Stories from the Field:

Building Systems

By John Zachary


As the community schools coordinator at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in San Francisco, Leslie Hu is a ball of energy brimming with ideas for how to create a learning environment that promotes student achievement and wellness. 

When I started working with her a couple of years ago, Leslie saw many instances of teachers and student-support staff addressing students’ needs, but in isolation. For example, teachers of each grade level were designing their own interventions for African American students struggling with reading, but teachers were not working across grades to develop a cohesive school-wide strategy. 

Leslie asked me to support her in creating a system that would use the school’s resources and collaborative structures to proactively address a range of challenges in a data-driven, cohesive way. (This is a common need among schools that Partners works with.) Leslie and I spent most of 2019-20 meeting weekly to plan and implement such a system. 

We began by engaging in “system mapping,” where we took inventory of all the various initiatives, meetings, and structures that supported the work of students, including the student support team, instructional leadership team, and the after-school program. We then brought together stakeholders from throughout the school community who oversaw or facilitated those initiatives, meetings, and structures. 

Our effort to be comprehensive actually produced chaos! We had brought too many stakeholders together and left a lot of people wondering how they could contribute. We knew we would have to rethink our plan going forward, but in the moment we capitalized on having all those stakeholders together by doing some visioning work for addressing student needs. The large group agreed on four key principles — “North Stars” — to guide the school’s decision making. 

During the summer of 2020, Leslie and I replaced the sprawling team with a smaller one focused on monitoring and aligning all efforts by the school community to address MLK’s North Stars, and ensuring that priorities were being clearly communicated to the staff. We named this new group the “Systems Team.”

In 2020-21, the Systems Team has responded to school-wide challenges — and there have been many due to COVID-19 — in ways that are systematic, aligned across the school community, clear to staff, and designed to ensure students are thriving. For example, the team saw that while “student voice” had been named as a North Star, there were very few ways in which students were actually being asked for their opinions on school policies and practices. Consequently, the team put together a working group tasked with ensuring that student voice is part of the System Team’s meeting structure. In addition, the team is identifying students to participate in some of these meetings. Leslie and I continue to co-plan System Team meetings each week, ensuring that meetings are helping the school make progress toward its goals. 

From our working together, Leslie has become more adept at harnessing her enthusiasm and creativity, clearly articulating her ideas, and bringing others along in the execution of her vision. As a result, she has developed tremendously as a team-facilitator and is better able to lead change at the school. 


This is just one example of how Partners supports educators to become change agents. To learn more about the services we provide, please see What We Do.