Barbara-Gruenerby Barbara Gruener

I can remember that afternoon as if it happened yesterday: the song We Are Family started playing over the intercom, our signature all-call to come to the cafeteria for a school staff community circle. It could have meant a number of things; a schedule change we needed to know about, a community concern we could help with, or an important announcement.

Seeing our Superintendent in there told us it’d be the latter.

When everyone had arrived, we were told that due to declining enrollment and budget constraints, our school, Westwood Elementary would be merging with Bales Intermediate, the campus just down the sidewalk. Our Principal, she said, would be traveling back and forth between both buildings; cue the music A Brand New Key, by Melanie, to allay all initial apprehensions. And believe me, there were a lot of them. I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates; you’ve got a brand new key. It would be a really big job for one Principal, nearly a thousand students in grades pre-K through fifth, wouldn’t it? She’ll need more than a pair of skates and that signature effervescent smile, right?

Time to get to work. That very next day, we sat down as a leadership team, two Assistant Principals, two Counselors, the Principal and her Secretary, to plan and prepare.

Westwood-Bales: Wondering, Working, Becoming.

So much to think about. So many new possibilities. We’d just been given our students for two more years. What a gift. The older learners, back as leaders. Cross-age buddy classes, a Student Council, one combined PTO (Parent Teacher Organization). Our website would need a new look, our start-time would need to change. What would our New Student Orientation look like? How would our Meet and Greet change? Party days and parking. So much to consider. So many decisions to make.

We started with the end (of the summer) in mind. As silly as it might sound, even though Bales had been our feeder school for almost twenty years, our faculties didn’t really even know one another. We’d have to purposefully plan our first-day back to unite, come together as one. We started on that day in August with a large-group meeting and a visit by Jerry Clark, our EAP (Employee Assistance Program) Counselor, who talked with us about moving toward acceptance of our new normal and thriving through the change. We then broke into cross-level small groups so that we could get acquainted. We’d asked everyone to bring a sentimental item to share, so in groups of ten, we started to share a bit of who we are while modeling the class-meeting connections that the Westwood-side teachers had grown to love, appreciate and crave.

Throughout that day, we provided opportunities for voice and choice: A book study using Carol McCloud’s Growing Up With A Bucket Full of Happiness, a meaningful movement station in the gym playing a Balloon Stomp game, a technology station in which we made word clouds to share thoughts, worries, reflections and dreams. It was a day full of energy, enthusiasm and hope. A successful start to a merger that would at once challenge and complete us. All year long. Over and over again. We met as a staff every month to discuss how unity looks, sounds, and feels. Morning-time routines in the Westwood-side gym to hear announcements, say our pledges, celebrate good news, and sing the newly-revised School Song, would now include all of us, one thousand strong, together, as one.

The community rallied behind us to help host a holiday dinner and dance so that we could continue to connect beyond the school walls. We ironed out kinks, and there were a lot of them, but we were making it work. A book study with Carol Dweck’s Mindset during our PLC (Professional Learning Community) time that first year really helped us intentionally keep our hearts and minds open.

Then, spring semester arrived, and with it came more movement. The Principal who was by our side during that season of National School of Character distinction in 2009 was promoted to Deputy Superintendent, shifting our momentum slightly and stretching us even more. But if we never change and grow, we don’t have anything new to offer.

We’ve continued to use mentor texts like Love and Logic by Charles Fay and Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess that help us navigate the sometimes stormy waters of change.

The most recent update came earlier this month when it was announced that our state Legislative Session resulted in some additional revenue for our district and, as a result, Westwood and Bales will be restored as sister schools.

Embracing change helps us lead with a growth mindset to optimize school success.