Sunday, 28 June 2015

Merging Two Great Schools and Creating a Better One

         On September 4, 2007, Steveston-London Secondary School in Richmond, B.C., opened its doors for the first time.  Home to 1350 students from Grades 8 to 12 and 100 staff, this new place was created as the result of the merger of Steveston High and Charles E. London Secondary schools.   Although the rationale was logical and compelling, members of the two communities did not immediately embrace the merger idea and the process of amalgamating two well-established and proud secondary schools was complex and challenging.  As with any organizational change as significant as this, there were many perspectives and lived experiences, depending on one’s role in the process and all are equally compelling.  This article reflects on the merger of these two schools and the creation of a new place of learning through the lens of the school principal.

         Merging distinct institutions involves many layers of cultural, organizational, philosophical and emotional considerations.  The currents that resist change run deep in most organizations and certainly in school systems.  Indeed, when the district made the merger announcement late in 2003, I was principal at another school and my initial response was, “wow, I don’t envy the principal involved in that difficult process!”    With my transfer to Steveston High the following July, I found myself in the middle of this fascinating experience.  I had spent ten years earlier in my career as a teacher and vice principal at London, so I had a good understanding of the cultures of both schools. Certainly, the amalgamation and the creation of Steveston-London Secondary School has been the most interesting, exciting and rewarding experience of my career.

         While restructuring and combining school districts has occurred all over North America, school mergers are a relatively uncommon experience.  To prepare, I did some research yet almost all studies on amalgamations has been done in the context of mergers and acquisitions in the business world.  It was revealing that approximately half of all corporate mergers and acquisitions have proven unsuccessful, as measured by shareholder value (Cartwright and Schoenberg, 2006).   Persistent themes in the research on why recently merged companies fail include a general lack of communication with key stakeholders during the merger and acquisition process.    Gadiesh and Ormiston (2002) listed five major causes of merger failure including poor strategic rationale, mismatch of cultures, difficulties in communicating and leading the organization and poor integration planning and execution.  Recognizing the complexities involved, prestigious institutions like the London Business School offer specific training programs on the process of mergers and acquisitions.   

         Public schools are not concerned with earning profits; rather they focus their energies on building relationships and creating a community of learners.  Again, the only research I could find was not hopeful:

The typical merger and acquisition (M&A) deal never realizes its intended 
financial and strategic impact. This failure is often due to the “people” side 
of the deal, and it occurs as a result of the change dynamics created by the 
merger. These dynamics heighten the resistance that people usually bring to the 
successful integration of two companies. (Galpin and Herndon, 2000).

   Effective public schools are more inclusive, democratic and collaborative organizations than corporations, indeed, they are all about the “people” side.  Good schools spend years nurturing a sense of belonging, promoting school pride and building a caring community among students, staff, parents and alumni.  School colours, logos and icons are designed to create a clear sense of identity.  Merging schools asks all the stakeholders to put aside the strong emotional attachment they have cultivated over decades to join with another school and start over.   Unlike business leaders, as a principal, I have very little line authority.  I understand schools as complex human enterprises and as such, relationships and positive connections are the keys to transformation. A successful school merger would require a clear understanding of the cultures of schools, thoughtful planning and communication that openly includes and engages everyone involved.

         Steveston High opened in 1956 and London Secondary was established in 1974. Due to changes in the general catchment area and the opening of a new secondary school just three kilometers west in 1998, the combined enrollment at the schools declined from nearly 3000 in the late 1990s to approximately 1400 students just prior to the merge.  The schools were only a few hundred meters apart, shared playing fields and one of the buildings was fifty years old and in dire need of seismic and other upgrades.    With these considerations, a merger seemed natural.  However, complicating cultural and contextual circumstances included experienced and confident staff at Steveston, many of whom had spent their entire career at the successful school, joining a team of professional London staff who were equally proud and protective of their school and way of being.  The Steveston community had celebrated their 50th anniversary in April of 2007 and thousands of current and former students and staff attended weekend festivities at the school.  This heightened an already palpable sense of school pride just months before the school was set to close and merge with another.  London had also established a reputation as an excellent school but it was a younger organization and, as a former junior high school that fed students to Steveston Senior Secondary until 1996, the relationship between the two schools was hierarchical in the minds of some. The fact that the expansion and construction was happening at the newer London building and the district eventually named the new school “Steveston-London” created another layer of tension. Because of these contexts, we were very open about honouring the proud traditions of both schools.   While quietly working to create a new identity, we made no attempts to suppress feelings of pride or attachment to the former schools.  Indeed, we celebrated our history and rich legacy and created an unofficial motto, “building on proud traditions of excellence”.  

         We held the first of many combined student assemblies in May 2005 with Grade 9s as we recognized that these students would be the new school’s important first graduating class in June of 2008.  We acknowledged that the students did not ask for this change and explicitly gave them permission to cherish their old friendships and loyalties.  We invited them to keep an open mind, as the merge would also be an opportunity to meet interesting new people.  When these students were in Grade 11, we presented them with a “Steveston-London First Grads of 2008” keepsake embossed with both former school logos.  The year before the merger, we held combined assemblies for all grades once a month and also met with the incoming Grade 7 students.  We bought food and had students work in small, mixed groups where they led and facilitated their own discussions.   We looked for other ways to bring like-minded students together before the merge.  When Steveston played London in school athletic events, we bought pizza and hosted players and parents from both teams in informal post-game gatherings.  Each school included actors and stage crew from the other school in their productions the year before the merge.  We hosted joint Student Council meetings and these leadership students co-hosted a school dance the spring before the amalgamation.  Both schools held three-day “Grade 8 Camps” for all their newest students each September, so we combined both camps in 2007, one year before the merger.   We genuinely tried to move from student voice to student engagement and reps were included on many merger committees to help in creating their new school.

         Beginning in 2004, staff subcommittees were formed on a wide array of issues such as ongoing construction design meetings, determining inventories of equipment, learning resources and supplies, refining organizational structures or clarifying staffing protocols.   With so much to do, we eventually focused on three big themes: organization/communication, culture and education and invited all interested staff to join whatever committees most interested them.   The year before the merger, both schools reorganized calendars to include monthly early dismissal days for staff meetings and grade assemblies, as it was important to carve out time to bring people together and build trust.  The combined staff meetings always began with a sit down lunch followed by general updates on the school construction and other issues that impacted everyone.  Teachers then moved into joint department meetings to discuss a wide variety of topics. While important professional conversations around assessment practices and increasing student engagement were ongoing, they definitely lost some impetus as teachers wrestled with more urgent organizational topics.   We also planned combined professional development days and hosted several fun social events in the two years leading up to the amalgamation. The overwhelming majority of staff members were models of professionalism and collegiality, welcoming the opportunity to collaborate with new colleagues and explore different ways of doing things, yet some dreaded the meetings and were fearful or anxious.  Our persistent message was to respect our differences but recognize that as professional educators, we have so much more in common and have been given a unique opportunity to create the very best learning and working environment possible at our new school.

         Parents from both schools also met regularly prior to the merger and the first joint Parent Advisory Council (PAC) meeting was held in January of 2005.  The PACs from both schools quickly became positive leaders in the change process. While parents are connected to their schools they are less emotionally attached than students and staff and most quickly came to realize that the new construction and bigger school meant many more opportunities for their children.  In the spirit of cooperation and genuinely working for the best interests of all students, they held several potluck dinners open to all parents. Both PACs made the decision to pool resources and save funds to meet emergent needs in the new school.  They wrote a Steveston-London P.A.C. constitution and completed formal applications to the B.C. Societies Act and B.C. Gaming Commission on behalf of the merged school.   Parents, with some student leaders, organized a free barbecue and live music festival held on the first Friday after the school opened in 2007 to welcome 1500 students and staff to their new school.  This event was one of many big celebrations the parents organized in the school’s inaugural year to help create a sense of community.

         With a fifty-year history in the community, the alumni were an important voice in the amalgamation of the two schools.  The Steveston High School Alumni Association was formed in 1987 (by the graduating class of 1962) and had been an active supporter of the school for two decades.   We invited them into the conversations about the merger and urged them to continue on with the new school.  After some discussion, the Alumni executive met with a group of London grads from the class of 1997 and agreed to officially change their name to the Steveston-London Alumni Association.  This association continues to support the school and is now open to all graduates of Steveston, London and Steveston-London Secondary Schools.    

         Despite careful planning, ongoing meetings and open communication, it was not always smooth sailing. At times, heated debate threatened to widen the chasm between some staff members. The staffing processes (qualifications, seniority and reduced numbers of positions) for members of two different unions required many meetings and clear communication.  The staff governance model outlined in the teachers’ collective agreement was structured differently at both schools.  The first joint Staff Collegial Council (SCC) meeting held the year before the merger was impassioned.  Teachers from one school thought that their structure was more democratic than the other school’s model.   One school had a distinct enrichment program and a group of teachers at the other school were philosophically opposed to any enrichment format that was exclusive in design.   The SCC at one school discussed this item without informing the SCC or teachers at the other school and later held an extraordinary staff meeting on this issue.   In the meantime, the students and parents currently in the enrichment program lobbied school and district personnel and elected Trustees for it to continue.  This resulted in several weeks of meetings that involved the executive of the Richmond Teacher’s Association.  The RTA president was resistant to allowing teachers to comment or vote on a program that was part of another member’s current teaching assignment.   We distributed objective information on enrichment and on this specific program to all staff and dedicated one of our joint staff meetings to discuss it.  An early motion to table the discussion was defeated, and eventually, a very productive two-hour meeting of the combined staffs was held to discuss, clarify and ask questions.   An unofficial secret ballot poll was held and 75% of staff agreed to maintain the program (any SCC motion passed by two-thirds or more of staff is binding on all staff members).   Regardless of one’s beliefs, everyone came away from the meeting feeling that they had an opportunity to be heard and this important core value was discussed openly and respectfully.

         Significant construction delays and cutbacks led to frustration and this was a tremendous challenge in the post merger integration of the two school communities. Despite regular assurances that the major expansion and renovation of the former London building would be completed, significant portions of the construction were not finished on time.  This included key areas such as the new library, theatre, gymnasium, computer labs, technology shops and main office.  A big part of our conversations leading up to the merger was the exciting opportunity to learn and work in a new and renovated school.  Students, staff and parents were frustrated, especially the Grade 12s and their parents, who felt the merge in their senior year was difficult enough without having to put up with an ongoing construction site for months.  As in all aspects of this process, communication was the key.  Throughout construction, we regularly shared any updates and information we had with staff, students and parents and promoted the belief that we were all in this together. Once the school opened, we met with classes and groups of students regularly to provide updates, listen to their issues or concerns and answer questions students had about their new school.      Our students and staff persevered through difficult times, knowing that in the end, the building would be a magnificent improvement over what we had at either Steveston or London.

         As all of our students had attended a 'different school' the year before, we gently introduced the ideals of "care and respect" at our opening assemblies as it was important that everyone felt that they  belonged.  We continued to honour the past by erecting the 58 graduation composite photographs from the former schools in our hallways and including “Packers” and “Legends” logos in subtle places in the new school.  Students had been actively involved in selecting and voting on the new name and their new Sharks identity was embraced early on.  We chose blue from London and gold from Steveston to form the new school’s colour scheme.  At the same time, we also celebrated a new “Sharks” identity beginning on opening day. We had a school academic crest and the first iteration of our Sharks logo completed in the summer months to be ready for September.  Staff were welcomed to school with a Sharks t-shirt and a blue and gold Steveston-London Secondary School lanyard.  Popular Sharks bags, water bottles and clothing were available for students and parents. We purchased new school uniforms, held a raucous pep rally and hired a graphic artist to paint magnificent Shark murals on the walls of the new gymnasium, known as the “Shark Tank.”   

         Research pointed to clashing cultures, poor communication and integration planning, weak post-merger identification and ineffective leadership as frequent causes of merger failure.  While remaining mindful of our obligations to our former schools, we began to bring students, staff and parents together years before the merged school would open.  We purposely included the traditions of the former schools while steadily moving forward to create an exciting new identity.  In our first four years, all students were surveyed about their “merger experience” each May and the results were very positive in terms of students reporting that they felt safe, had made new friends, and believe that Steveston-London is a good school.  When asked to complete the statement, “The merger between Steveston and London has been…” 79% of students responded with “better than I expected” or “about what I expected” at the end of the first year.  This increased to 88%, 95% and finally, the last of the merged students responded 100% in May of 2011. With any change as significant as merging two secondary schools, there were moments of tension; however, by building trust, respecting established processes and encouraging open communication with all stakeholders, we succeeded in creating an outstanding new place called Steveston-London Secondary School and, like all schools, our work continues.   

post script - In 2012, we celebrated the first "Sharks Only" graduating class as the first four grad classes included students who attended either London or Steveston at some point in their high school journey.  This exemplary group of students were very proud to be the first grad class to only attend this great place called Steveston-London.  In just five years, you can see the amazing Steveston-London school spirit and sense of community in this grad video the students produced:

On June 20, 2015 I had the honour of helping Steveston-London celebrate their 8th graduating class and the 66th grad class in the school's proud history at the beautiful Chan Centre for Performing Arts at UBC.  It was my last commencement ceremony as principal at SLSS as I am moving on to another school.   Working through the process of merging two proud and accomplished schools and then witnessing the emergence of a new and even better school community has been an incredibly diverse and rewarding experience and one I will never forget.  Thank you to all the incredible students, staff and parents at Steveston-London, and, always....  #GoSharks.

Cartwright, S. and Schoenberg, R. (2006).  30 Years of Mergers and Acquisitions Research: Recent Advances and Future Opportunities. British Journal of Management, 17 (S1), S1-S5.

Gadiesh, O. and Ormiston, C. (2002). Six Rationales to Guide Merger Success. Strategy and Leadership, 30 (4), 38-40.

Galpin, T. and Herndon, M. (2007). The Complete Guide to Mergers and Acquisitions: Process Tools to Support M & A at Every Level. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

No comments:

Post a Comment