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How To Open a Middle School in a District Suffering From Change Fatigue

  • 6 Min Read

A project 30 years in the making came to fruition when superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell helped guide her staff through monumental change management transitions.

Melissa McElhill Content Marketing Specialist

Brooke Olsen-Farrell lives in Granville, New York, right across the border from her school district in Fair Haven, Vermont. Her career in education spans two decades, first teaching at her old high school in New York state and now working in Slate Valley as superintendent, where she is in her 10th year at the school district and sixth year as its leader. 

It would be fair to describe Olsen-Farrell’s recent change management style as crisis change management. After just a few months as superintendent, there was an attempted school shooting, and six months after that, COVID-19 emerged (ushering in statewide school closures), which was followed by two district mergers. Olsen-Farrell credits the Slate Valley community with resilience, especially regarding the averted shooting: “There’s been a lot to adjust to. But we are now the leading district in the state of Vermont on school safety and a relative expert as a result of what we’ve been through.” 

One of Olsen-Farrell’s major projects has been opening a new middle school. This was an idea that had been discussed for over 30 years within the community, and Olsen-Farrell and her team made it happen. She tells us in her own words how she guided her staff through the transitional period and continues to help them adapt to the challenges of widespread change.  

Despite a Reduced Budget, We Managed To Open a Middle School This Fall  

In March 2020, we had a design for a new middle school, and we put out a $60 million bond to renovate the high school and to add a middle school to the high school campus. That vote was not successful—two-thirds of voters did not support the bond. However, shortly afterward, when COVID-19 forced schools to close, we were able to divert funds to the middle school without asking the community for a larger budget. 

This Much-Anticipated Project Required Thoughtful Scaffolding

I made sure we started talking about the new middle school in public board meetings to help people adjust to the idea that a change was going to happen. I also wanted to be as clear and compassionate in my communication as possible because the synergies of adding a new middle school to one of our current high schools meant a loss of staff positions. 

Indeed, there were many aspects to consider during the planning stages. We had to be very thoughtful about what the years leading up to the school opening would look like, what the staffing pattern might be, and so on. And if we were hiring new people, it was important for us to be clear with them that they might only have a one- or two-year contract.  

I’m always putting questions to my team to encourage a problem-solving mindset. What expectations does everyone need to be aware of? How do we teach and reteach those expectations? How do we, as the central office, pitch in and help? We don’t want anyone to ever feel alone in this work.

– Brooke Olsen-Farrell, Superintendent, Slate Valley Unified School District, Vermont

We knew that once the school was established within the high school, the current staff would have to adapt to several new things, such as new processes and having different staff and students around. So, getting those two groups of staff to interact with each other was something I organized so that they could build stronger relationships. That was challenging. But it was some of the most important work to do because those teachers are now running the school successfully because of the work they put in earlier in the year.  

While this was happening, we went through a change in our leadership structure, and I wanted to make sure my team got comfortable with their new roles as soon as possible. We met every Friday afternoon for about two years and would discuss what the transition needed to look like. We’d discuss several topics, such as how things need to be communicated to the staff and families. I made sure they felt like they were part of the decision-making process so that they could lead certain aspects of the project, which increased their motivation and interest in this demanding work. 

We’re Already Seeing Positive Results While We Anticipate Long-Lasting Impact

We built this middle school to offer our community a viable education option for their children ages 11 to 13. Before then, families would look outside the district, and so children would attend our schools up to age 11 and then sometimes enroll in our high schools. I expect enrollment in our high schools will increase because we can now offer continuity of education across all K-12 age groups. And increased enrollment means we’ll be able to offer our students more opportunities because we’ll have more resources. 

The school only opened this semester, and it’s a delight to see children who previously attended small elementary schools expand their social circle. We have many small schools—our smallest school has just 60 children—and the children who have arrived at our middle school have told me they’ve made lots of new friends. 

The Superintendent’s Guide to Change Management

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We’ve Now Entered a Period of Feedback and Refinement

We had a significant increase in student enrollment over the summer, which we were not expecting. So, I’m making sure our administrators and teachers work together on the school schedule and altering class sizes so that there are minimal disruptions to the day-to-day running of the school.  

I’m always putting questions to my team to encourage a problem-solving mindset. What expectations does everyone need to be aware of? How do we teach and reteach those expectations? How do we, as the central office, pitch in and help? We don’t want anyone to ever feel alone in this work. 

Things Turned Out Better Than Expected

Even though our bond was turned down, we were able to create a middle school with $4 million rather than a $60 million bond that the community didn’t go for anyway. We would have had a lot more resistance and pushback throughout the entire process if the project had cost so much. It’s a reminder that you can have the best-laid plans but adapting to circumstances will always serve your best interests. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How Brooke Olsen-Farrell applied the principles of effective change management: 
Flexibility: When the $60 million bond was voted against, Olsen-Farrell readdressed the methods by which her team could create a new middle school, diverting funds where possible and working with a lower budget. 
Communication: Olsen-Farrell made sure to talk about the new middle school in public board meetings months before creating a plan to help people adjust to the idea. And when the middle school project started, she made sure stakeholders remained informed. 
Genuine empathy: By putting herself in the shoes of her staff, Olsen-Farrell was able to anticipate their concerns.  
Elevating team members: Even with a recent shift in leadership structure, Olsen-Farrell involved her team in the decision-making process so they could feel more efficacious in their new position
Perspective: Even though the middle school is now running, alterations need to be continually made in order to meet the needs of the staff and students, which Olsen-Farrell clearly takes into account. She also demonstrates knowledge that it will take a while to see the significant long-term results of this change. 
Celebrating wins: Olsen-Farrell and her team built the middle school to offer their community an option for children ages 11 to 13 to attend school in person, and they succeeded. Commemorating this win is great for team morale.