Transforming the world, one Ed.D. student at a time

Amy Besler

Bear River High School Principal Amy Besler. Photo by Brandon McGinnis, a Bear River High School student.

When Christine Zeppos and Patricia White from the School of Education designed Brandman University’s Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) program, they wanted transformational change to be at the heart of the curriculum. Since the program began in 2012, students have been required to create a project that demonstrated just that.

Each spring, transformational change projects are unveiled to the public and fellow students. Some succeed, some encounter obstacles too great to overcome in a mere nine months.

Here’s how Amy Besler, a member of the Delta (2018) class, describes what she faced.

“I entered my current position as principal of Bear River High School in Grass Valley, California, a year and a half ago, at the same time I entered the Brandman doctoral program. While the prospect of facing these two massive undertakings simultaneously was daunting, I knew that I needed what I would learn about transformational leadership in the program in order to be successful in my new professional role. I recognized immediately that the culture of my new organization was in need of a significant shift. The school community had endured a significant period of declining enrollment and the perceptions of the school within the larger community had become less positive. In short, the pride, ownership, and empowerment of staff, students, and families was sorely lacking.”

To tackle that, Besler, with guidance from her Roseville cohort and cohort mentor Pat Ainsworth, outlined a plan to train staff and students toward “mutual accountability and ownership of decisions and responsibilities,” with metrics for measuring their success and plans to celebrate when milestones were met.

“In developing relationships and trust among my new community of stakeholders, we quickly developed the shared vision of making Bear River High School a place no one ever wants to leave — where every student, staff member, and parent feels meaningfully engaged, connected, supported, inspired, and challenged. This became the foundation of my Transformational Change Project and, as a team, we have engaged in myriad methods of moving this vision forward, beginning with renewed commitment to communication and celebration. With fits and starts along the way, things slowly began to come together. Parents began stopping me in the grocery store, sometimes with tears in their eyes, to tell me about how they have never felt so connected to what is happening in their children’s school. I could see staff members starting to step up and own our culture in their own unique ways. Students were reporting feeling happier, more engaged, and more connected — and fewer and fewer of them were choosing to attend other schools.”

 As with any transformational change, Besler said, full implementation could take years. But sometimes success is evident in unexpected ways.

“Right before the recent winter break, we suffered a tragic loss. Two of our senior boys were killed in a car accident, just down the highway, on a terribly rainy afternoon. It was, and is, devastating for our entire community. We had one school day after the accident before the break and it was, as one could predict, a horrific day. At the same time, it was a powerful, beautiful day in many ways. As I walked around the campus that day, hugging and crying with kids, parents, alumni, and staff members, I could feel the love, unity, and connection on our campus. Crisis volunteers on our campus that day, who enter schools facing tragedies on a regular basis, commented about the profound feeling of love and connection on our campus. Parents told me that they felt good about sending their heartbroken kids to school that day because they knew they would be loved and cared for. The families of the two boys spoke that Friday evening, at our beautiful candlelight vigil, about how much the boys loved Bear River and how connected they felt to our campus.”

Besler has plenty of work ahead of her to finish her degree, but her work-to-date is already attracting attention.

“I was recently asked to speak at a School Culture Summit conducted by Phil Boyte, the creator of the Breaking Down the Walls and Link Crew programs, which are internationally recognized school culture-building programs. I spoke to the many teams representing many schools about staff culture, which I have found to be the foundation of everything else, as well as how our cultural change efforts were reflected back to us through this recent tragedy. As school culture has become a passion of mine, I have chosen to conduct my dissertation research on the ways comprehensive, public high schools have positively shifted their cultures in recent years, from the perspectives of administrators, teachers, and classified staff members. I hope to contribute in a meaningful way to the body of literature on this important topic in hopes that I can help the people working valiantly in other schools across our nation and beyond.”

It’s exactly what White and Zeppos had in mind. “When we designed the transformational change project, we wanted it to be more than an assignment. We had a vision of changing lives and achieving breakthrough results.  Amy has breathed life into our vision with the work she is doing at Bear River High School,” said White.

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