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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

In Their Own Words

Three urban principals chronicle their efforts to turn around their low-performing schools and create sustainable leadership.

In Their Own Words- thumbnail
Many authors write about urban school leadership, giving advice on such topics as school culture, authentic leadership, bedrock principles, closing the achievement gap, and social justice. Few resources, however, have captured the essence of leadership as seen through the eyes of leaders as they go about their grueling work.
Experienced urban principals know that there are no easy answers when it comes to effective school leadership. They must find ways to lead, in spite of the challenges facing them. Modeling, focusing, and trusting and earning trust—all of it done from the heart—are keys to their success.
As a longtime educator who has spent four decades researching, teaching, and writing about instructional leadership, I decided to seek out several experienced urban principals who were willing to share their challenges and successes. Their schools hail from different areas of the United States—from Georgia's east coast, from western Texas, and from Tennessee's western edge—and they serve different populations of students. The three urban principals profiled are experienced dreamers and doers who persistently work on enlisting all their schools' resources to bring about improved student achievement. I offer you their stories.

Lucy Phillip, Principal

Groves High School, Savannah, Georgia
Groves High School has 1,540 students: 65 percent are black, 33 percent are white, and 2 percent are Hispanic. Of its 90 teachers, 40 percent are black and 60 percent are white. An old campus with 10 separate buildings, Groves has challenging safety and security issues because of its physical layout. Phillip, who has had four years of experience as a principal, is in her second year as principal at Groves.
When I was offered the position of principal at Groves High School, I was told that many changes were needed. Declining academics, rough student behavior, low teacher and student pride, de-energized teachers, and facility disrepair were the norm. In my second week as principal, a small group of parents called a town hall meeting to address a rumored student fight. Five hundred parents, along with city leaders, police chiefs, and TV and newspaper reporters, attended. From that meeting evolved a zero-tolerance policy for fighting or weapons in the school.
As a result of this situation, I developed a three-pronged action plan for the school that called for (1) establishing a calmer, safer learning environment to enable teachers to spend more time on teaching and less time on discipline; (2) cleaning and repairing facilities; and (3) improving student academic outcomes.
We began by tackling repeat 9th graders because they represented half of the freshman class. In many cases, 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds were sitting next to new 14-year-old freshmen, and many of them sought—and found—trouble. We counseled some into a district adult education program, conducted weekly expulsion hearings during the first two months of school for students whose behavior necessitated such action, and freed the school resources officer from more superficial duties so that she could remain on campus all day. We also started a Parents on Patrol program to help monitor student lunch activity.
The second part of our plan ran concurrently with the first. To improve facilities, I gave custodians explicit examples of my expectation of “clean.” One bathroom, one section of a floor, or one door would be cleaned, inspected by me or by an assistant principal, and then cleaned again if necessary until we all had the same understanding of the expectations. We also provided paint and cleaning materials to any teacher willing to paint his or her own classroom. Bathroom sinks and doors were repaired, windows were replaced, and air conditioners were fixed. We purchased additional trash cans and placed them around the school.
The district responded to my plea for more cafeteria furniture. At the time, we had three lunch periods with 450 students in each period, yet there were only enough seats for 180. Consequently, many students had to stand while eating. The district provided additional seating midway through the school year—a great boost for students! Students began noticing the improvements on campus and appreciated our efforts to make our school a more comfortable place.
The third part of our action plan involved academic improvement. Even though academic success was my top priority, it understandably took second place to campus safety and security issues. We did, however, begin work on uncycling—that is, moving from negative to positive feelings and attitudes. I posted “Lucy's premise” on my office door and shared it at faculty meetings: “Our students can learn more than they are currently learning, and we can do more to help them!”
The atmosphere slowly began to change at Groves, in great part thanks to our teacher leaders, whom I refer to as our “miracle workers.” School teams won trophies in an academic triathlon. Our new band director grew a 7-member band into a 39-member marching band that beat everyone except the arts magnet school in the district competition. The new football coach guided a previously 0–10 team to the playoffs—our first in 30 years.
  • Implementing a program to support first-time freshmen. All new freshmen are now located in the first three buildings of our campus, where teacher teams provide them with cross-curricular support. As we compare their progress with that of last year's first-time freshmen, we'll see how many students successfully go on to become sophomores in a single school year.
  • Developing the groundwork for a pathways model that creates small learning communities. By the end of this year, freshmen will select their learning communities—such as freshman academy, school-to-career academy, fine arts academy, and International Baccalaureate—to correlate with their career and academic goals. We'll measure goal success through a variety of assessments. We hope to bring about strong academic improvement by the end of the third year.
  • Filling all teaching vacancies with qualified teachers. Last year, we had three openings for math teachers that we couldn't fill due to a math teacher shortage. This year, we hired qualified teachers to fill those vacancies, increasing enrollments and adding several programs.
  • Spending additional time on teacher evaluations. For our current teacher evaluations, we spend 15 minutes in a pre-conference with teachers, 30 minutes observing in the class, and 15 minutes in a post-conference. We hope to increase that time. Also, all teacher evaluators will now be required to complete district-conducted training.
I work with many talented teachers and administrators who are committed to student success. Some actions that help me foster student achievement include setting an optimistic tone, supporting teachers and celebrating their successes, counseling low-performing students and helping them learn about their options for success, and “leading from behind” by finding the sparks and providing support as teachers go on to do great things.

Armando Aguirre, Principal

Wiggs Middle School, El Paso, Texas
The El Paso School District has 62,412 students: 67 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 52 percent are at risk for academic failure. The 20-year-old Wiggs Middle School has 65 teachers. Of its 850 students, 85 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are white, and 3 percent are black. Seventy-five percent of students are from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Aguirre, who has had 13 years of experience as a principal, is in his third year as principal at Wiggs.
When I came in as principal three years ago, Wiggs was having rough times with discipline, certain district policies, forced teacher transfer, and morale. Also, some of the brighter kids were leaving the school—enrollment had dropped from 1,000 to 750. In fact, some of those kids were enrolling in the newly opened middle school just one mile away—a school where I had been the first principal.
Wiggs's faculty, which was influential in removing the previous principal, consisted of three groups: 5 faculty members had supported the previous principal; 30 were neutral; and 20 were 10–20-year veterans, half of whom were opposed to the previous principal. The first thing I looked for when I arrived was the pebble in the shoe. One of the assistant principals who was fueling the power brokers in the veteran teachers' group was not a positive force for change. Once we hired someone who fit our school's needs, I could then focus more attention on moving forward.
We talk about being positive role models. Consequently, I wanted this school to be one in which teachers would want their own children enrolled. I asked teachers how many of them would want certain teachers—even their friends—teaching their own children. I pushed the question a little further by asking them,How many of you would want a teacher for your child who teaches like you teach? If you can say you're proud of the way you teach, that's great. But the reality is that some of you know that you're not giving 100 percent. And that's what you need to start looking at.
In my first faculty meeting, one of the teachers commented, “How long do you see yourself here? Because we've now had four principals in four years.” I told her that I didn't know and that it didn't matter, that what mattered was what we did with that time. I mentioned that when I first walked through these doors, I saw the school as an outsider might: The entryway was cluttered, the main office was a mess, boxes were everywhere, neither of the two calendars on the office wall displayed the correct month, and news posted on the bulletin board was two or three years old. As I told them these things, I could see the embarrassment on their faces.
At that first faculty meeting, we agreed on five objectives. We would start by (1) cleaning up our image, and (2) clearing the slate. This meant that we would all start pulling in the same direction. I got a lot of head nodding—OK, the teachers said, we can do that. We also agreed that we would (3) enhance community support, (4) repair and clean the school, and (5) work on changing our mind-set. That meeting put the air back in the tires. We had a plan, and we were rolling.
We all agreed not to sabotage the plan. If anyone did try to sabotage it, I made it everyone's responsibility to point that person in the right direction. I believe in positive infiltration—empowering people and making them accountable for their actions. I empowered the neutral group of 30 faculty members, and soon it grew to 40, then to 45. I have found that when negative people don't get the support that they need to keep pushing their negative issues, they have two choices: to become positive or to leave. And I will help them move. As far as school morale, atmosphere, and attitude go, the situation at Wiggs three years ago and the situation today are like night and day.
As far as enhancing community support was concerned, the PTA did not reflect the ethnic makeup of the school or of the community. It consisted of five individuals and had a $2,000 operating budget for teacher holiday luncheons and an 8th grade end-of-year dance. We needed to change our image, open our doors, and let parents in. I also pointed out to the PTA members that the PTA in the school I had just come from, which was only a mile away, had a $40,000 budget. We had much work to do here, such as changing the old cafeteria tables and painting the school, so we needed to think bigger than $2,000.
Now, the PTA is strong. All of the school's teachers and half of the students' parents are members. Parents now feel part of the school.
We embarked on a program of repairing and cleaning the school, and we purchased new cafeteria tables and brightened the room. The mind-set improved with time. When you have a winner, everyone wants to be part of it. We changed our school colors to coincide with those of the nearby university, and we updated our required school uniforms.
As the school addressed these five objectives, we also aimed to improve instruction. In my first year at Wiggs, the school's state test scores were generally acceptable. During my second year, 76 percent of 7th graders met standards in writing, 81 percent of 8th graders met standards for social studies, 71.7 percent of both groups met standards for reading, and 58.5 percent met standards for math. These test scores, although not where we want them, were an improvement from the previous year.
Three years ago, a divided faculty presented a hindrance to moving forward. Current hindrances are state mandates, which absorb much of my time.
I call upon several qualities and strengths to help me improve student achievement. People skills, which often help to establish a positive learning environment conducive to good teaching, are essential. I also try to be consistent in working with others. I'm open-minded about teaching and know there is more than one way to skin a cat.
I also understand which teaching methodologies need to be in place. I've received training in the National Science Foundation's Urban Systemic Initiative, which targets systemic math and science reform in urban schools. I've also received training in the University of Texas at El Paso's systemic initiative targeting minority students, and I piloted Connected Math for urban students as principal at my previous school.
Keeping up with my own education and practicing what I preach are qualities that help teachers accept me. The Wednesday waiver for professional development—from 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.—is popular and improves teaching practice. I also incorporate benchmarks for each subject in mandated state objectives and review them at least once every three weeks.

Elsie Lewis Bailey, Principal

Booker T. Washington High School, Memphis, Tennessee
Founded in the 1860s, Booker T. Washington (BTW) High School was the first public African American high school in Memphis. Currently, it has 600 students, all of whom are black, and 35 teachers, 90 percent black and 10 percent white. Twenty-three percent of the student body (120 students) are special education students who are in inclusive settings. BTW is a comprehensive (rather than a charter) Title I school, and it serves three housing projects. Bailey, who grew up in the projects and attended BTW, is in her 13th year as principal at the school.
  • Keeping lower-quartile students in school. Some students have given up on school and have serious problems at home that often follow them to school. It's our job to see that they attend school and come prepared to learn. Sometimes school is the only place where they can really feel free.
  • Providing services for the many students reading below middle school level. In high school, students need to read science, social studies, and other content-area textbooks. That's a tough challenge because they often can't understand the textbooks and give up when they have to read in academic subject areas. We have a reading teacher this year, but she teaches so many students in the lower quartile that she has no time to train her peers in teaching reading skills. We're working on getting another reading teacher as we concentrate on teaching basic reading skills to the lower-quartile students.
  • Caring for teen mothers and their children. Our day-care center has only 14 children at present because buses now carry children to other free providers in the area. We have about 50 teen mothers in school—a smaller number than in previous years. A social worker comes in once a month to work exclusively with them.
  • Meeting our adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals. Last year we were on the bottom list—the corrective action list—because we got all Fs. We didn't have many race/ethnicity subgroups because we're an all-black student body, but we do have a large free and reduced-price lunch population (95 percent) and a large special education subgroup (23 percent). Most students attend regular classes for most of the day; support classes are available for those who need them. We have almost 40 students whose functional levels are so low that they are in transitional classes. This year, however, we met our AYP goals in both reading and math and moved up to the “Improving” category. Our next goal is meeting AYP once again.
  • Building relationships and allowing people to lead. I used to spend several weeks at the beginning of the school year working on schedules, plans, and student activities, but now I have a planning study group that does all that. Each teacher chooses a group to join and becomes an expert in a given area—athletics, scholarship, guidance, technology, school improvement, or reading, for example—and reports to the faculty as well as to me. One study group suggested that each teacher should advise five 9th graders and remain their advisor throughout high school. Because the teachers came up with the strategy, they won't let it fail. Their ownership will make it work.
  • Remaining the instructional leader. Four days a week, I informally visit four or five classes for 20 minutes, and I walk by every class in my building every day. It's good for the students to see me in their classrooms, and I thoroughly enjoy these visits. Formally, I work on a three-day cycle, meaning I schedule the pre-conference on one day, the classroom observation on the following day, and the reflective meeting with the teacher on the day after that. Because I observe for the entire period, I do only two classroom observations each day. I like the combination of formal and informal feedback. It's fair and encourages two-way communication. If, while observing, I see that the teacher is having problems helping lower-quartile students, I see to it that he or she receives staff development that addresses the issue. I can also send the teacher to observe an effective teacher who teaches the same subject in another school. For this to work smoothly, it's important to develop good relationships among fellow principals in the area. It's also crucial for the principal to provide new teachers with the resources that they need to overcome any obstacles they may be facing.
As I look at personal qualities that keep me on task and moving forward, I would say that commitment and working hard at being a good model are certainly important. I'm compassionate with students and teachers. I've learned that you've got to know when to hold them and when to fold them and what battles are worth fighting. I love learning about new strategies and research and asking faculty members to try something new.
I use some tough tactics. I have to because I'm in a tough area. But you know what? I give a lot of hugs. I have to pull some of my boys to the side sometimes, but I've got my arm around them, and they know I care.

We're in This Together

From time to time, we all need a reality check and reassurance that some of the situations we face, others face, too. When principals share their concerns, explain how they address them, and discuss the personal qualities that enable them to work toward instructional improvement for all students, their stories serve as a springboard for others to share as well.
Something that clinical supervision guru Bob Goldhammer said years ago is particularly relevant to school leaders today:While we cannot make promises that are as large as our dreams, we can proclaim those dreams and let ourselves be guided by them.
As education leaders, we dream, we do, we care. That's a great start for sustaining leadership.
End Notes

1 Goldhammer, R. (1969). Clinical supervision: Special methods for the supervision of teachers. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt College Publishers.

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