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New Leaders for New Schools
Successful Principals Promote a Shared Vision of Education
In a series of columns in ASCD Express, the cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit for education reform, shares promising practices in principal leadership for improving some of the nation's most challenged urban schools.
Throughout this series of articles in ASCD Express, New Leaders for New Schools has highlighted key insights from our program learning and from the Urban Excellence Framework, our theory of how schools rapidly improve and what principals do to drive that process. Now in its third year of ongoing refinement, the framework is firmly rooted in the experiences of actual principals throughout the New Leaders community, including data from over 60 site visits in 10 cities across the country.
Throughout the course of our study, we have confirmed one of the original beliefs upon which New Leaders for New Schools was founded: a principal's personal leadership is crucial for driving breakthrough gains in student achievement. School leaders who drive the most dramatic achievement gains are particularly adept at infusing their belief that all kids can do great things into every conversation they have with students, teachers, or parents. They inspire others to do the hard work of changing personal and schoolwide practices, and they build genuine, trusting relationships with members of the school community. These elements of personal leadership serve as the bedrock for all other efforts to improve schoolwide instruction, culture, staff development and management, or operations.
For our last article in this series, we will profile the evolving leadership of a principal whose school is making breakthrough student achievement gains. Through her story, we hope to show the crucial connections between the many seemingly disparate challenges a principal might face.
Dual Language Middle School: A New Sense of Urgency
At Dual Language Middle School in New York City, principal Claudia Aguirre often reminds herself, staff, and visitors that, at best, "we have only 30 months to prepare our students for high school." She approaches every aspect of school improvement and every interaction with students or staff from the same position of urgency and refuses to accept anything less than excellence.
Her persistence has paid off. When Aguirre took over the school in 2003-04, only 22 percent of its students met New York State proficiency standards in English language arts, with 24 percent meeting standards in math. In 2008-09, 61 percent of students met or exceeded standards in English language arts, and 91 percent did so in math. No student scored in the "below basic" proficiency range in either subject.
"When I started teaching here years ago," Aguirre remembers, "Dual Language had been known as a dumping ground for low-performing students." Now, she says, "the staff have completely flipped it to make attending Dual Language a source of pride."
To be sure, the school continues to serve a student population that is often underprepared for middle school work: 90 percent come from low-income families, 38 percent are English language learners, and 21 percent receive special education services. All students are Hispanic, hailing from 10 different countries. Students often arrive at the school lacking fluency in either English or Spanish. But none of these potential challenges are used as excuses at Dual Language. The diversity of life experiences among the student population is celebrated. Expectations for both staff and student performance are high and firm, and there is a clear sense among the faculty that instruction must be good enough that "we would send our own kids here," says Aguirre.
Staff Need to Make the Grade, Too
That's a high standard, and at least initially, not all the teachers at Dual Language were prepared to meet it. During Aguirre's first three years as principal, many staff decided that they were not a good fit for this school, and turnover was significant. Yet she remains stalwart in her high expectations for staff work and is diligent about following up on every classroom observation or area identified for growth.
Over time, she has developed a robust system of teacher support and professional development. Faculty have a schoolwide learning agenda, as well as individual improvement plans based on frequent classroom observations. Group learning occurs each week: one session per month is devoted to the school's advisory system, one to literacy instruction, one to skillful teaching, and one to meeting pressing needs as they arise. Teacher teams—by content area across grades—meet daily to plan instruction. Aguirre meets individually with every teacher once per week to review their lesson plans and discuss notes from recent classroom observations and occasionally to analyze videotapes of whole-class instruction to drive continuous improvement.
This level of principal engagement in day-to-day teaching and ongoing teacher learning has been critical to student success. In larger schools where this type of engagement may not be possible, instructional leadership teams can be an effective alternative for delivering support to every teacher.
Using an Inclusive, Data-Driven, and Personalized Teaching Model
By far, the greatest instructional challenge for teachers at Dual Language is to increase achievement in English language arts for the significant portion of students who are English language learners (ELLs). Aguirre encourages her staff to move beyond traditional models for teaching ELLs, focusing instead on the characteristics of good teaching that can particularly benefit students learning English: literature-rich, data-driven instruction that addresses all types of learners in small-class environments. An ELL specialist often coteaches core content classes with another teacher; pullout is reserved exclusively for counseling and speech therapy.
Aguirre has led her staff to take collective responsibility for student literacy, ensuring that every class involves reading and writing. Every teacher leads a section of the school's "book club" program, a portion of the English language arts instructional time dedicated to guided reading in small groups based on skill level. Thus, every teacher receives significant professional development around advanced literacy strategies, regardless of his or her content role. Because the whole teaching staff is engaged in literacy development, students generally exceed the school's goal of getting every child to progress two grade levels per year in reading.
Creating a Values-Driven Schoolwide Culture
In addition to its instructional value, Dual Language's book clubs also help students and teachers form close personal bonds. The school's advisory system encourages genuine relationship building as well. Every teacher leads an advisory group and selects each student in it so that every child knows that this adult wants to work with him or her. Advisors are the school's primary liaisons with families and also manage most student discipline issues.
Finally, advisory groups are where students learn a fully developed social-emotional curriculum. This curriculum, the school's code of conduct, and the discipline system are all integrated through the R.E.A.C.H. values system—Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship, and Hard work. R.E.A.C.H. has given staff and students a common language for talking about what it means to be successful in school, and it has also created clear structures for monitoring and celebrating student behavior every day and in every classroom. Over time, students internalize the R.E.A.C.H. values, and older students become the primary ambassadors of the school's cultural norms to incoming students.
Across all these categories of Principal Aguirre's work at Dual Language Middle School, thoughtful systems meet sustained urgency for schoolwide improvement, and both are enhanced by personal relationships that foster a caring educational environment. Students work hard and have made incredible learning gains, but they still have a long way to go. So does U.S. education. The United States will see breakthrough achievement gains on a large scale only if we are willing to take the time to study these islands of success, replicate their practices, and enshrine the lessons they have to teach us in our policy and funding priorities.
Ben Fenton is a cofounder and chief strategy and knowledge officer for New Leaders for New Schools.
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