Putting the “Personal” in Personalized Learning: Lindsay Unified School District partners with The Breakthrough Coach to create system-wide transformation in teaching and learning


School superintendents face daunting pressure to transform traditional public schools into 21st century learning environments. They must continue to meet the complex responsibilities inherent in managing day-to-day school operations, while striving to ensure that meaningful changes are implemented in today’s classrooms. Given these challenges, it is not surprising that superintendents, district cabinet team members, and site principals are barely keeping pace.

Against all odds, the Lindsay Unified School District in California’s Central Valley has revolutionized the way teachers teach and students learn, and the results have been impressive. Key staff, both veterans and newcomers, provide valuable lessons on the methods Lindsay employs to envision, develop and sustain a learner-centered, Performance-Based System that meets the needs of their students. Lindsay’s experience can serve as a springboard for other superintendents and principals who are looking to do the same.

In 2007, the Lindsay Unified School District, (LUSD), which serves 4,100 students in eight schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, discovered some disturbing truths: Less than 30% of its students were proficient in math and reading. Only 12% of Lindsay’s graduating class earned degrees in four years from the institutions that accepted them. One father poignantly demonstrated to an LUSD principal that his son, a graduate of Lindsay High School, could not read a newspaper. Administrators admitted they did not know how many other Lindsay students had graduated completely unprepared academically, or for life.

A large percentage of LUSD’s families work as laborers in nearby agricultural fields or packing sheds, a fact reflected in the district’s student demographic: 50% percent of students are English Language Learners. 100% receive free or reduced-cost lunch. 56% live in poverty. 44% live in homes where one or both parents did not graduate from high school. 15% meet the federal definition of homeless. “But demographics were no excuse,” said Superintendent Tom Rooney. “These students were a gift from their parents to us and our results showed that we had failed far too many of them, sending them into the world ill-equipped academically and personally. We had to do something transformational.”

Superintendent Tom Rooney checks-in with one of his teachersSuperintendent Tom Rooney checks-in with one of his teachers.

Within two years, LUSD had begun revolutionizing its administrative structures, school facilities, teacher training, and curriculum. By 2013, three K-6 elementary schools, one middle school and Lindsay High School had been converted to competency-based learning centers in six K-8 schools and one high school. Months of work with the leadership team and community members resulted in a comprehensive strategic plan which articulated the skills and competencies they wanted Lindsay graduates to demonstrate. The team also codified Lindsay’s vision for learning, curriculum, instruction, assessment, technology, personnel, leadership, and life-long standards. Teachers were now considered “learning facilitators” and students began to think of themselves as “learners.” Today, LUSD offers its community a learner-centered system in which learners demonstrate academic competency and life skills, completing assignments in a manner and at a pace that is appropriate for each learner.

Transitioning from the traditional time-based system to a learner-centered competency-based system required Lindsay’s leadership team and site principals to spend significant time and attention observing classroom instruction. But many LUSD’s administrators were already working 50 or more hours a week and not getting enough time in classrooms to watch the work unfold. Superintendent Rooney soon realized that central office administrators, principals and site secretaries needed to dramatically rethink how they envisioned their roles. To create this seismic shift, he brought in The Breakthrough Coach, an educational training and consulting firm that specializes in teaching school administrators how to get out of their offices and into classrooms to observe classroom instruction for two full days every week. The Breakthrough Coach’s philosophy is simple:

  1. Schools produce breakthrough results in student achievement when administrators spend two full days each week in classrooms training, developing and coaching teachers;
  2. In order for administrators to spend two full days each week in classrooms, they must train and empower their secretaries to run the front office.

“The Breakthrough Coach has given us the time, energy and most importantly, the mental and emotional capacity to envision a new model for learning,” Rooney said. “You can’t effectively transform an entire educational system when you are overwhelmed and bogged down in your office.”

The Breakthrough Coach Fundamentals


Lindsay’s administrators and principals said the meaningful time required to get up from their desks, walk out of their offices and into classrooms evolved from their fidelity to The Breakthrough Coach’s philosophy of secretaries and executives working together as “strategic partners.” In The Breakthrough Coach model, school secretaries (who also may serve as office managers or administrative assistants) manage all clerical and operational front office tasks, most notably, the executive’s calendar and communications. By delegating the bulk of front office operations to their secretaries, administrators are free to spend two full days in classrooms and embrace the job for which they were hired—instructional leadership.

Commitment to The Breakthrough Coach’s Scheduling Methodology™—built into the administrators’ calendars by their secretaries and faithfully executed—guarantees that Lindsay’s school leaders have critical time to coach, support and empower those they supervise through one-on-one contact in schools and classrooms.

Lincoln Elementary Principal Tammy Milligan said the shift in responsibilities keeps her organized and frees her up to do what she’s wanted to do for years. By going into classrooms, (she visits each class twice a day) and meeting with teachers in groups and individually, she can be highly engaged in the learners’ personalized learning experience. She can let teachers know what she has observed in classrooms and support them by supplying the needed resources and additional staff development. “They want me to see what’s going on,” Milligan said. “It’s positive. They love the feedback.”

Superintendent Rooney sets the tone and expectations. He invests 10 to 15 hours every week coaching and developing principals, teachers and even students, who smile when they see him enter the classroom. Brian Griffin, a former Lindsay Principal who is now the District Director of Personalized Learning, schedules regular school visits and coaching days to support the principals he supervises. He walks through classrooms with them, encourages informal conversations “just to ask how things are going,” and offers his help before more serious issues arise requiring a formal intervention.

Without the time in classrooms, principals and district administrators say they would miss the teaching and learning that takes place. “The kids wouldn’t know us; the teachers wouldn’t know us,” said Deputy Superintendent Lana Brown. “The time in classrooms gives us the opportunity to be visible and consciously engaged in what is going on in throughout the district.”


The empowered secretary acting as “strategic partner” lies at the heart of The Breakthrough Coach methodology. Administrators ensure that their secretaries are informed about, and involved in developing their daily schedules, projects and goals. LUSD secretaries relish these responsibilities. They describe themselves as “part of the bigger picture,” and “able to utilize the best of my talents.” As Cindy Macias, secretary to Deputy Superintendent Brown, said, “For the first time I feel valued for doing the job I was hired to do.”

The calendar dictates what principals and administrators do each day. For example, Macias enforces strict adherence to an hour-by-hour, tightly structured time-table—which she keeps visible on a dedicated monitor on her desk. Like all other secretaries throughout the district, she schedules every activity and ensures they begin and end on time, including weekly staff meetings, conferences with community members, phone calls, lunch, and even focus time dedicated to visioning and reflection. Macias tracks the progress of Brown’s projects and informs her administrator when a project needs attention. She even reads and responds to Brown’s incoming mail and email eliminating countless hours that Brown used to spend on administrative tasks.

Most importantly, Macias schedules her administrator’s classroom visits, reminding her when to leave the office to keep her on track with classroom observations and the time she requires to nurture her site-level relationships.

Changing old habits requires persistence and patience, and sometimes teams fall off the wagon. If principals complain to Director Griffin about “lack of time” he asks “point-blank” whether they have handed over their calendars and all incoming correspondence to their secretaries. “To get more time and be efficient, leaders must sometimes engage in things that might at first be uncomfortable,” he said.

This partnership demands a high level of trust between administrators and secretaries—trust that the work will get done, that confidences won’t be violated, and that the “partners” understand they are working toward a common goal. “I really appreciate her,” said Griffin, speaking about Dayna Holmes, Curriculum & Instruction Department Office Manager. “She makes it work. I let her know the specific things I need to accomplish and she makes it happen.” Griffin said he had no trouble relinquishing control. “I have nothing to hide. If we trust people with the keys to the building, I’m comfortable with my secretary taking over. It goes beyond comfortable, it’s an expectation.”

To facilitate a smooth transition, all Lindsay leaders inform various stakeholder groups—teachers, students and community members—that the secretary schedules all appointments, makes sure all start and end on time, manages the email, and discourages drop-ins.

Holmes admitted that the role reversal took some time for her. “At first I felt as if I was creeping into someone else’s emails. But Brian made me comfortable with the idea, assuring me that this was part of my role and completely natural, just like breathing.”


The trust and empowerment that Lindsay secretaries and administrators experience is cultivated and practiced every day at the Daily Secretary Meeting. Each day, Superintendent Rooney and his executive secretary, Bobbie Velasquez, sit down together in Rooney’s office at his conference table, with his calendar open on his laptop. Velasquez hands him papers one by one from a stack she brought to the meeting and briefly describes each item as she presents it to him: information about an afternoon meeting with teachers; details involving an employee at a closed session board meeting; an annotated and organized notebook for an upcoming conference. Rooney nodded, commented and signed documents as needed. He then asked Velasquez to add time to his calendar to review the conference notebook. “I appreciate that you noticed this conference information,” he said. “Just schedule me 30 minutes before the end of the week to check it out.”

The daily meeting, which they consider the most important meeting of the day, guarantees that secretaries and administrators are partners “living the transformation,” Rooney said. No longer do Lindsay principals simply say to their secretaries, “See you, heading to the district office, be back later,” and then sprint out the door. “We use the daily meeting to discuss everything and because of the regular interaction, my secretary knows exactly what I’m up to, where I am going, what’s most important and why,” he said.

Bobbi VelasquezBobbi Velasquez, Administrative Assistant to Superintendent Tom Rooney

Velasquez agrees. By understanding her administrator’s goals, objectives and necessary tasks, she becomes well-versed in what the work entails and is able to make sound recommendations that support her boss. “To do my best for the organization, I must have a full grasp of projects, not just bits and pieces of information. Doing my best would be impossible without the necessary details.”


The Breakthrough Coach also challenges school administrators to rethink their workspaces. Rooney’s conference room-style office, equipped only with a table, chairs and a laptop computer, may give visitors pause. There are no paintings on the wall, no family photos, no plants—no distractions.

Why operate in such a bare environment? The Breakthrough Coach asserts that a school administrator’s primary work takes place in classrooms. When office time is required, an impeccable, empty work space keeps the leader focused on what matters most—meaningful and engaging conversations that continuously develop staff, students and parents to their fullest potential. Deputy Superintendent Brown concurred: “Minus all the unnecessary distractions, I am very focused, present and attentive to the person or task that is right in front of me. Conversations move more efficiently, tasks are accomplished more quickly, and people are better served.” To visitors who complain about the “cold” office feeling, Director Griffin “warms” it up by stating simply, “You are the most important thing in this office right now. I don’t need anything else. I want to devote all my attention to you.”

“For a while I missed the personal items,” admitted Principal Milligan, “but ultimately my reliance on office ‘stuff’ faded away. My job is to be present and serve the learners. My office manager can hand me anything else I need, if and when I need it.”

Initial Reactions to The Breakthrough Coach

At first, The Breakthrough Coach model unnerved many Lindsay administrators and secretaries. Marlene Medina, Lincoln Elementary Office Manager, admitted she thought, “Is this doable? I have enough on my plate already.” Many of her secretary colleagues echoed her sentiments. “But once I implemented the practices, I discovered I had more time and accomplished more every day,” she said. Eventually, other LUSD secretaries came to the same conclusion, realizing that they were part of a bigger picture, and that they were being valued for their contributions to the success of Lindsay’s learner-centered system.

From the beginning, Bobbie Velasquez, Superintendent Rooney’s executive secretary, recognized the model’s value. “Thank goodness,” she said to herself. “Until I went through The Breakthrough Coach, I never had a clear gauge regarding my responsibilities. Was there more I could do to be a good secretary? I now have a clear understanding of what my job is and what I should produce for the organization.”

Challenges differ for principals who are typically used to exercising control over every aspect of their jobs. “Overwhelming,” is how Director Griffin described his initial reaction to The Breakthrough Coach. In his principal-ships prior to coming to Lindsay, his door was always open and he handled visitors’ needs at their convenience, which forced him to complete his work after others left the office and added hours to his workday. With The Breakthrough Coach’s “mind-shift,” he quickly embraced the fundamental practices and principles that make it all work, and said he now will employ them for the rest of his career.

Ongoing Results from The Breakthrough Coach

Today, Lindsay administrators and secretaries say they appreciate the positive outcomes from The Breakthrough Coach, both professionally and personally: the ability to focus on the job they were hired to do, the sense of accomplishment, the personal growth, empowerment and confidence, positive relationships, teamwork, less stress, and most important, work-life balance. Faithfulness to the calendar eliminates unproductive time and tasks get completed in fewer hours, without a nagging sense of continuous loose ends. Work stays at the office, and administrators and secretaries reserve nights and weekends for family, friends, and personal interests.

“The Breakthrough Coach forces you to think about how you use your time,” said Deputy Superintendent Brown. “When I leave at the end of the day, I know exactly how I spent my time and what I achieved that day. It’s mastery over myself.”

Superintendent Rooney said he never takes work home at night or on the weekends. “I have seven children of my own and I am choosing to not miss out on their lives simply because I have a demanding professional position and I am deeply invested in all of Lindsay’s children,” he said. “I spend time with my family. I’m an avid exerciser. And because of that I have energy, time and focus . . .and have thus created a professional career that is as rewarding as it is successful.”

Accomplishments of the Lindsay Unified School District

Lindsay’s leaders point to significant district-wide achievements since implementing the Performance-Based System. Recent metrics identify the successes, particularly in graduation rates: In 2016, Lindsay High School had a graduation rate of 91%, exceeding California’s average by 9%. 42% of those graduates went on to four-year colleges—a rate that has doubled since 2010—far surpassing the national average of 18% for similar districts. Among Lindsay’s 2013 high school graduates, 54% will complete college in four years. The rate of EL students graduating from high school has increased 17% since 2011. And since 2012, the graduation rate of students with disabilities has increased by 35%.

The entire Lindsay community is fully vested in the district’s learner-centered system, which emphasizes both life skills and academic achievement. Teachers report increased job satisfaction because they can now be more creative in their classrooms. Learners vouch for the control they exercise over their learning because they can seek additional help if needed or accelerate their learning in areas of academic strength. Parents are delighted that their children want to go to school every day, demonstrated by a 97% average daily attendance rate and a 99% attendance rate during the month of May 2016. District-wide, office referrals have dropped from an average of 2,700 a year to 612 in 2016. Lindsay High School now ranks in the 99th percentile on the California Healthy Kids Survey which measures learner perception of school safety and belongingness, up from the 52nd in 2010.

Lindsay USD also has attracted national attention and recognition for its Performance-Based System. In June 2016, the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative partnered with Lindsay for an exciting new venture, Lindsay Leads, which is designed to strategically support and coach districts ready to embark on personalized learning models. With its trained teams of students and staff members who share philosophy, practices and lessons learned, combined with a full complement of resources and materials, Lindsay is poised to become a major force in transforming education nationwide.

“An essential element is leadership,” Rooney said. “If there’s a school board or community that wants to develop a truly personalized learning system, I definitely recommend including The Breakthrough Coach as part of the plan. When an organization implements The Breakthrough Coach model it allows all leaders to focus on the most important work—the work of developing teachers and leaders to ensure only the highest quality instruction. Every one of us is extremely busy every single day. The difference in Lindsay is that our site and district leaders are consistently doing the right work to move our vision forward.”