassion and stability -- as a frame, as well as other Gallup strengths and wellbeing resources. It aimed to help people understand how applying their strengths, sustaining employee engagement and building resilience could support them in a season of challenges and change.
"We wanted to provide tools and resources that could help people continue to have hope and know that they have all that they need within themselves to deal with and overcome the many changes that were facing them," said Ashley Layne, Director of the Strategy Management and Organizational Culture Team. "Employees were very receptive and appreciated the tools to help remind them that they are strong no matter the circumstance."
The team found that the common language of strengths helps people appreciate differences and have conversations centered on understanding and listening. Most importantly, having a strengths-based culture has helped employees feel safe and know that they are not alone -- they have people at work who care about them.
Improving Student and Staff Wellbeing With a Strengths-Based Approach
Going forward, APS will use its strong foundation and understanding of strengths and employee engagement to prioritize the wellbeing of staff and students.
"Particularly following this unprecedented school year as a result of the pandemic, everyone benefits from taking the time and energy necessary to intentionally promote their own and each other's wellbeing in all essential elements: career, social, financial, physical and community," said Norvell.
Intentionally focusing on culture through coaching, training, engagement conversations and action planning, and team building increased engaged staff from 29% in 2014 to 48% in 2020. As a district, APS engagement moved from the fifth percentile of Gallup's K-12 client database in 2014 to the 64th percentile in 2020.
The district has also found that as employee engagement increases, so does student performance. Schools with higher employee engagement in the 2014-2015 school year were 1.8 times more likely to be in the higher-scoring school group for the College and Career Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) in 2015.
Most importantly, having a strengths-based culture has helped employees feel safe and know that they are not alone -- they have people at work who care about them.
The teams shared that at the beginning of the APS culture journey, many employees felt hopeless -- they were focused on what was wrong rather than on what was strong. Through this process, the district shifted to focus on what was strong with its employees, students and schools.
Before the shift, many employees were working in departmental silos to accomplish day-to-day tasks, but leaders now notice employees working collaboratively to support the district's objectives. Before the shift, employees often took criticism personally and didn't feel comfortable sharing their opinions. But now, employees practice self-awareness by understanding and embracing their own strengths, knowledge and voice.
Today, employees are valued and appreciated as individuals with unique skills and talents. They contribute to a work environment where they feel heard, trusted and supported.
"Our mission states: 'Through a caring culture of equity, trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college, career and life.' We strive to foster a culture of care, and we care about employees and who they are as people," said Melvynne Reed, a Director of the Strategy Management and Organizational Culture Team. "We appreciate the uniqueness of each employee and look forward to learning how they are able to use their strengths to perform their job exceptionally well to ultimately support the second part of our mission of graduating students ready for career, college and life."
For more information about Atlanta Public Schools, visit www.atlantapublicschools.us.
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