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When Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley took the reins of University City School District in 2016, she knew that she was in for a challenge.  The district had languished for years, and thestate score card in 2016 showed it barely hanging onto accreditation. Hardin-Bartley recognized a dramatic change was in order if this inner ring suburban district servin2,860 students, 84% of them black and 11% white, and 70% on free and reduced lunch, was going to reverse the trend.  She turned to the Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI), a partnership between Washington University and the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership, to support her transformation work, beginning with the four elementary schools in the district. 

Hardin-Bartley’s plan for transforming the district began with challenging traditional leadership structures.   Each of the elementary schools would be led by a three-person team that included the principal and two full-time teacher-leaders, selected because of their strong classroom teaching and their abilities to build learning relationships with other teachers. The new superintendent’s goal was to develop educational excellence with empowered leadership teams who had the time and authority to work side by side with teachers in classrooms and engage in rich and focused study and conversation about practice.

Working with the Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI), the leadership teams developed expertise with TLI’s learning conversation continuum, a set of five conversations about practice designed to support teacher autonomy and agency. In addition to well-designed peer learning conversations and collaborative inquiry, traditional conversations such as coaching, supervision and evaluation are reshaped on the continuum to minimize compliance and to build capacity.

                                       Transformational Leadership Initiative Continuum of Learning Conversations

                                                                                    The Implementation Plan

Each elementary school leadership team divided the teaching staff into thirds, and team leaders over the next three years gradually took responsibility for the end-to-end development of the teachers and the achievement of the students on their teams. The goals of this new leadership model were 1) to develop collective efficacy and aspiration, and 2) to insure all teachers were given the personalized support they needed to hone their teaching in support of deeper learning, and 3) to improve student outcomes.

A formal leader, either the principal or a teacher-leader, worked side-by-side with each small team of no more than 10 teachers. The teams were intensely focused on the district’s vision for deeper learning: creating classrooms that nurtured children’s ability to collaborate, create, problem-solve, apply high levels of reading and writing, and generate and investigate intriguing questions.  The leader encouraged, coached, modelled, provided resources, acted as co-learner; and, as the project progressed, supervised and evaluated the teachers on her team.

Year 1

During year one, the team leader coached each teacher on the team weekly and built strong relationships with the team members.  The school teams met regularly to analyze evidence of student learning and to study and plan ways to change the trajectory for low performing students and to ensure every child was challenged to do her best.

The three-member leadership team itself also met weekly to review the work of their teams. A transformational coach from the Transformational Leadership Initiative joined the leadership team twice a month to help support their work as leaders and coaches. In addition, the leadership teams from all the schools came together monthly for a full day of professional development and planning that included

  • opportunities to deepen practice with peer learning conversations, collaborative inquiry, coaching, and supervision;
  • strategies to improve adult learning and deeper learning practices in the classroom;
  • approaches to nurture a rich culture of inquiry, collaboration, and risk-taking.

In year one, the leadership teams began to use a broad array of peer learning conversations with their teacher teams to support learning.  These included such strategies as:

  • Book Studies
  • Lesson/Unit Study
  • After Action Reviews
  • Discussing Shared Classroom Observations
  • Examining Evidence of Student Learning
  • Studying Models of Excellence

By the end of year 1, the culture of the schools began to change in significant ways. One teacher-leader summarized the changes in her building:

Last year as a teacher in the district, I sort of felt like I was just another cog in the wheel of the machine. Switching to this new model has felt very freeing and has allowed us to bring positive energy to teachers–really praising them and showing them the things they are doing that work for students. I have gotten feedback that that’s not something that had always happened in the past. I’m not saying that it was meant to be negative in the past. But I think sometimes the perception of a walkthrough or somebody  coming in your building was negative. Now it’s more like, “When are you coming into my classroom next?  We’re doing this awesome project that I really want you to see!” It is more of a positive thing. Teachers want the feedback. They are excited to hear what we have to say. It is more of a partnership instead of a hierarchical  relationship. (Beyer, 2019)

Year 2

By year 2, the leadership teams had developed a good deal of confidence in their roles as leaders and their abilities to nurture their teams and coach for individual and team growth.  A teacher-leader noted:The role of the TIL (teacher instructional leader) is to empower teachers.  How I showed up as a math coach in the past was very different from how I show up now as a teacher-leader.  I am no longer trying to fix things.   I’m trying to build capacity of my team. One of the things that really excites me is my ability here is to see the classroom and the teacher and child with two lenses.  This system lens gives us the power to blow up things when they aren’t working. Seeing the impact of our work on our students—seeing student achievement in a different way--is amazing. We know what kids can do, and we can help remind teachers and change the narrative.

Year 2 brought intensive work for the leadership teams in several key aspects of transformational leadership, most importantly transformational supervision. Leaders used their supervision of the team primarily to build collective efficacy and individual agency, not so much to seek compliance on a list of “must dos.” They learned:

  • to help teachers set powerful goals to move their work forward,
  • to create environments for teachers where they have the opportunity to practice and develop new skills,
  • to analyze assignments and discuss student work samples at sophisticated levels,
  • to analyze classrooms for SOTEL (safety, outcomes, teaching, engagement, and learning) (Marshall, 2013),
  • to have directive conversations when things were not going well,
  • to use an equity lens when looking at classrooms,
  • to apply systems thinking to find ways of thinking that were inhibiting the work and to move from reacting to problems to transforming mental models,
  • to use the design cycle to help the team create new ways of doing their work,
  • to illuminate strengths of their team members

By the middle of year 2, the leadership teams felt they were ready to supervise their team members. This confidence was illustrated in the remarks of one teacher leader:

 If you told me at the beginning of this project, I would be confident supervising a team of teachers, I would have said you were crazy.  But getting clear about what supervision is and isn’t and having time to practice the skills we need has made me confident.  It seems a natural extension of the current work we are doing.

 Year 3

As year 3 with this cohort kicks off in the fall of 2019, the teams are ready to build their skills in collaborative inquiry and evaluation and confident their leadership is making a difference. Survey data from the Panorama survey suggests real changes in both elementary teachers’ and children’s sense of efficacy, belonging, and risk-taking at the end of year 2 in the project. Survey data also points to teachers’ increasing comfort implementing deeper learning. And while the District doesn’t yet have standardized test scores for the year, we do see in internal assessments steady growth in reading, writing, concepts of number, and scientific understandings. It is a hopeful beginning.

Current Reality in Most Schools

University City’s distributed leadership model contrasts to the approach of most elementary schools, where one over-worked principal is responsible for the development and evaluation of 20-50 teachers. In fact, the average principal interviewed in the Bain Report a (study of distributed leadership) is directly responsible for the performance and development of 37 teachers, as well as additional non-instructional staff.  The authors of the Bain Report note, “… [the 37 teachers] compare to a span of five people for the average manager of highly skilled professionals like accountants or human resource specialists. Even managers of less skilled employees, like call-center workers or janitors, typically have direct responsibility for only around 15 people.” (Bain, 2016)

As the Transformational Leadership Initiative team works in schools across the country, overwhelming system demands around teacher evaluation are a common concern among principals: too many people to evaluate…too complex of a process…too little leverage. These demands are, we believe, a major reason why high quality school leaders leave their positions, frustrated with mandates that place almost all hopes for change in guaranteed low-leverage processes and structures that keep school leaders frantically busy, consistently feeling inadequate, and even the best and brightest tragically ineffective in moving their schools forward.  This is supported by experts in the field:

Teacher evaluation is a low-leverage strategy for improving schools, particularly in terms of the time it requires of principals.

                                                             Dufour and Marzano (Dufour and Marzano, 2011)

Evaluation has become a polite, if near-meaningless matter between a beleaguered principal and a nervous teacher.  Research has finally told us what many of us have suspected all along: the conventional evaluation…does not have any measurable impact on the quality of student learning. In most cases it is a waste of time.

                                                                     Mike Schmoker (Schmoker, 2018)

The Transformational Leadership Initiative places much greater emphasis on conversations to the left of evaluation on the continuum: peer learning, collaborative inquiry, coaching and supervision. These conversations better develop the internal accountability and professional agency so critical to transformation.  Evaluation practices are also reshaped to be more in line with the highly collaborative focus on professional growth that is a characteristic of the entire continuum.  For the approximately 10% of teachers whom we have found to demonstrate serious failures in meeting their professional responsibilities, we turn to improvement plans than may lead to removal. This approach counters the focus on intensive evaluation for all teachers that has sapped too many school leaders and kept them from investing in the real essentials for school transformation.

Getting Clear on the Work

In 2018 Mike Schmoker outlined what he called the “infrastructure essentials” for school improvement. They begin with a reasonably coherent curriculum, rich examples of lessons to support teachers in their teaching, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline. (Schmoker, 2018) While this seems breathtakingly simple and straightforward, he goes on to note, “As numerous studies demonstrate, these essential elements are only rarely implemented; every credible study confirms that they are still pushed aside by various initiatives every year in the majority of schools.” (Schmoker, 2018)

The three essentials Schmoker outlines are solid necessities for school improvement; but for genuine transformation, schools need more than that. At TLI we add the following three characteristics:

  • A clear shared understanding of the kind of human beings the school hopes to nurture as well as a commitment to the learning environment and teaching practices necessary to succeed in this endeavor;
  • Shared leadership practices that build capacity of staff members to teach, learn and collaborate at high levels;
  • A powerful culture that grows from collective aspiration, inquiry, risk-taking and creativity.

These, we believe, are best developed with a flattened hierarchy and with rich learning conversations in support of deeper learning for both teachers and learners.

 Moving to A New Paradigm

Rethinking learning conversations in schools begins with two critical points. First of all, getting clear on the sophisticated practice of coaching (as well as the other leadership conversations) is an essential step in the success of distributed leadership. Effective coaching can’t be an ill-formed mishmash, dependent of the individual coach’s perception of her role.  Nor can it depend on the classroom teacher’s decision to open up her classroom to a coach. Schools that decide to empower teacher-leaders need thoughtful planning about what coaching will look like and its role in the broader continuum of leadership conversations. Everyone in the school is learning.  Everyone in the school is being coached in regular cycles that build individual and collective capacity.  No one can opt out. And the practice of coaching is studied and refined as thoughtfully as the practices of teaching and learning.

Secondly, coaching alone doesn’t provide the broad continuum of conversations that is necessary to support deep change. Work with distributed leadership in the Transformational Leadership Initiative includes a coherent combination of peer learning conversations,collaborative inquiry, coaching, supervision, and evaluation. Each of these practices requires study, practice and orchestration by school leaders.

The Transformational Leadership Initiative is premised on the belief that school change grows from powerful relationships and important human conversations. Only when we flatten the hierarchy, nurture a rich collaborative culture and dramatically change the conversations in our schools will we create the institutional transformation so necessary for 21st century students and their educators.


Beyer, K.  (2019) A Transformational Journey Towards Human-centered and Distributed Leadership in one Urban School District’s Elementary Schools, unpublished research study. St Louis.

Bierly, C. and Doyle, B. The Bain Report: Transforming Schools: How distributed leadership can create more high-performing schools. Boston: Bain and Company.

Dufour, R. and Marzano, R. 2011. Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement (Bringing the Professional Learning Community Process to Life). Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Marshall, K. 2013. Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation: How to Work Smart, Build Collaboration, and Close the Achievement Gap. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.

Schmoker, M. 2018. Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, 2nd Edition. Alexandria: ASCD. 


 Linda Henke Executive Director, Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership (SFCTSL) Linda Henke is the co-founder with David Bristol of the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership. She is a popular executive coach for principals and top-level school administrators as well as a consultant with schools in year-long programs of school improvement nationally and internationally.

Victoria May Executive Director, Institute for School Partnership (ISP) and Assistant Dean of Arts & Sciences, Washington University May’s work with the ISP, the university’s signature program for strategically improving K-12 teaching and learning, inspires, connects and empowers teachers in local schools around exemplary resources.

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We moved into the 2018-19 school year with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. Our work is expanding much faster than we anticipated, and we are so delighted with new and returning partners and their passionate commitment to transformation.

Linda returned to School of Nations in Brasilia this summer and partnered with the entire staff in examining several topics in deeper learning. Early childhood educators at the school continued their study of Reggio Emilia, deepening the design their classrooms to enhance their work with children.  They also dove into the world of documentation, working diligently to represent the children’s learning with photographs, written description, children’s words, and examples of the children’s work. Elementary and secondary teachers spent two days developing project based units as they studied the principles of deeper learning. The energy was contagious as teachers created and critiqued their units. This wonderful international school, built on the Baha’i faith, is committed to human-centered transformation; and the thoughtful work with their curriculum gives us a clear window into the amazing changes that are happening.

The Saint Louis Transformational Initiative underwent a bit of transformation itself as we moved into 2018-19. Our program is now nested formally at Washington University in the Institute for School Partnership, and Audrey Jackson has become the director of the work there.  

Columbia Superintendent Peter Stiepleman working with Gentry Leadershio Team

We have added a second cohort to our work in Saint Louis with three schools entering their first year of our three-year program. This fall we welcomed University City High School, a public school in the suburbs of St. Louis; Gentry Middle School, a large middle school with almost a thousand students from Columbia, Missouri; and Cardinal Ritter, an urban Catholic college prep school serving African American students. All three have dynamic young principals who are deeply committed to their schools’ success. Each has assembled a powerful teacher leadership team to support their transformational work. We are energized by these three schools and their focus on positive change.

All five of our second-year schools in St. Louis are making tremendous progress. All have flattened their organizations by adding two full-time teacher-leaders who are learning to implement our distributed leadership continuum. Last year their work focused on building coaching expertise, and they coached weekly with their assigned teacher teams, building pedagogical expertise throughout the school. This year they will continue coaching, but we are also building capacity for supervision and collective inquiry—both parts of the continuum. In year 3 the teacher leaders will learn to evaluate their teachers and to facilitate peer learning conversations. This model shows tremendous possibilities for nurturing transformation, and we are seeing evidence of this in all five schools.

Tesuque Leadership Team Hard at Work

We are expanding our transformational work into the Santa Fe Schools. Nina Otero k-8 School and Tesuque Elementary are serving as our pilot schools in Santa Fe. The District’s superintendent, Veronica Garcia, has demonstrated her support for the work by giving these two schools substantial freedom in professional development, curriculum, and personnel decisions.

To accomplish this expansion, Zach Taylor has become the director of programming for Santa Fe. (See Zach’s bio on the website.) He is a dynamic educator with a master’s degree in social justice and tremendous expertise in social-emotional learning. Zach is a partner with Linda in teaching the Transformational Team Training for the Santa Fe schools’ leadership teams and also serves as a transformational coach for the two Santa Fe schools.

Finally, we are developing a new partnership with Colegio Bolivar, an international school in Cali, Columbia, SA. They are eager to begin the work with our model for human-centered school transformation. Our visit to Cali in March also coincides with an international conference of 350 leaders from Central and South America. Linda will give the keynote at this conference.

The work of school transformation is not easy. It requires strong leaders who are willing to be vulnerable in their own learning as they create space for everyone in their community to learn. We are so proud to be partners with this amazing group of educators.

Human-Centered Transformation with School of the Nations in Brasilia

Linda Henke, Executive Director of the Santa Fe Center, spent a week in July learning with the staff of School of Nations in Brasilia, an amazing international school growing from Baha’i beliefs. Our human-centered model is a natural fit for the Bahia School where a focus on service to others, the environment, and world citizenship are all critical elements of the work. The preK-12 school is bilingual, offering learning in both English and Portuguese, and most of its students graduate with proficiency in at least three languages.

Early childhood teachers at the school were eager to rethink their curriculum with children, and wanted to explore concepts and practices undergirding the early childhood work in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The schools in Reggio have long been considered the best early childhood programs in the world, nurturing inquiry, creativity, and language development. Linda spent three days introducing this work to a group of fifty teachers from School of Nations and neighboring schools. The participants delved into four key topics in their study of Reggio’s teaching and learning:

  • The image of the child that emerges from the work at Reggio;
  • Creating spaces that nurture children’s creativity;
  • Shaping curriculum around students’ questions; and
  • Examining how to use art materials to explore questions and build theory.

As the week progressed, teachers began to think about learning environments differently, and one afternoon spent experimenting in their classrooms brought about amazing changes in the spaces. Teachers removed clutter, created rich centers for block play, organized writing and construction materials on accessible shelves; brought nature into their classroom with materials gathered from outside, and developed mini ateliers (art spaces).   External spaces became topics of discussion, as well; and plans for small gardens, an outdoor atelier, and natural play and exploration areas elicited animated conversation.

Exploring Learning Spaces in a More Intentional Way

School of Nations Teachers Experimenting with Art Materials

Linda also collaborated with leaders of School of Nations, exploring the power of collective aspiration to give momentum to a school initiative to revisit roots of the school extending back to 1980. School leaders brought the same enthusiasm as their early childhood colleagues to the study and demonstrated a deep commitment to the unique education the school offers its children.

As part of our work with schools, consultants at the Santa Fe Center believe that schools must develop a compelling purpose, a clear statement of what they are trying to create together. This we call “A Learning Profile.” Below is the draft of the learning profile created by the leaders of School of Nations.


The Learning Profile for School of Nations

We nurture a transformational learning culture that supports our students in becoming conscious, compassionate, and capable world citizens. In such an environment, learning is reciprocal: children’s empowered learning heightens adults’ own capacities as role models, activators of powerful learning, and passionate, influential citizens of the world. Thus our culture embraces the growth of all those involved in our learning community. In keeping with this broad goal, our schools foster five dimensions of human development:

     The capacity for scholarship, developed through deeper learning that

  • is frequently interdisciplinary and collaborative,
  • promotes children’s voice and choice in their learning work,
  • nurtures mastery of content applied in real world problems and projects,
  • recognizes the power of second language learning to influence understanding and perspective,
  • draws upon the arts to build and share thinking and to support development of imaginative expression,
  • provides opportunities to problem-solve, design, and think systemically,
  • uses technology to explore, create, research, and build, and
  • nurtures the capacities for inquisitiveness, suspension of judgment, and reflection.

     The capacity for moral and ethical action, developed through purposeful experience that

  • supports us in building community and practicing respectful interaction,
  • nurtures our ability to take multiple perspectives and reflect on action,
  • engages children and adults in service projects in the school and broader community, giving us opportunity to put values in action,
  • uses wide reading and study of history, religion, and culture to examine the breadth of human experience,
  • develops spiritual insights about the unity of all humanity and our relationship to the earth, and
  • nurtures empathy and compassion.

     The capacity for stewardship of the earth, developed through study and action in the outdoors that

  • builds skillfulness in and commitment to assuming our rights and responsibilities for caring for the Commons,
  • expands the ability to collaborate with others in discerning what must be preserved and what must be changed in order for future generations to thrive,
  • builds understanding of the economic, social, and ecological impact of our personal and collective practices,
  • uses imagination and intention in creating a vision of a desired future,
  • recognizes and celebrates the value of the social, economic, ecological, and architectural history of a place, and
  • applies systems and scientific thinking to understand complex ecological settings and problems.

     The capacity for global citizenship, developed through study and experience in both the school and the broader community that

  • supports us in building personal commitment to social justice, equality, inclusiveness, and peace,
  • builds understandings of the interconnectedness of our world,
  • helps us recognize that world citizenship often requires courageous and thoughtful action and a willingness to step forward to address injustices,
  • expands our ability to lead, to build consensus, and to stay with complex problems over extended periods of time,
  • extends our skillfulness in applying both historical understanding and the tools of the historian to current issues, and
  • encourages our appreciation for the richness of world cultures.

     The capacity for physical fitness and health, developed through study and practice that

  • nurtures our joy in physical movement and interaction with the physical world,
  • develops our understandings of the human body and mind and how to best care for ourselves and others,
  • builds our understandings of good nutrition and its role in insuring our health,
  • expands our abilities to practice mindfulness,
  • nurtures resilience in dealing with complex problems and settings, and
  • strengthens our commitment to healthy lifestyles.

This year, the staff is continuing to study their compelling purpose, as explained by their Director, Lisa Perskie, “We are in the midst of a year-long exploration of our mission concepts, being led by a member of the Baha'i community who has a PhD in Education and who serves as a spiritual counselor to us, Pejman Samoori. He will be helping us to develop texts with an explanation of our school's pedagogical discourse to insure a better understanding of them for all stakeholders.”

School of Nations, led by Lisa, exemplifies a human-centered transforming school. The members of the learning community are open and excited about new learning, and they come to their work with a passionate commitment to the ideals expressed in their learning profile—nurturing their students and themselves to become increasingly conscious, compassionate, and capable world citizens.

This summer the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership partnered with Santa Fe School District by offering a summer institute on the teaching of writing. Twenty teachers and two facilitators came together in a single meeting room that was transformed from a non-descript meeting room into a small community

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The Guatemala Literacy Program that Linda Henke developed two years ago is going strong. Our first year results demonstrate solid success. We pre and post tested all students using EGRA, an international literacy test, and were delighted that at the end of seven months, our first grade readers demonstrated third grade reading skills.

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Members of Ferguson-Florissant Leadership Team, Washington University’s Institute for School Partnership, and the Santa Fe Center for Transformational School Leadership setting goals for the first year of the Transformation Project.

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In April I spent my birthday with our colleagues at La Scuola in Miami. They gave me one the nicest presents I’ve ever received: a truly inspiring day of telling the stories of their work with their children this year. They are a remarkable team of educators.

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For a week in October, I joined the faculty of la Escuela de Campo Alegre, an amazing international school in Caracas, Venzuela. While there, I worked closely with the early childhood staff to help them develop their focus on the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education. The week-long institute was an intense interactive experience that resulted in a great deal of learning and, I believe, a wonderful new set of colleagues.

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There are small moments with big purpose in our work to transform education. Sometime you know when they are coming, but at times they come serendipitously. No matter how they come, they are the moments that allow us to push through the hard days of our work and bring learning to life. One of these moments happened recently in my work with Parkview Elementary School.

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The project in Guatemala began two years ago when members of a not-for-profit group in St. Louis called The Global Learning Exchange contacted me about creating an after-school program that would support the work of the Minister of Education in Guatemala.

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