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The Official Baldrige Blog

Leadership Practices and Paths of the 2015 Baldrige Award Recipients (Part 2)

graphical depiction of Charter School of San Diego’s Leadership Management System

Charter School of San Diego’s Leadership Management System

Credit: CSSD

During the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program’s 28th Annual Quest for Excellence® Conference, national role models in every sector have showcased their best practices. They’ve also shared candid stories of their organization’s “journeys” of improvement using the Baldrige framework.

Following is the second of four blogs that convey highlights of the plenary presentations delivered by each of the senior leaders of the four 2015 Baldrige Award recipients (in alphabetical order): Charleston Area Medical Center Health System (health care), Charter School of San Diego (education), Mid-America Transplant (nonprofit), and MidwayUSA (small business).


Charter School of San Diego (CSSD)

Speaking as the founder, president, and CEO of the Charter School of San Diego (CSSD) before a mixed-sector audience of hundreds, Mary Searcy Bixby commanded attention with a soft voice and a powerful story. CSSD’s story was told in part by individual students and their teachers via video clips at the start of the leadership presentation. “It is [our school’s] dream that someday performance excellence will be found in every place in America so that every student has an opportunity to be challenged, to be successful, to transform,” Bixby told the Quest for Excellence attendees. “It is an honor to be here with people who have arrived at a point in their careers and their creation of organizations where status quo is not good enough, where good is not good enough, where excellence is what we’re all looking for.”

Bixby’s school was the first charter school authorized by San Diego County’s public school district. At its founding more than 20 years ago, she explained, she was challenged by the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce’s business roundtable for education to “create a workforce that had a client-centeredness.” Reflecting such a focus on students today, CSSD educators create and carry out personalized plans to support each student’s educational goals. In addition, the school is designed around small learning centers to provide a strong focus on each student.

Bixby also founded the Altus Institute, a network of charter schools that acts as a resource for sharing innovations in education and provides a model for education reform. Through the Altus Institute, the model for CSSD has been replicated three times, she noted, with CSSD serving as the anchor school.

The Context

More than 35,000 students have been served to date by CSSD, which celebrated its 20th year of educating students in the 2014-2015 school year. “Every day there are students coming to us who have lost all motivation, have lost hope, and cannot understand what it takes to be successful in school,” said Bixby. In that context, she explained the school’s core competency, which it has defined as “transforming lives” to suggest wider impact than some might expect of a school.

“When you think of a school, you say, ‘OK, that’s the delivery of instruction,’” she explained. “We do so much more than that. … we look at the whole child. Every student is important to us. And we know that we’re not only affecting that student but their family and their community.” In the 2014-2015 school year, CSSD served about 4,600 students.

The 2015-2016 school year budget of about $23.7 million supports a current workforce of 192 employees, with teachers working at 18 learning center sites dispersed across the county. Sixty-nine percent of CSSD’s students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, as defined by their qualifying for free and reduced-price meals at school based on household income. Twenty-eight percent of CSSD students have parents who have not graduated from high school, and 32 languages are spoken in the homes of the CSSD student body.

What’s more, 60 percent of enrolling CSSD students arrive behind in school credits—some are three to four years behind in English language courses and as many as seven years behind in mathematics. In regard to such cases, Bixby said, “As we expanded into different communities, we learned that there are kids who just need a different learning environment.” She added, “How can we logically apply a cookie-cutter policy to every single student when they all have different needs? And that’s what we try to address.”

Innovation and Leadership from the Start

From CSSD’s inception, as described by Bixby, there was a great focus on fostering innovation. “We concentrated on creating a culture where innovation was a part of our spirit, of our charism,” she said. “It was a part of how we did business every day.”

“We believed,” Bixby continued, “that if an organization was high-performing, was quality-centered, that it would have excellent results, and so we began our journey.” After about ten years of operationalizing that hypothesis, Bixby recalled, the school leaders decided they needed something more. Introduced to the Baldrige framework by business leaders in the community, Bixby and her school embraced it.

Bixby referred to her school’s definition of leadership as part of its “uniqueness”: “It’s not about the individual. People need to be trained—taught—that they have ideas that are valuable,” she said. “Those people on the front lines can tell us how best to meet the needs of our customer… So we started with a definition of leadership that embraced everyone in the organization.” Later in her presentation, Bixby pointed out that CSSD’s Leadership Management System (depicted in this blog) incorporates all of the categories of the Education Criteria for Performance (the self-assessment questions that are part of the Baldrige Excellence Framework), rather than separating “Leadership.”



Baldrige Lessons

Bixby said the Baldrige approach and framework helped her overcome a “constraint” in her leadership: “I never understood strategic planning until I got into Baldrige,” she said. “Strategic planning isn’t real until you see it every day in the scorecards, until you can take data [in] real time and see how that data is fitting into your strategic plan—until every single employee in the organization can articulate how their work relates directly to the strategic plan.”

In speaking of the challenge her school once faced in building data-driven systems to support planning for student learning, Bixby spoke of the value of cross-sector learning as part of the Baldrige community. The school learned that “it wasn’t essential to have the same type of business,” she said. “What was essential was to do that sharing where we learned from other organizations.”


Extraordinary Results

Among school results Bixby highlighted, data show that 98 percent of CSSD students either graduate from the school or move forward to others to complete high school. The school also boasts a 99 percent satisfaction level (based on surveys of students and parents). In benchmarking its performance to track and guide its results, CSSD uses as comparisons the customer satisfaction results of two big businesses with reputations for customer focus and satisfaction: Nordstrom’s and Marriott (as the parent organization of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, a two-time recipient of the Baldrige Award).

Bixby also shared that CSSD’s student dropout rate is better than the California state and national averages despite the fact that a significant proportion of the charter school’s students are considered at high risk of dropping out. In regard to those results, Bixby again emphasized the importance of teachers having real-time data readily available to guide their instructional decisions to promote individual students’ learning.


Workforce Engagement through Baldrige

“One of the constraints that I know people come across is … that they can’t get everybody in their organization on board” with adopting the Baldrige framework, said Bixby. “Many people say, ‘Baldrige is such a good idea. How do we get everybody on board?’” In response to such questions, she offered this insight: “We believe there is a tremendous connection between culture and Baldrige. As you’re working on Baldrige, you are working on creating exceptional cultures among the workforce, parents, the vendors, everybody that comes into contact with your school. We talk about the fact that anyone that comes into contact with [our school] at all is going to have a part in [our core competency of] transforming a life.”

In concluding remarks, Bixby said, “We have a commitment to the future generation because we know that America’s economic future—the health of our children and our grandchildren, the defense of those American values that we support—is dependent upon all kids in every neighborhood, urban or rural. We are committed to that, and Baldrige has helped us on our journey.”

The first blog in this series features the leadership presentation of David Ramsey of Charleston Area Medical Center Health System (CAMCHS). The third features the leadership presentation of Dean Kappel of Mid-America Transplant. The fourth features the leadership presentation of Larry Potterfield of MidwayUSA.

About the author

Christine Schaefer

Christine Schaefer is a longtime staff member of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program (BPEP). Her work has focused on producing BPEP publications and communications. She also has been highly involved in the Baldrige Award process, Baldrige examiner training, and other offerings of the program.

She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols Scholar and a double major, receiving highest distinction for her thesis in the interdisciplinary Political & Social Thought Program. She also has a master's degree from Georgetown University, where her studies and thesis focused on social and public policy issues. 

When not working, she sits in traffic in one of the most congested regions of the country, receives consolation from her rescued beagles, writes poetry, practices hot yoga, and tries to cultivate a foundation for three kids to direct their own lifelong learning (and to PLEASE STOP YELLING at each other—after all, we'll never end wars if we can't even make peace at home!).

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