Dr. Janet Pilcher invites Amy Mikesell, principal of Estacada High School, and Kate Dean, instructional coach, as guests on this episode of the Accelerate Your Performance podcast. Amy and Kate share their continuous improvement journey and the strategies, such as PDSA, rounding, and Plus/Delta, that have helped them achieve great progress in helping students own their learning. Listen to them discuss this relentless and rewarding work as they also provide advice and other strategies they have utilized to see success in their classroom improvement journey.

Episode Transcript



[Intro music plays in the background.] 

Janet Pilcher: Hello, I’m Janet Pilcher, the host of the Accelerate Your Performance podcast. This podcast focuses on our Nine Principles Framework, supporting leaders and teams to achieve results and be their best at work. I’m thankful for this opportunity to share insights that reinforce the educational core values of having purpose, doing worthwhile work, and making a difference.  


Let’s jump into today’s episode. I’m excited to introduce you to our guests, Amy Mikesell and Kate Dean. Amy is the principal of Estacada High School in Oregon. Kate is an instructional coach at Estacada High School.  


Before we begin, let me tell you about our guest. Amy has worked in the education field for the past 18 years. She served in a variety of roles including teacher, instructional coach, and teacher on special assignment. Amy has worked for the Estacada School District since July 2016. She holds a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Concordia University, as well as a certificate in equity leadership from the University of Portland. 


Kate Dean also joins us today from the Estacada School District. She serves as a high school instructional coach. Prior to this role, Kate served for 25 years as a secondary science teacher, most recently at Estacada High School. Was named Oregon Biology Teacher of the Year in 2012 and received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching in 2015.  




Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure today that I welcome Kate and Amy to our show. I’m excited about this conversation that we’ll have together, and I know that the work that you are doing is extremely important. So, Kate, welcome to the show.  


Kate Dean: Thank you.  


Janet Pilcher: And Amy, welcome as well.  


Amy Mikesell: Thank you.  


Janet Pilcher: So, let’s start, Amy, if you would, start. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the field of education so we can get to know you a little bit.  


Amy Mikesell: OK, great. I grew up in Oregon, so born and raised here. I haven’t traveled too far from my local roots, attended public education, public schools and was blessed to have some really amazing teachers that supported me through some- some really difficult times.  


I was the first in my family to attend and graduate college. And so being an educator was never a question for me. I think more than anything, the path that I’ve taken since I got into education has been more the question of which level to land on. But through no matter what, whether it’s been elementary, middle, or high school, just the passion to pay it forward and be able to repay the great service that I received as a student has always been my passion.  


Janet Pilcher: And I’m sure that you can have that great understanding of what the education meant to you and really connect to your students. I kind of had that. I’m the first in college as well, Amy. So, you know, it’s really for our family. So really, really, it makes a big difference for what we can contribute back. So, Kate, love to learn a little bit about you.  


Kate Dean: So first of all, thanks so much, Janet, for inviting me to participate in this podcast. I’m thrilled to be able to share the good work we’re doing in the Estacada School District. As you said in your introduction, this is my 25th year in education. And for most of my career, I’ve served as a high school science teacher with a brief stint as a CTE agriculture instructor.  


For the past two years, I’ve served as Estacada High School Instructional Coach and also our Ninth Grade Success Coach. I come from a family of educators, and as much as I tried to go the research route, I inevitably excelled in my teaching assignments and just kind of gave into the fact that I was destined to teach high school science.  


As I’ve worked to perfect my craft, I’ve began to serve in teacher leader roles, which allowed me to impact not only other teachers, but also more and more students. And in my current position, I enjoy working one-on-one with all teachers in our building just to help ensure every student is experiencing the best possible learning environment.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah, it’s so good. And I just, again, I love the story, too, of when you’re a teacher, you’re a teacher. And you can’t, [laughs], you know, as much as sometimes we try to shift and think that we can do something different, our hearts and minds always take us back to where we provide the greatest contributions. And you all are- are really leading and coaching teachers, which is so, so significant today. So, Kate, I’ll start with you as that instructional coach. You work with teachers in classroom improvement process that you all are doing in Estacada and you’re helping students own their learning. Tell us about that work and the results that you’re seeing.  


Kate Dean: Sure. So, this year, as a building, we began to implement improvement work at the classroom level with emphasis on bringing all students into this important work. Throughout the year, I’ve been working with all of our high school teachers as they implement regular rounding with students, use of class goals with visible data, student data tracking and goal setting, and then, of course, use of our short cycle PDSAs and our Plus/Delta protocol.  


Through regular one-on-one coaching and development of clear protocols for each of the improvement strategies, our building has demonstrated 100% participation in each of our classrooms. So, we’ve seen a lot of success getting teachers to buy in this year.  

I feel our most significant accomplishment this year is that every student in the building is being provided multiple opportunities to track their academic progress and set progress goals. And the results from this work, as reported by our teachers, include an increase in overall student agency, an increase in student voice that’s being used to drive instructional decisions, and overall higher learning success rate as our teachers focus on providing feedback and tracking class data, reinforcement of our DuFOUR Model PLC work, and then ultimately better connections between our course content and life skills.  


Teachers really feel that the work keeps them accountable to their data and allows them to best serve their students wherever those students are in the learning process. They’ve also expressed how helpful it is to have common language and procedures across all the content areas throughout the building.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and, you know, as I listen to you, Kate, and Amy, you probably, you know, this as well with your experience, but, you know, it’s, you know, we hear the word “accountability” that and we’re accountable to things a lot, but I’ve learned to say over the years that we’re really driving with improvement, and accountability just occurs because of the conversations we have around what are we doing that’s working, where are our gaps and how do we know and why are those occurring, and then as we’re working toward those gaps with our kids or with our teachers or with ourselves, you know, we’re able to really build more accountability for the work that we do, and I love what you’re talking about is it’s that’s the shift in ownership, right?  


The ownership is when we’re, when we want to be accountable because we’re constantly trying to get better, you know, so speaking of that, Kate, let’s take it a little bit. Let’s go one more, you know, one more step with kind of some of the results. You’ve been working with ninth-grade students and, you know, you’re quoted as saying, “I-I have to keep going back to check the data because I can’t believe the numbers, you know, just in terms of the results where we’re about 90% of our students are on track,” so, you know, tell me about that and the success related to that statement that you make.  


Kate Dean: Sure, so for the past few years, we’ve been in the building phase of our ninth-grade success program at the high school. And for those not familiar, the metric of ninth grade on track has been recognized as really the best indicator of on-time high school graduation. Our work this year includes an interdepartmental team of ninth-grade teachers, counselors, and support staff, and we meet regularly to analyze the academic progress of each ninth-grader and develop innovative individualized interventions for struggling students.  


We’ve been relentless in our pursuit of a 100% ninth-grade on-track rate through the use of student talk protocols, root cause analysis, and student surveys that all help us in real-time to identify the best strategies for supporting ninth graders. In addition to the teamwork, we’ve also established a ninth-grade success class that all of our ninth graders are taking as a way to support those students as they transition between eighth and ninth grade.  


Through this class, we’re using continuous improvement strategies to help students practice essential academic competencies such as self-regulation, perseverance, and self-efficacy. So, with all of that this year, so far, our work has resulted in the highest ninth-grade on-track rate really in school history. We’re just shy of 90% in the first semester.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s incredible. Gosh, that’s- and so significant at that level. Years ago, when I taught math, high school math, Kate and Amy, years ago, and I loved teaching ninth graders, right? Because that’s the, I mean, it’s at that time where they’re either going to- to figure out how to manage through and build a way that they can be successful or not, right? I mean, it’s such a- so that that goal and helping them stay on track and really taking that ownership and looking at- at how they’re learning and having those conversations with the teachers really critical to get to that.  


I love what you said too, the multiple factors, the multiple data points and factors that you’re looking at to really see how well they’re doing. So just really, really spectacular work there. Amy, I know you have some bright spots as well that you’re noticing with some of the early adopters of the classroom improvement process. I’d love to-love to hear some of your stories as well.  


Amy Mikesell: Yeah, absolutely. And Kate used the word “relentless” in the work, and I think that that’s a great descriptor for the work that Kate’s leading, especially with our ninth-grade success. I mean, it’s paying off tremendously. So just super impressed by her and the work that she’s doing.  


So, Kate kind of mentioned last year for us was kind of year zero is what I call it with our bringing this work down into the classrooms. It was definitely a go slow to go fast. And then this year has really been the opportunity for our early adopters to really shine. You know, the nice thing about our continuous improvement work is that we are constantly engaging our stakeholders and listening to their voice. And so really and truly when I think of the bright spots beyond what I’m seeing when I’m walking into classrooms and interacting with students and teachers is really what the voices of the students have shared, right?  


So, the goal setting that is occurring in classrooms, the classroom- the classroom goals and the classroom data that is happening continuously throughout the building has really- students have reported it’s really given them a clear direction, right? There’s a little bit more relevancy to the work that we’re, you know, that teachers are doing with students because students can see kind of that end goal through the use of student rounding and especially our Plus/Delta protocol.  


Students really feel that they have a voice in their education and that they’re really coming alongside our teachers and working through their learning together. And then that’s the student data tracking. I think that’s been one of the biggest points for us that has really been a game changer and really came out of that ninth-grade success work was really, we saw those early wins there and so then our ability to build that capacity throughout the 9-12 system. Students really have an awareness. I mean, the conversations that we’re having with students were standards-based learning and grading district.  


And so, the conversations that are being had with students this year outshine any conversations that I’ve heard with myself having conversations with students and teachers and students interacting. There is really a focus on learning and the growth that comes through that process. And really that’s been the ownership that students are demonstrating in their own learning and their ability to advocate for themselves have really been some early wins for us.  


The teachers that have dove into the work, those early adopters, Kate kind of mentioned it around the ninth-grade success, but they’re really proactive in that data analysis. And I think that the accountability word has changed because there’s so much early ownership in some of these practices. So, teachers are really using that data to identify a problem of practice, which then is creating more self-reflection in their own pedagogical practices. So overall, I think the bright spots, those early bright spots have really also given us a great foundation to just continue to build the capacity of the work.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. And just Amy, as you’re talking- as you think about teachers that you’re working with, you know, my guess is that have- they’re more engaged and feel more connected to their work as a teacher, feel more purposeful. I mean, is that- can you see that in them as well?  


Amy Mikesell: Yes, I would say definitely with our early adopters. And I think overall throughout the building and actually stakeholder feedback. I think also there’s a lot more clarity in what “right” looks like in our building and in our district. And because we’ve tied in really that principle nine of recognizing and rewarding, not only is the clarity there, but the value in the work is there as well.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. So just that they have to feel good about what they do and then they can see the impact that they’re having on students, which is what, you know, [laughs] drives us all as teachers. So, speaking of kind of the principles, one of our core principles is great service on our end. And we have the core values and operationalizing the core values in the district. And Kate, you were nominated by a colleague for a living out the district core values. So, can you tell us a little bit about the- about the recognition connected to that distinction?  


Kate Dean: Sure, so this year, I’ve been honored to be recognized twice for my alignment with our district’s standard of excellence. And our standards of excellence are a set of personal attributes that our district has identified as essential for meeting our mission and vision. So, this past January, I was recognized for the standard of consistent. My colleagues identified my consistent presence and effort in supporting them through all district initiatives, including mostly based on the continuous improvement work that we’ve been doing.  


And then in February, I was recognized again for the innovative standard and my work with the ninth-grade success team was highlighted with emphasis on my out-of-the-box thinking as I lead through my team. I appreciate these recognitions. It kind of helps to get through some of the low points when you’re- 


Janet Pilcher: [laughs] 


Kate Dean: -when you’re feeling like things aren’t quite going the way they’re supposed to be going. And overall, I think these recognitions have made me acutely aware of how much our teachers appreciate the work and the support as I strive to support them in the most important work, which of course is educating our students.  

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. Well, thank you for your contributions there and being that- that model for others. Gosh, if we could just do this in every school across the country, boy, what a difference-  [laughs] what a difference we would make in our field.  


You know, so Amy, as we- as we close today, you know, today, for the districts that are starting this work or learning about it or saying, “Wow, how did you get started?” And I know it’s not easy work. I mean, what we’re talking about now is not easy work in any way. People can get stuck. But where did- what would you tell them? Like, how do you start and people got stuck? How do you just work through to keep getting to the point where you all are getting and continuing to grow?  


Amy Mikesell: Yeah, gosh, it feels like forever ago that we started this journey, but I was thinking back and I think it was just 2019, but I guess a lot has happened since then.  


But I would say before beginning this work, I think much like education, you know, every educator or organization, there’s a lot of shiny objects that float around in front of us that we are always looking for that next, like, great thing to improve student outcomes. And so, I think that that’s where we were. And so back in 2019, we really started to dig into this continuous improvement work.  


And we started that summer. We all read Maximize Performance as a district leadership team and came into our work in August with our coach, Cathy Oropallo and just the work, even just reading Maximize Performance just gave us really all a foundational understanding of the continuous improvement work. And I think most importantly, gave us an understanding of why. And one of the most impactful moments for me, in fact, I was recently sharing it. We hosted Destination High Performance back in March and I had an opportunity to talk with another district.  


And I was talking about a little bit about our journey. And one of- and what came to me was this really impactful moment that I still hold on to where we were all working through creating goals around our strategic pillar, student success pillar. And so each district department, each building and then food services, transportation, facilities, HR, all- everyone was in that room collectively making their own department goal that aligned to that overall strategic action pillar. And then we shared out and there was just this moment of like, “wow, like we are all truly a team working for one common goal.” And so that moment has just continuously come up for me. When I get frustrated or I get stuck, it’s like, I remember that we’re all really, truly in this together, headed in the same direction.  


The bobsled, I think I still use the bobsled every year. And so and so that was really just the building leadership or the district leadership level and aha moment for me. And then when we’ve brought in- when we’ve brought it down to the building level, I would say that in real honesty, we filled capacity really quickly among teachers, right? Like we maxed people out pretty quickly. And so I think the biggest thing for us has been learning to kind of back up, revisit that why. And then chunking the work at times to be able to make it so that there is the ability to really build some capacity. So, let’s go slow to go fast definitely comes up for us.  


And then also making sure that there was that connection between a lot of the great things that we’re already doing; we’re a DuFOUR Model PLC district, right?  



Janet Pilcher: Right.  


And so that work really, truly is continuous improvement work. But when at times educators- we get stuck with acronyms and titles of things. And so really trying to make sure that people see how these- how these things complement each other and really works synchronously together.  


So, I think really going slow, chunking things to build capacity for staff has been probably the biggest learning as we’ve hit our sticking points this year. But no matter what our staff are- are doing the work, they’re passionate about it. They’re seeing the results, which obviously always makes it a little bit easier for everyone when we see the fruits of our labor. But just super proud of the ability for our teachers to engage in improvement and really work to build that co-ownership of learning with our students.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And again, back to our goal is really to focus on the students, but by doing that, teachers are really building purpose and seeing that their work is making a difference. And that’s something that- that’s so, so important, even more important, I think today, you know, in our profession, you know, just really, really supporting teachers and recognizing them. They’ve got answers. They’re good. They’ve got good answers. And if we, as you all do, if we connect with them, talk with them, look at information, they’re able to- to have good conversations with us.  


I just appreciate you all doing that. And, you know, Amy, one thing you were talking about, too, with a group coming together and- and as you were all were looking at what your goals were, people ask- people ask two things, questions. You know, how do you motivate? How do we motivate our people, and how do we break down silos? I get those two questions constantly. Well, you all have just answered both of them.  


How do you motivate people? How do you motivate our staff, you know, and teachers and staff? I mean, as leaders, we have good conversations around data. We look at what’s working, what’s not working, and we come up and we work together to figure out what problems are, and we solve those together, then we go execute. And when we do that, we- we- we build, we motivate people because people want to get better, and they want to do the work that- that’s significant.  


And then the silos, how do we break those silos? We look at what we’re doing and trying to accomplish. And we look at where there are crossovers and how we have to help each other to accomplish the overall goals. And we have those conversations and discussions around the data that help us break those silos. And you all are just doing such an exceptional job model across the country and what you do, and I just extend my deepest appreciation to- to your leadership. So, thank you very much for- for joining us today.  


Amy Mikesell: Yes, thank you for having us.  


Kate Dean: Yes, thanks so much.  





[Outro music plays in the background.]  


Janet Pilcher: I think you can see that the leadership from Amy and Kate is extraordinary. And as I mentioned at the close of the interview, the work and the value of the work with teachers and students is work that is producing unbelievable results and outcomes. If we could just take that work and transfer it to every classroom across the country, we would be the best in the world. Thank you, Amy and Kate, for what you do to build the best in our field.  


Before we go, I want to make sure you know about our event coming up, What’s Right in Education, our annual leadership conference. We’ll hear about key strategies to shift culture, improve processes, and exceed results. Like our podcast, these two days will highlight specific tactics from the Nine Principles for Organizational Excellence, driving results in highly effective organizations. You can view our featured speakers and find out more about What’s Right in Education on studereducation.com/events. We hope you’ll take time to join us there. It’s a lot of fun and we have good connections with our partner organizations and with each other. So, come join us, would you?  


Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. Please share this episode with a friend or colleague and give us your feedback. We always love to hear from you. 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. 

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