A Midyear Report on Twin Rivers Unified

By Frank Porter and Trinette Marquis

There’s a quote hanging in our offices: Change is a process, not an event.

In the Twin Rivers Unified School District, it’s a moderating theme -- reminding us that unification may have started with our community vote in November 2007, but it is a process that moves forward with a thousand different choices each day.

Now that we are more than four months into our first school year as a merged district, we have had a chance to look back at a few themes that may assist districts considering or faced with a similar approach to school reform.

Internal communication is key

After the election, our district became very popular with our local media. Unlike any of the former districts, media representatives routinely attended our board meetings and frequently called “just to see if there was anything new.” It’s tempting to forget that our new media friends are not our most important audience.

Each employee, no matter how supportive of unification, is nervous. Even if they are familiar with board members or the superintendent, the trust that was built in previous districts does not completely carry over. It is vitally important that you bring your staff into as many decisions as possible, and that those decisions are communicated internally before they appear in the local media.

Twin Rivers began a series of staff and community conversations in the spring of 2007. Held in each of the geographic areas of the new district, more than 400 participants came together at each of the events to discuss the goals, challenges, and foundation of Twin Rivers.

Community input was captured, published in a theme-based guide, and made public on our website. It served as a guide to our school board as they made decisions about our mission, our vision, and our policies.

Technology is important

One hurdle we encountered was in our communication technology. Merging four e-mail and information systems into one has proven to be an ongoing challenge for the Twin Rivers staff and community.

 If you don’t have accurate addresses, phone numbers, or e-mails for students and staff, you lose the opportunity to communicate about the changes taking place, the climate being shaped, and the expectations being set districtwide.

In the communication gap, rumors grow. Without real-time communication tools in place, they are more difficult to address. From a practical perspective, any disruption of the flow of information slows progress.

Change is difficult

Even when people support the big picture and ultimate goal, they are reluctant to change what they know. Each of the four unifying districts had a way of doing things that people knew, and for some staff, the changes we put in place were jarring, at least initially.

When you change who an administrator calls for a substitute, who they call to get a facility permit, how a flyer is translated and printed, and dozens of other operational procedures and/or contacts, it is seen as just one more challenge added to the day.

Some people will enthusiastically embrace the change, while others will need time. Creating acceptance for both groups is important. Making time and space for this is important.

To help address this concern, we published open invitations to our faculty and staff to meet informally for “listening sessions” at their school sites. We listened to their questions and concerns and worked to resolve the district’s operational and start-up issues and recognize teachers and staff for their important work.

It’s tempting to focus exclusively on the concrete operational issues that can be addressed with project plans and deadlines. But, in many cases, taking care of your people first should be your most important priority.

Focus on students and standards

Despite the operational challenges many faced -- from technology snags to changes to every form, process, and policy -- most of Twin Rivers’ employees make a decision each day to focus on students.

No matter how difficult this first year has proven to be, our classrooms continue to facilitate extraordinary learning. Our buses run on time, our facilities are cleaned each day, and our people make sure students get through this transition smoothly.

Setting the standards for the district on community involvement, academic achievement, ethical behavior, customer service, and fiscal integrity sets the stage. We are all flexible about first-year operational challenges, but there are certain non-negotiable values that create the foundation for Twin Rivers and uphold the commitment to our community.

This commitment is reinforced by our school board members in our public board meetings, in their public and private conduct, and in their decisions. Our seven trustees were elected as individuals, but they quickly became a unified board focused on students and standards.

Yes, it’s work

Our office lights are rarely out before 7 p.m., our home Internet connections have never seen so much activity, and lazy weekends are a distant memory. But there also are days that lift us out of the everyday challenges and remind us why the unification of Twin Rivers is so important, why re-creating education in our community is the best work out there.

Our “First Day Celebration” and beginning-of-the-year employee rally reminded us of the hopes and aspirations of our community and staff. Our first day of school and first districtwide professional development day reminded us of the amazing potential that we have in front of us.

The opening celebration of our new elementary-level soccer league, which brought sports to many of our students for the first time, reminded us that even our small first steps already have had a positive impact on the lives of many of our families.

Watching most of our central office staff finally move into new office space and begin to have those hallway conversations that spark innovation and collaboration reminds us that each day we are more unified.

And yes, many of us still get a small thrill from seeing a bus or maintenance truck go by with the new Twin Rivers name and logo. Hey, it can’t be all work. 

Frank Porter (frank.porter@twinriversusd.org) is superintendent of the Twin Rivers Unified School District, just outside Sacramento, Calif. Trinette Marquis (trinette.marquis@twinriversusd.org) is the district’s director of communications.

About this story and series

“The Road to Unity: A Midyear Report” is the latest in a series of stories that examine the first year of a school district’s consolidation. Starting in September 2008 and running through June 2009, ASBJ and the National School Boards Association’s National Affiliate program are collaborating online and in print to study consolidation and its impact on a newly merged district.

The effort focuses on the Twin Rivers Unified School District, located on the outskirts of Sacramento, Calif. In November 2007, voters agreed to unify three former elementary districts and a high school district into a single pre-K through 12 entity that serves approximately 30,000 students. The district started serving students in the fall of 2008.

The project examines what led to the consolidation and how Twin Rivers is dealing with various issues and challenges that the merger presents. ASBJ is publishing stories monthly that look at how consolidation is affecting districts across the country, while the National Affiliate resource page includes interviews, community relations tools, legal documents, and much, much more. Newly posted to the site is a video of a midyear interview with Twin Rivers Superintendent Frank Porter and several school board members.

For more information, go to www.asbj.com and click on “The Road to Unity” button to read our stories. To go to the National Affiliate Twin Rivers site directly, visit www.nsba.org/natwinrivers.