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Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement Brings Best Practices to Struggling Districts

Just over ten years ago, Gov. Roy Barnes helped create the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement as part of his educational reform plan. Discover how they’ve sustained and expanded their mission, now as a fully private nonprofit, in our latest member profile.

Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement (GLISI) was founded in 2000 by a bipartisan team of Georgia business and education leaders and then-Gov. Roy Barnes to seek a new approach to developing K-12 leaders in the state. Twelve years and more than 21,000 trained education leaders later, GLISI successfully re-launched in 2012 as an independent non-profit organization under Executive Director Gale Hulme. 

“We are so proud of the success story that the state of Georgia can celebrate in GLISI,” said Hulme. “With seed funding from the state in our early years, we developed innovative training and consulting for school and district leaders. Over the years, we built a loyal client base, as well as a base of funding support from foundation and corporate donors. 

“Now we are fully independent of public funds and, as a result of our success in providing Georgia’s school districts with sought-after training and supports, our prospects for the future are bright and stable.” 

GLISI’s board of directors is led by Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and recently named one of the most influential Georgians by Georgia Trend magazine. Other local companies represented on the board include Invesco, IBM and Georgia Power; they join education agencies like the Georgia School Board Association and Georgia School Superintendents Association. Currently, GLISI is actively seeking new board members from the corporate sector who have a passion for leadership and education. 

Casting a Vision of Change in Georgia Schools

GLISI’s mission is to develop world-class education leaders who advance student achievement and organizational effectiveness. Using best practices from the business and education sectors, GLISI improves school effectiveness through leadership training, consulting, and technical assistance for K-12 districts.

"GLISI’s districts are more disadvantaged than the state average... Yet they are doing better than the average Georgia district in helping students to complete high school."

The backbone of GLISI’s training program is their intensive five-day Base Camp & Leadership Summit, held for three cohorts a year at Evergreen Conference Center in Stone Mountain. There, they focus on aligning district action around a single strategic vision, using data to set achievement goals, and building the team skills and discipline needed to implement a best-practices “plan-do-check-act” process that ensures continuous improvement.

In the last five years, the Base Camp and Leadership Summit program trained 85 Georgia districts, largely located in poor, rural areas. An analysis of graduation rates revealed that GLISI districts outperformed the state average—even under the new, more rigorously calculated graduation rate. In 2011, graduation rates in GLISI-trained districts were more than 70%, almost three points higher than the state average of 67.4%. Hulme points out that, with nearly 30% of students failing to graduate in under five years, there remains much work to be done. “However, GLISI’s districts are also more disadvantaged than the state average, in terms of poverty and resources,” Hulme said. “Yet they are doing better than the average Georgia district in helping students to complete high school.”

Hulme points to Baldwin County as one story of success that showcases GLISI’s signature results-driven approach to leadership and achievement development: “Baldwin County is a small district, but with great leadership. Baldwin started from the top and worked down from school administration to teacher leaders, with GLISI helping them analyze data with a laser-like focus on student learning.”

Baldwin County in middle Georgia is home to Georgia College & State University, a 27.2% 2010 Census poverty rate, and a 2007 high school graduation rate of just 56.9%. District Superintendent Geneva Braziel realized that one way to move the needle on low student performance was to invest in her own leaders in the school system.

Braziel began working with GLISI in 2008 bringing her administration and teacher leaders to Base Camp & Leadership Summit regularly to learn about data benchmarking, telling their own leader stories, developing teams, and devising a data-informed plan to address the most challenging issues facing the district. Later, Braziel brought GLISI staff to Baldwin County to analyze student data and continue staff coaching. “Beyond our training experience, we get in the trenches with our district partners helping them conduct root cause analysis that leads to their own road map to improvement,” noted Hulme.

Using open and honest discussion and professional guidance, Braziel engaged school leadership and teachers in change without casting blame. Within a few years of beginning work with GLISI, graduation rates in Baldwin County jumped more than 20 percentage points, to 77%. 

Braziel credits the strategic alignment that GLISI brought to their processes: “Without the assistance of GLISI, we would still have arrows shooting in all different directions. This was one of the most valuable professional learning activities that we have conducted because everyone was able to experience the urgency for system-wide improvement.” 

Innovative Approaches to Shared Concerns

GLISI’s seven-woman staff is made up of former district leaders, school principals, and researchers who bring together decades of collective expertise as school improvement consultants and trainers. In addition to continuously improving their programs to respond to current research and district needs, GLISI uses a disciplined approach to self-analysis that helps their district partners learn from other districts’ successes. Last August, Hulme and her director of research, Meca Mohammed, attended the GCN Expert Series Event on Collective Impact, featuring Mark Kramer. Hulme and Mohammed brought the concepts back to the team, seeing promise for their district partners and other non-profits with similar missions.

“Collective Impact makes so much sense: a systematic way to ensure all partners are focused on a shared agenda with aligned activities and measurements.”

“So many partnerships simply limp along, and although both sides have a real interest in making it happen, it doesn’t always work well,” said Hulme. “Collective Impact makes so much sense: a systematic way to ensure all partners are focused on a shared agenda, with aligned activities and measurements, and a backbone organization that is checking the traps.”

GLISI recently released a research brief on Collective Impact in the context of education, suggesting ways to adapt the approach for success in rural settings. Indeed, one of GLISI’s current strategic initiatives is a Race to the Top Innovation Fund grant in which they are a partner and backbone organizer with Paulding County schools and two other organizations.

It’s a full-circle approach—from high-level research to ground-level implementation—that Hulme can relate to. She began her career 37 years ago, first as an English teacher in Oglethorpe and Clarke Counties, then for more than 20 years leading Gwinnett County’s leadership development program. She was hired as GLISI’s chief program officer at its inception, and promoted to executive director in 2009.

Hulme stresses that, at its core, GLISI is a center for leadership, performance, and continuous, data-informed improvement, building on people’s strengths rather than focusing on shoring up weaknesses. 

“No matter where you are, you can get better,” said Hulme, who recently joined GCN’s executive development initiative Nonprofit CEO Peerspectives to keep her own leadership skills sharp. “It’s not about what happens at Stone Mountain; it’s what happens when you come down the mountain and back to your districts and schools to build leadership teams who increase student learning.” 

GLISI is a success story of public investment which has spurred a sustainable education innovation. Visit them on the web at www.glisi.org.

Tom Zimmerman is a Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.


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2.04.22 | Online