Principals matter. A lot. When I attended Grahamwood Elementary in Memphis City Schools (now part of Shelby County Schools) back in the 1980s, our principal was Margaret Taylor. She had actually been my father’s teacher when he was in high school in the 1960s. She was a force and elevated the elementary school to win all kinds of awards, and was one of the reasons my parents wanted me to go to the school. When Margaret Taylor died, many of her former teachers and students celebrated her spirit and her success.

We have been interviewing school building principals as part of our work to investigate impact, implementation and sustainability of culture and structural changes at schools across Washington state. Through the College Spark Washington grant, schools have implemented college and career curriculum and courses to inspire a new generation of students.

What has struck us in the conversations we’ve had with principals is the impact that the principal has on the school level leadership in terms of sustainability. The six-year grant period is over and yet the principals are creating a culture whereby the impact of the grant is able to sustain over time. Here are four leadership qualities that are making a big difference, as well as six changemakers who are making it happen at the local, building level.

Leaders create opportunities for collaboration.

Five years ago when Principal Tom Edwards came to P. G. Keithley Middle School, his charge was to help turn the “persistently low achieving” school around. He immediately saw the need for systematic interventions for students through an RTI (Response to Intervention) process. In order to do this effectively, the school created a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) for academics and behavior. This led to the creation of a different bell structure to allow for collaboration needed for teachers so they could create meaningful interventions for students most in need. There’s evidence it’s working. In 2015, Keithley students scored in the top five of demographically similar middle schools in the state of Washington.

Leaders add capacity.

Jason Lee Middle School Principal Christine Brandt works closely with teachers such as Anne Hawkins, to create a tremendous amount of capacity for teacher leadership through implementation of AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination). Community partners work in partnership with the school so students can have additional tutors at the school which is part of the AVID system.

The school also runs a summer academy program to defeat the “summer slide.” Brandt said, “This has been a game changer. If we are going to do summer work to support students in staying academically stable and growing, we want to do it in partnership with our community. In this case, we work with Peace Community Center to help us run the program.

Teacher Anne Hawkins of Jason Lee Middle School said,“The students also help plan for guest speakers, which helps to extend our reach in the community. The speakers are so cool. The mayor of Tacoma was one of our speakers. Ms. Hawkins doesn’t organize it. The seventh and eighth graders are doing it. We have a higher expectation of encouraging the students to do it and allowing the students to make things happen.” The school is intentional to ensure students have voice in their school.

Jason Lee Middle School was recently named an AVID National Demonstration School.

Lisa Griebel, principal of Miller Junior High in the Aberdeen School District, said, “Because we have sent a lot of people to AVID training we have a lot of well qualified teacher leaders. One of the sustainability pieces is having teachers who are training other teachers. We even made some structural changes to the delivery model of Special Ed students. We are starting an AVID like course for how to model an AVID like class for our resource room students so they can be more successful.”

Leaders say yes.

Lori Wyborney was named Washington state 2015 high school principal of the year at John R., Rogers High School in Spokane because of the school’s significant turnaround under her leadership.

She credits advisory as being one reason that the students became college and career ready. When Wyborney and her school received a College Spark grant, the staff became trained in AVID.

Wyborney said, “This building is built with a ton of offices. Students need to build relationships with adults. Today I have met with twelve students. They need a lot of support. It takes all of us working with all our kids. We need social workers that can help families navigate the system. I don’t say no to anybody that can help out. It does not matter how they come to us, we can talk all day about all the statistics that come to the building and we could let every one of those be a barrier. We are not the NFL. We do not get to pick our team. We have to do whatever it takes to make it win.”

Wyborney makes sure she says yes to people who want to try something different, gives them autonomy and hires the right people: “We have been picky about who works in this building. We ask people weird questions in interviews. Why are people poor? How many kids will be successful in your school? Every year at graduation their stories just stun me. Their stories amaze.”

The school has gone from a 49.6% graduation rate in 2007 to close to 80% graduation rate in the most recent data available.

Leaders involve all the stakeholders, especially families.

Carol Bardwell, Assistant Principal of Grandview Middle School, discussed the importance of adopting student-led conferences. The families and communities of Grandview Middle School have enjoyed having the students lead conferences. In the fall, the students set the conference as a goal setting experience. In the spring, the student led conferences focus on post-high school plans. Bardwell said that students want to talk with their parents, want to talk about post high school, and the student-led conferences allow for those conversations to take place.

This blog is part of an ongoing series in partnership with College Spark Washington, an organization that funds programs aimed at helping low-income students become college-ready and earn postsecondary degrees, that profiles schools helping to prepare students for college and career.

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