(the following is an excerpt from a forthcoming issue of The School Administrator.  See AASA.org)

No. 3: Make organizational meaning.

The best school districts choose an overarching strategy for improvement rooted in their stakeholders’ core beliefs and vision, a clear-eyed analysis of the internal facts and external research, and a coherent way forward.

The strategy for the high-performing Abington district was to open Advanced Placement classes to all students while providing low-performing groups with the necessary supports to succeed. The plan for closing gaps between schools in Charlotte-Mecklenberg was strategic staffing in which high-performing principals and a select leadership team moved to the lowest-performing schools via a plan designed by those who were doing the actual work. It has since become a badge of honor to be chosen to lead a low-performing school in that district.

No. 4: Ensure constancy and consistency of focus.

The greatest challenges to success for every student in America are the issues surrounding policies that promote one child over another and punish educators for being ill-equipped to address the multiple and increasingly serious problems students bring to school.

Even in the toughest circumstances, someone in each district is succeeding with the same students that others are failing. Cyndee Blount, chief academic officer in the Petersburg schools, uses several strategies to build a process that enhances trust, communication and cohesion around instruction.

  • Principal partners. Recently retired principals from a high-performing neighboring district were recruited as partners and mentors for each Petersburg principal. The retirees, selected based on a history of success in schools with similar populations, demographics and/or instructional needs, work to build the instructional capacity of the leaders and teachers. They support the principal with everything, including developing the school improvement plan, providing professional development and joining the principal in teacher observations, followed by debriefing, reflection and collaborative decision making.
  • Instructional leadership. A shift in the perception of the building principal from manager to instructional leader was necessary to convey the urgency of improving daily instruction. Blount and instructional teams in Charlotte-Mecklenberg built professional development toolkits that included presentations, talking points, engaging activities and instructional look-fors to use in walkthroughs. Principals, along with building-level instructional leaders, received the training first, then delivered the presentations to teachers and over subsequent weeks provided increasingly intensive feedback using a common protocol during walkthroughs.
  • Central office as support for schools. Staff in the district office collaborate on and monitor each school improvement plan. Blount and a central-office team meet monthly with site leaders to enhance the “X Factor” – to expedite physical resources and expedite human resources. Real-time support boosts trust, morale and results.

Courageous leaders promote a culture that addresses the diversity of needs their students bring with them to school. They use student voices to inform their plans and the students themselves to help implement and evaluate them and to galvanize the community and influence key policymakers. Courageous leaders often act as buffers, taking on the external politics so their staff can concentrate on teaching and learning.

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