Dr. Janet Pilcher interviews Superintendent Dr. Christi Barrett, of Hemet Unified School District in Hemet, California, on this Accelerate Your Performance podcast episode. During their conversation, they discuss Christi’s commitment to leadership development, student safety, community opportunities, and improvement work. Listen now to hear Janet and Christi discuss the tactics, such as daily leader huddles, used to achieve successful outcomes and promote continuous improvement.
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Janet Pilcher: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning into our show today. This podcast is all about leadership, and I don’t mean leadership as a position. It’s about how we can all see great leadership in action so that we can all be leaders in our organizations. And the focus of leadership is connected to the Nine Principles Framework highlighted in my new book Hardwiring Excellence in Education.
So let’s jump into today’s episode. I’m pleased to introduce you to our guest, Dr. Christy Barrett, Superintendent of Hemet Unified School District in Hemet, California. Before we begin, let me tell you a little bit about her. In 2016, Dr. Barrett became the first female superintendent to serve the Hemet Unified School District, serving approximately 22,000 students in 28 schools. Since stepping into the role, Dr. Barrett has been named Superintendent of the Year three times.
In 2019, the Western Riverside Association of School Managers, a regional charter of ACSA, recognized Dr. Barrett as the 2019 Superintendent of the Year. In 2021, Dr. Barrett was selected by ACSA Region 19 as the 2021 Superintendent of the Year and was recognized by Claremont Graduate University with an Urban Leadership Alumni Achievement Award. This year, Dr. Barrett was also recognized by ACSA Region 19 and awarded the 2023 Superintendent of the Year Award.
Dr. Barrett has more than 20 years of educational experience, and before her current role, she has served as both a regular and special education teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. As superintendent, Dr. Barrett is actively involved in her community. She’s a collaborative, innovative leader with a strong background in instruction, human resources, district operations and models of continuous improvement.
Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Dr. Christy Barrett to our show today.
Christy Barrett: Thank you, and I very much appreciate the invitation. So thank you.
Janet Pilcher: So let’s start if you would, Christy, if you’d share a little bit about your background as the leader at Hemet Unified School District. Let’s start with getting to know you a little bit.
Christy Barrett: Absolutely. So I started my career path, if you will, as a teacher working with students with disabilities. And so I did that at the front part of my career and then made a transition into the principal role at a K6 school site. During that time, I had a very active role serving on the management team for negotiations, and I actually sat at two tables, one for our teachers and the other for our non-teaching staff for our classified employees. And through that just developed a deep appreciation for the important work that our associations lead and the relationship that needs to exist between management and labor. If that relationship isn’t healthy, it really does have implications for everything else that happens in the organization.
And so developed not only appreciation, but I would just say also a love for being part of working toward having healthy, meaningful relationships between labor and management. And so from there, there was an opportunity to become the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources in that same district where I had also been a teacher and then a principal and was just very appreciative for that opportunity and did serve in that role for several years because it was an elementary district. I had an interest in transitioning to K12 and so I did change districts, served in the same role as Assistant Super of Human resources, but in a kindergarten through 12th-grade setting. And then from there became superintendent.
Janet Pilcher: Right, you know, it’s so interesting. I was just smiling as you talked about your negotiation and that aspect of your work and what you learned. When I was at the university for almost 20 years and I was a dean of the college- dean of a college, and we had, we’d moved from a board of regents, Christy, in our state of Florida, to a board of trustees. So we had to negotiate our first contract with the union, you know, with the union. And so I was- I had the distinction of being the lead negotiator for the administration. [laughs]
Christy Barrett: [laughs] That’s an important role.
Janet Pilcher: I didn’t probably know what I- what I didn’t know at that time, but you know what, I agree with you. I- it was really a great opportunity to learn so much about, you know, how to value, how to negotiate for one and then really listening to perspectives in ways that are meaningful. So I think that it kind of sets the stage and grounds you a little bit if that makes sense to you.
Christy Barrett: Yes, absolutely. And you learn skills there that carry over into all aspects of leadership.
Janet Pilcher: Absolutely. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I probably wouldn’t have signed up for it to begin with…[laughs]
Christy Barrett: [laughs]
Janet Pilcher: …but you know, and I think sometimes that we would get put in those situations that- that make us better. So, you know, I know you have a lot of focus on improvement. And so let’s just kind of talk about that a little bit. Like why is improving the opportunities for students in your community and growing your leadership capabilities personally important to you as, as a leader?
Christy Barrett: I do think our journeys are always influenced by our personal why. And I also hold the belief that the work is not about me, and it’s bigger than any one individual. And so that’s how I’m positioned and what drives me and specifically what drives me in the space of improvement.
And so for me, I had a upbringing where I was very transient and not only did I go to multiple schools in any school year, but I lived and had the opportunity to live in many states across this great nation spanning from the East Coast all the way to the West Coast, where I still am today. And in experiencing that, I have always been very driven to have a different life for myself and to have a different life for my children. And then of course, my grandchildren and for future generations to come.
And so that idea of breaking the cycles that we know to be unhealthy just in all aspects of life that really is my personal why. And again, not just for me, but for those that I’ve been able to touch and to be honored to serve, specifically here in Hemet Unified, the 22,000 plus students that I serve, along with a great team.
So, you know, all of that to say, we should be in a space where we want to care for all. And that mindset that I just shared with you about our personal why, it is something that we’re being very intentional to speak about in our district and that we have to get clarity on each person’s personal why. And then how does that connect and influence to the larger body of work that we’re doing for our students? And understanding that it’s too big, you really need an army, if you will, if we’re going to not only take on this work, but then to also be successful.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And as you’re talking about the personal why’s, I mean, and you’re talking about that being intentional, then I’m assuming that you have those conversations with your leaders in the way that you kind of pull them together. Is that right, Christy?
Christy Barrett: That is exactly right. These discussions and the way that I frame it, these discussions and interactions that we have to take time and to take stock, and how we’re positioned in the work, that’s a required opportunity in our organization.
Janet Pilcher: Love it.
Christy Barrett: And we work to frame it so that when people are engaging in the dialogue around their why and how they’re connecting to the larger body of work, that we’re setting people up for success, and that we’re framing how they can begin to think about their why; we’re not just letting it by chance that people understand what that means. And then we’re facilitating. We’re helping to guide and facilitate conversations that others have.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, I really love that and love the intentionality of because I think back over as one of the tools that we teach, the tactics that we teach is really communicate starting with the why.
In my book, Christy, there’s one story that I tell in there when I was working with one of the vice presidents at Michigan State University. He’s like, “I’ve been communicating with starting with the why, but it’s not working.” And I said, “Well, who’s why are you communicating?” He said, “Well, my why.” And I’m like, “No, no, no, it’s not your why.” It’s like, it’s like, you’re communicating, it’s like, what’s their why?
And so it just was a wakeup call to me to go, “oh my gosh, you know, we have to be really intentional about even that form of communication, we have our own why. Other people have why they what’s important to them.” And then how do we really make sure that we’re thinking about not only ours, but what’s important to others and, you know, cross-connecting those in ways that’s meaningful to people. So that intentionality really brings that out, I think, in your in your leaders and your teams, so that they’re- they’re able to put that front and center. So really nice work there.
Christy Barrett: Thank you. I agree. And it’s yes. And it’s- it’s the direct connect to the larger why of the organization. Like we have tremendous clarity on what is our purpose. And, you know, we’ve taken a lot of time. In fact, we’ve taken years to collaboratively develop our vision statement and what that means in service of students. And so when we talk about our why, it’s like, okay, now we know our why now how does that connect? Because we are in a role of public service. And you know, so we talk about that.
And in fact, yesterday, you know, at the beginning of the year here, we do several different events where people are coming together to kick off the year. And we have a very large transportation department. So yesterday, all of our transportation staff members, teammates were in a whole group setting, several hundred.
And I led them through like this personal why activity. And it was just so heart touching and compelling. In fact, at the end of the segment, we were getting ready to get off the stage. And one of our bus drivers, she stood up, it was a large room unmic’d and she’s like “I have a lot of clarity about my why,” and she’s like, “you all need to have clarity about your why.”
Janet Pilcher: [laughs]
Christy Barrett: We are here to serve kids. And it was just amazing.
Janet Pilcher: That’s fantastic.
Christy Barrett: And so I actually made sure to get her name and went over and gave her a hug. And I’m like, you’re going to be getting a gratitude card in the mail because I so appreciate that courage to make sure that she was heard. So.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And so important for her and for others to hear. So good. So let’s talk a little bit more about the work that you do with your team. So you built your team capabilities and some of the processes of improvement that creates impact. So share with us if you would the process of daily leader huddles to improve safety and behaviors in your middle school.
Christy Barrett: Sure. I would also like to, if I may-
Janet Pilcher: Yeah.
Christy Barrett: -before I touch on that, I also think it’s important to call out. And it wasn’t because I had engineered this great plan, but what I- what came to be known a couple of years back was that we did a lot to pour into our certificated leaders, our principals, our directors, our assistant principals, so forth and so on. And we had not given that same space and intentionality to developing our classified leaders. And we also had missed the mark in that we were only including leaders that were director level, and then APs and principals. And so about two years ago, we made this shift in that we should be building the capacity of all leaders-
Janet Pilcher: Yeah.
Christy Barrett: -because talking about moving an entire workforce, not just a slice. And so that has been such a pivotal change in our organization and building the capacity of all leaders, regardless of what level of leadership they’re at, or if they’re classified or certificated. So I think that’s been a really good change-
Janet Pilcher: Yeah—
Christy Barrett: – along with the daily huddles.
Janet Pilcher: It’s so important. It’s so, so important what you said. Thanks for backing up to that because you know when we think about systems, school systems, educational systems, I mean, they’re a great part of our organization, right? The operational areas are a true significant part of our organizations. And- and sometimes we forget-forget that in the way that we provide the services, internal services to them.
So, you know, thank you for doing that because I’m sure that the contributions that you’ve made to those leaders are deeply appreciated, and they know they’re valued. I mean, you’ve really said that you value them and that’s important. So thanks for- thanks for sharing that.
Christy Barrett: Absolutely. So as it relates to huddles, we had a school site that was doing a small scale test on huddles. It was one of our high schools. And, you know, the principal was coming to cabinet regularly and sharing the experience that they were having and the impact that huddles was affording the admin team at that school site. And then we, late in the year last year, we had some issues that were surfacing at all of our middle schools that had direct implications on students’ safety.
And, you know, we were on the verge of a crisis and that if we don’t figure this out, it’s going to be problematic because it’s a safety issue. So we decided to implement the huddle at the middle school, and it was so powerful for a variety of reasons.
One, all of our Cabinet team, which is, you know, the senior leaders of the organization, we were committed to be there daily. And we asked our middle school principals and their admin team, so all assistant principals to make the same commitment. So every day for 15 minutes, 7:45 to 8:00, we were all on a Zoom meeting, and we were hyper-focused on student safety and the safety conditions at the school sites.
Janet Pilcher: Oh.
Christy Barrett: And so we-we talked, we had an agenda, so it wasn’t a surprise and we started every day by saying, what are your bright spots?
Janet Pilcher: Yeah.
Christy Barrett: What’s working well? And what that did is not only did it give time to pause to say, yes, like we’re not where we want to be right now, but there are still things to celebrate. And that lifts people. And it also surfaced practices that were happening at some middle schools or in some instances just one school that were really effective in improving student safety and student behavior.
We would not have known, for example, one middle school, they had brought a really tight structure to their lunch period and how that- how that was operationalized in the day-to-day. No one knew that the school site had done something so brilliant, so easy, and so impactful. And because that was lifted as a bright spot, all of the middle school principals, they were like, “Wow, like, we all need to be doing that. When can we come over to learn about that?” And in the matter of a week, like there had been multiple visits to this particular school site. That practice was scaled across the board. We had data, you know, that suggests and actually points to the fact that because we got really tight on this practice that we knew to be effective, conditions across throughout the middle schools.
So that’s an example. The other thing we talked about, because safety was the thing, is we came up with behaviors that we wanted to hardwire. Like what are the non-negotiables? What are the things that we want to hardwire into our daily practices? And so we created a handful of things. And every day we did a check-in, thumbs up if you nailed the things that we agreed to, thumbs sideways if you kind of did, but not completely, and then thumbs down if you didn’t. And we talked about that.
And, you know, so it was so funny because we just had this conversation. They did a fishbowl activity for me, for all of our leaders. And one of the assistant principals, she’s like, “and don’t lie, because if you put your thumbs up, Dr. Barrett’s going to ask, how is it that you made that happen?”
Janet Pilcher: [laughs]
Christy Barrett: So, you know, it was joking, but it was true. And so, again, like it gave us a space to say, “Well, it worked well. Here’s what I did to make it happen.” Or “It didn’t work well today. And here’s why”. And, you know, because we think we know why people don’t do things, but we really don’t. Like, is there a barrier that the system is, you know, unintentionally put in place for you so that you cannot do these things that we agreed to and that we know to be important for student safety? And so it was really good.
And then we also talked every day about what are your needs today? And what are your needs specific to student safety or school site safety? And what that allowed us to do, because, again, Cabinet was involved, we were able to shift resources in real time based on where the needs were. Because, you know, things like teacher absence without having a substitute, that creates a safety issue.
And, you know, things happen overnight. And so, you know, we were finding out, okay, well, this school site has adequate sub coverage, this particular school site doesn’t. Can we shift some resources so that both school sites have what they need? Or campus supervision, so forth or so on. And so it was really powerful, and that we were able to problem solve in real-time. And it made a big difference for what was happening on the campuses.
I would say another thing that came from the huddle that was so powerful is that we have a monthly leadership meeting. And in that leadership meeting, it’s really like direct instruction, right? What’s important to us as leaders? How do we build capacity related to those things and proven as a part of that? However, you don’t then get to apply those things and get immediate feedback because I’m not with them every day, right?
My cabinet’s with them every day. And what was so cool, Janet, that we would have never predicted is that as things were surfacing in real time, we were able to role play in front of the group. So we’re actually modeling the things that we learned in leadership, right? Because schools are very, like there’s a lot that happens on any given day that you just can’t predict. And so, you know, one particular principal, like he lifted up an issue that happened with the association, and it’s like, “let’s problem solve that he quick. Let’s role play that.” And everybody got to observe. And it was just, again, really powerful.
So we took, we looked at data before and after implementing the huddles. We had a 50% reduction in student behavior-
Janet Pilcher: Wow.
Christy Barrett: –consistently day over day because of that. And so now we have scaled that practice to the entire district. And we have 28 school sites, but district wide, we have this commitment that all Cabinet, all principals, and assistant principals will be signing on from 7:45-8:00 every single day. And I just really excited for what the future holds because it’s been honestly life changing. It really has been.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah. I mean, it’s incredible. And you know, one of the things that I mean, there’s so many great aspects of what you’ve just shared in terms of learning. You know, one thing that, Christy, it just reinforces is that it’s a consistency of those leadership practices too like you’re, I mean, you’re really pulling that thread.
Christy Barrett: That’s right.
Janet Pilcher: Right. It’s like it’s not just, “oh, let’s go do it over here and maybe that’ll work and we’ll share,” but no, it’s like we’re all going to have a commitment. We’re all going to agree. This is going to be a consistent way. There’s going to be structure to it. We’re going to learn from it. We’re going to look at data. We’re going to share from that. And we’re going to continuously, you know, make those modifications that are needed, because you really built that consistent process.
And I’m sure they love it. I mean, you know, I mean, that’s- sometimes we think that people don’t want that consistency. But what I’ve found is that when you provide that consistency and that’s defining expectations, right. You know, so-
Christy Barrett: Yes.
Janet Pilcher: And I just kind of curious as you’re thinking about that. When you started with those leader huddles, as I’m hearing you I’m thinking that there was something that was a problem or something that we really needed to solve. And that’s why we really dug down and really provided this type of approach in order to solve that problem. Is that kind of how it surfaced, Christy?
Christy Barrett: That’s exactly right. And because of its effectiveness and there’s multiple benefits where like we have to scale this.
Janet Pilcher: Love it.
Christy Barrett: It has to be part of our everyday routine. But you’re right, like it started because we had a crisis, and it turned out to be very, very effective. And like I said, we did have a small scale. So that was kind of like where the, you know, idea came and then we just-
Janet Pilcher: -just expanded. Yeah.
Christy Barrett: Yes. The other interesting outcome related to this because of course, you know, the thing that people worry about a lot is time, like, you’re asking me to do this every day. And the admin teams that did the fishbowl, you know, what they shared with their teammates is that this is a time saver because you’re solving for so many problems at the front end. You get time- you get so much time back throughout the day because you’re not putting out fires all day long.
Janet Pilcher: Yes.
Christy Barrett: And so that was a benefit. And then the other thing just, it was, it’s a real culture builder. And the, you know, it was interesting and an “aha!” for Cabinet and I am in that, you know, people think we know.
Janet Pilcher: [laughs]
Christy Barrett: And, you know, what they learned was, “Oh, like Cabinet didn’t know that we were in crisis. And if they did know they would actually want to be part of the solution.” And so, you know, it built, it built a stronger relationship between Cabinet and our, you know, teammates who are closest to the work in a way that we would have never have been able to do just by telling people, “yeah, we really care.” Like, they had to really see it.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, they saw, they saw you actually acting it out, you know.
Christy Barrett: Right.
Janet Pilcher: And being part of that process with them. You know, as you think about just looking from a leadership perspective and where you are and where you see the district, you know, let’s say, let’s start within a year from now. You know, what do you envision being real for- for your leaders and your district?
Christy Barrett: I envision what will be real is that there’s- there’s strong collective efficacy, and that we are able to affect change. And it’s because of the people in the room, but that happens, it’s not by happenstance, that we actually have a direct effect on that. I think what will also be real in a year from now is that there will be a level of synergy and commitment in a way that we have not yet experienced.
Although I would describe us as a healthy organization, people are fatigued, because they’ve been working really hard and with their respective teams, if you will, but not this larger effort where it’s really all hands on deck every day. And so I think people are going to find, and I know these all seem like touchy-feely things, but when you get that right, everything else falls into place, but I think people are going to feel valued. I feel like they’re going to be wanting, you know, to work even harder, if you will, than what they already do, but in a really healthy way. And I just think the sense of hope and the sense that, yeah, we have more control than we think we do.
You know, that feeling comes from feeling supported and knowing that we do really value working different and we value working towards a solution where the outcomes of those solutions are predictable and we feel that we are actually going to get a good bang for our buck, if you will.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, it almost reenergizes them, right?
Christy Barrett: Right.
Janet Pilcher: I mean, you’re right. And so I think we’re going to get back into the organization, and I agree so needed right now, because people are working hard and trying to do the right things.
Christy Barrett: Right.
Janet Pilcher: I mean, people don’t come to work not trying to do the right things.
Christy Barrett: That’s exactly right.
Janet Pilcher: But they can, and that support is really important. You know, so we’ll close today and as you’re providing the leadership and working with your leadership team, you know, then what now do you envision where your district will be and what you see in three years? Three to five.
Christy Barrett: So at risk of overgeneralizing, I think- what I predict that we will see is improved outcomes across all metrics. And I think the way that we have described today and what those interactions are with our admin teams, that that way of thinking permeates all the way through the organization. Top down, bottom up, that it really is just the way of being in the organization and that people feel empowered and that we have results that are not only sustainable but predictable, and that those results are not dependent upon who the people are in the seat today.
Because if the work leaves when Christy Barrett leaves or when the principal leaves, or when the particular grade level lead leaves, then we haven’t we haven’t- we haven’t ingrained the practices that we know to be good for kids into the system. And so in three years from now, that’s the type of sustainability and outcomes that I- I predict that we will have as an organization.
Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and you know, Christy, so good, and what you’ll, you know what you’ll naturally do is hire people to that, you know, I mean..
Christy Barrett: Yes
Janet Pilcher: Because some, I mean you’ll hire people to that it’ll be part of your DNA when people work for you that’s, you know, they won’t work for you if they can’t- if they can’t align to what you’re doing within the system, right?
Christy Barrett: That’s right.
Janet Pilcher: I mean, they would want to work for you, we wouldn’t hire them and that’s- it’s just changing- it’s just building that into the DNA and the backbone of who you are in your system.
Christy Barrett: Well said.
Janet Pilcher: You know, we- I appreciate you so much because if we could, that’s what we need, you know- we in our education profession- there’s so many good things. I get- I get the great opportunity of talking to great leaders. We work with some of the best, you know, across the country. And there’s so many good things like what you all are doing going on. You know I just, I love to share your stories and your results and your actions based on continuously trying to improve and solve problems and doing the right thing for people. And when we do that, we’re doing the right thing for students and families, and that’s what you’re doing, so thank you so much for being with us today.
Christy Barrett: Thank you, Janet. It’s truly been a pleasure, and I appreciate this opportunity, so thank you.
Janet Pilcher: Great.
Janet Pilcher: I think you can see from the conversation that I had with Dr. Christy Barrett that she is a model leader for us to learn from. She has applied so many of our principles in her district and continues to learn and grow and be the best leader that she can for a school district where she’s taking them…
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…to really be a great school district and one that we can look up to and learn from as we continue our journey of excellence.
Just want to remind you that we have a new virtual book club that’s in full swing, and I’d love to take a moment to invite you to join. We meet twice monthly to dive chapter by chapter into my new book Hardwiring Excellence in Education, the Nine Principles Framework. This book club is for leaders at all levels in an organization who are looking to take their leadership to the next level, and it’s really for everyone who wants to really gain good leadership skills. If you want to grow and be the best leader you can be, this club is for you. So our next book club meeting will be on Monday, August 21st. If you haven’t yet registered for it, I invite you to jump right in and join us each meeting we go over the chapters and chapter by chapter as we dive into each of the Nine Principles.
And for more details and to sign up head over to studereducation.com/hardwiringexcellence. I am really enjoying my time with our leaders across the country at these book clubs. It’s a lot of fun. Look forward to seeing you there.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. Please share this episode with a friend or colleague you think this episode will be meaningful to, and as always, I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week everyone.