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How a Focused Change Management Plan Sent K-12 Graduation Rates Soaring

  • 6 Min Read

With an emphasis on great communication, superintendent Rick Surrency increased his district's graduation rate by almost 38% since 2015.

Melissa McElhill Content Marketing Specialist

Rick Surrency has been working in Florida’s Putnam County School District for over 20 years, with this year being his eighth as superintendent. Whereas most superintendents in the U.S. are appointed by the school board, Surrency runs for election every four years, which is common in Florida. This means he has to be cognizant of the decisions he makes—especially ones that bring about change—and the impact they have on public perception. 

When Surrency first ran for election in 2015, Putnam County had a graduation rate of 54.9%, significantly less than the national average of 83.2%, meaning only 1 in 2 students were leaving high school with a diploma. This created angst within the community, as it diminished not only the career prospects of high school leavers who didn’t have a diploma but also everyone in the county because businesses reported the low graduation rate as a reason not to set up shop in the county. 

When Surrency was elected, he and his team worked tirelessly to improve graduation rates, and the district now boasts a rate of 92.5%. This is the greatest increase the district has experienced and is also the largest gain in the entire state of Florida from 2015 to 2021. As you can imagine, this improvement required new thinking and systemic change. Always considering the future, Surrency says, “We’ve made a positive impact, but now we have to sustain that.” He tells us in his own words how his team turned the ship around and why he thinks it’s important for leaders to keep looking at the horizon. 

Do Your Research To Pinpoint Which Changes Need To Be Made

Here’s the No. 1 thing we did right out of the gate: We stopped allowing students to walk across the stage at graduation if they did not earn a diploma. The reason we did that is because attendance rates at graduation were always high, implying students and their families valued this rite of passage. So, we saw an opportunity to incentivize study. If only the students who earned a diploma could walk across the stage at graduation, maybe students would work hard to obtain one. And it worked. We got a lot of complaints, but it worked.  

When I was a principal, I knew the teachers in my school who were the movers and the shakers. As a leader, it’s even more important to know who those people are so that you can monitor the pulse of what’s going on across the entire organization.

– Rick Surrency, Superintendent, Putnam County School District, Florida

And then we started another lot of other systemic changes to target graduation rates, but we set the expectation early and targeted change to meet the outcome rather than create an unnecessary superfluous change that didn’t serve our goals. And that doesn’t mean we weren’t blindsided by circumstances from time to time. Last year, for example, we had to close down five of 18 schools in our district due to declining enrollment. This was not an ideal situation, but the data was telling us we needed to close schools to remain viable. And so, we made sure to carefully and clearly communicate that to the public. 

Front-Load Information

In some cases, I think we’ve done a really good job of pushing out communication ahead of time, and in some cases, I’ve held panel discussions and listened to people demonstrate a lack of understanding about the upcoming change. In those cases, I think to myself, “How did we miss that group?” because we clearly didn’t communicate our plan to them very well.  

In general, our educators are the ones people seek out if they want to know more details about an upcoming change, so we empower them with as much information as possible. We are currently trying to pass a $300 million bond issue, and we started our campaign by speaking to our teachers. We visited every single school to talk to them about the bond issue and what it could do for their students. We know that people will come up to our teachers and say, “What’s happening?” so we want them to be informed.  

Know Who Your Movers and Shakers Are and Cultivate Their Support

Sometimes, instead of sharing your change management plan with everyone, you should talk to the right people who will become your champions for change and get everyone else on board. 

When I was a principal, I knew the teachers in my school who were the movers and the shakers—who had the voices of influence and who would also come to me and tell me when things weren’t going well. As a leader, it’s even more important to know who those people are so that you can monitor the pulse of what’s going on across the entire organization. 

When appropriate, I’ll reach out to my champions for change to get their support because they also act like your diplomats throughout the whole process, which is invaluable. 

The Superintendent’s Guide to Change Management

There are two constants in life: change and resistance to change. In this free guide, you’ll learn how to help your district adapt, stay relevant and better serve its community with advice and practical tips from superintendents who have led districtwide innovation.

Download for Free

Embrace Feedback in an Authentic Way

One of the most important parts of my job is establishing good community communication. You want a foundational level of trust and openness for the times you do have to make tough decisions, such as when we closed our schools during COVID-19. 

If you are eliciting feedback, you have to be honest with yourself and make sure you’re not trying to manipulate people into agreeing with decisions you have already made. And in the cases where it’s a decision you have already made, you need to be brave enough to admit the plan is already in motion. 

People want to be heard. They may not agree with your decision, but they will trust you as an organization if you are honest with them. And they’ll move forward with things they don’t agree with because they respect the fact you’re doing it for the right reasons, and every change we make to our district is to better serve our children. 

Your Job as a Leader Is To Anticipate Change and Time Its Implementation Appropriately

I’ve given a presentation on the five lessons of leadership, and it talks about the change process. The main message is that we as leaders don’t want to just react to a crisis; we want to see the crisis on the horizon and stop it from becoming one by the time it gets to us. I think that, as leaders, we need to learn to “read the tea leaves” and apply our knowledge to the circumstances so that we can be proactive in our approach to adaptation and growth. 

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

How Rick Surrency applied the principles of effective change management: 
Perspective: Surrency argues that as a leader, your role is to continually anticipate what needs to be done to help the organization thrive, which naturally involves change management.  
Focused change: To improve graduation rates, Surrency and his team zeroed in on one key innovation, which ended up yielding disproportionately strong results. 
Sharing an inspiring vision: Surrency ran his election campaign on the promise to improve the school experience for staff and students. By setting the expectation for excellence early on, he was able to introduce systemic changes his community was primed for.  
Communication: Plans for change get communicated with stakeholders, especially the district’s educators, who are the people others seek out if they want to know more details about an impending change in the school district. 
Welcoming feedback: Surrency and his team were purposeful and clear in their communication about upcoming changes and genuinely relished feedback from key stakeholders in order to make them feel heard and to build trust. 
Knowing who your champions are: Sometimes Surrency would communicate change management plans with the staff he knew would embrace change so that they could help persuade others to approach change with eagerness rather than fear.