This paper reflects on how effective leadership has brought about a difference in high poverty schools by looking at various case scenarios of principals who have successfully improved performance in challenging, high poverty elementary schools. This essay has been broken down into: an overview of past research into school leadership in challenging environments, a description of core practices that are deemed vital but insufficient for success as illustrated by (Leithwood and Riehl, 2005) and a case study carried on three high poverty elementary schools in the U.S. An analysis of these case scenario shows that national policies and traditions influence how essential practices are conducted but these principals nevertheless used the same measures to improve performance by creating safe learning environments and encouraging community involvement. These principals also exhibited a need for commitment, persistence and passion in increasing chances of success of these youngsters who face multiple challenges.
In this essay, focus is herein given to actual findings in the U.S. A growing body of research has successfully illustrated the need for strong leadership in enhancing student achievement (Fullan, 2001; Marzano, Waters & McNulty, 2005, Hallinger and Heck, 1996) reported that school leaders account for almost 5% of the variation in test scores, or roughly 25% of all in-school variables, although others find that these effects may to be stronger in the U.K. and U.S. than in countries such as the Netherlands (Creemers & Kyriakides, 2007; Witziers Bosker & Kruger, 2003).
There are a number of student challenges that need to be addressed such as: poor nutrition, inadequate health services, high rates of illiteracy, and criminal activities that include drug and substance abuse. Teachers also deal with high rates of student transience, absence and indiscipline. This greatly hinders productivity. Nevertheless, legislative mandates in the U.S. now hold schools directly accountable for student performance, even in the face of such daunting challenges. The 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal legislation in the U.S. is one of this laws. While, NCLB has been the target of withering criticism that has attacked, among other things, the high stakes standardized testing regimes used to evaluate annual student progress as well as the lack of sufficient funding necessary to provide teachers with on-going professional development, the fundamental underpinnings of the legislation, that is, to make sure that every American child, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or wealth, be given the chance to succeed, was supported by both sides of the political aisle. But, as Rebell and Wolffe, 2008 point out:
"The cruel irony of the American education system is that low-income and minority children who come to school with the greatest educational deficits generally have the fewest resources and least expertise devoted to their needs - and therefore the least opportunity to improve their futures."
After a quick overview of key concepts of school leadership and vital practices that are necessary, this essay shall focus on three principals whose work has been most successful in high poverty elementary schools. Interviews conducted with teachers, support staff, parents and the principals themselves have been included.
In the research methodology: The ISSPP teams used purposive sampling and common criteria in case study selection (Jacobson & Day, 2005). As it evolved, the guiding framework and methodology for the ISSPP drew from several sources including leading schools in times of change (Day, Harris & Hadfield 2001).Schools were chosen based on student performance on standardized tests that exceeded expectations after a principal's arrival. For the schools in New York, this data are readily available from the annual reports cards the State Education Department (SED) generates for public use. SED also awards schools recognized to be amongst the most improved on any or all of four standardized tests: 4th and 8th grade math and English/Language Arts (ELA) scores the State uses to determine annual school progress. By using these reports cards and accolades, selection of schools for the study were, in essence, State sanctioned. In addition, SED uses the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch as its proxy for levels of school poverty. To this measure of poverty, SED adds the percentage of students in a school with limited English proficiency and then divides this numerator by the financial resources available to the school in order to determine its Need to Resource Capacity index (N/RC). The schools selected for this study were those identified by the State as being High Need, that is, those schools whose index is in the highest quartile. In other words, when compared to all other schools in New York State, the schools selected for this study were in the top 25% in terms of how great their needs are relative to the resources available to them (Jacobson, Brooks, Giles, Johnson & Ylimaki, 2005) Conceptually, our analysis of leadership in these high need schools rests upon a priori and largely circumstantial argument that if student performance improved subsequent to the beginning of a principal's tenure, then he or she may have had something to do with it. Using semi-structured interviews, principals were first asked about their self-perceived role in a school's success, specifically; how they defined success and what they felt they had done to contribute to it.
Teachers, support staff, parents, and students were then queried to see if they felt the principal had played a key role in their school's success and what they perceived the principal had done to make it happen. For each site, collective responses as well as official school and State documents and field notes were used to triangulate findings, that is, to determine through these multi-perspectives what had transpired that ultimately resulted in improved student achievement.
The cases reported herein are a subset of the larger ISSPP study, including only those schools that are both elementary and in high poverty areas. Background data about the US schools: Table 1 report 2003 data for the U.S. elementary schools and their respective principals.
Several issues need to be considered when examining the school demographics. For example, Leithwood, Louis, Anderson and Wahlstrom (2004) suggest that children struggling academically can benefit from being in small schools, recommending an optimum enrollment of 250-300 students in an elementary school. Note, however, that the number of students enrolled in Fraser and Costello are twice and thrice those recommended figures respectively. With regard to measures of poverty, which is the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch - one can readily see the level of economic need in these school communities as the range of students living in poverty runs from 3 out of 4 in Costello to 9 out of 10 in Fraser. Finally, note that three of the three case sites, Hamilton and Fraser, have relatively homogeneous student bodies (94% and 98% African-American respectively), while Costello is considerably more diverse (53% African-American, 33% Caucasian and 14% a combination of Hispanic-, Asian- and Native-American). This factor, greater racial and ethnic heterogeneity, may be a significant impediment to success because the inner city elementary schools studied the Effective Schools Research tended to be racially homogeneous (Rosenholtz, 1985).
When taken together, these differences in school size and racial and ethnic diversity may impede a principal's ability to communicate effectively with the school community. All things being equal, the larger a school, the less opportunity for contacts a principal can have with individual students, teachers or parents. Furthermore, greater racial and ethnic diversity could increase the potential for miscommunications due to differences in cultural cues. Though the analyses used in this study were unable to parse out how variations in school size and diversity affect successful leadership, these factors may be relevant and ought to be central to future examinations in this area. Also, the fact that the three successful principals studied were African-American women working in predominantly African-American communities is probably more than just mere coincidence.
Unfortunately, the extent to which gender, race or both influenced a principal's practices and performance could not be determined by the methods employed.
School (Grade Levels) Costello Hamilton Fraser
Community type Urban Urban Urban
Enrollment 857 397 519
Need High High High
(%) Free Lunch 74 82 90
Per Pupil Exp. $12,800 $12,200 $12,200
Caucasian 33 2 1
African 53 94 98
Hispanic 5 3 1
Native 3 1 0
Asian 6 0 0
Gender Female Female Female
Ethnicity African-Am. African-Am. African-Am.
Yrs. Educator 35 14 38
Yrs. Principal 12 4 28
Yrs. at School 8 4 10
Education Masters Masters Doctorate
The core principles of setting direction, developing people and redesigning the Organization were enacted as follows:
At each of these schools, the principal's planned set of direction was made explicit to all involved in the enterprise, that is, the needs of children were paramount and that everyone had to work together to improve the life chances of their students. In each case, the principal's strategy began with improvements to the physical environment, such as painting walls, acquiring new furniture and display boards and, in one case, refurbishing the staff room. But it was a concern for personal safety and the creation of a nurturing environment that really set the table for improved performance. This strategy had both a symbolic and practical purpose because it demonstrated that the school was changing and because it allowed students and teachers to feel safe as they interacted. To accomplish this, principals limited access to the school by screening visitors and minimizing disruptions to instruction. These security initiatives were coupled with efforts to make the school more inviting to parents. So even as a building's exterior doors were being locked, the school was actually becoming more open than in the past, with the single caveat being that your purpose in coming to the school was in the interest of children. The Fraser principal's strategic objectives come through clearly in this response:
"I knew the first thing I had to do was clean the school upâ€¦literally, get the graffiti off the walls and clean the bathrooms, lock the doors so people couldn't wander in and use the bathroom. So we locked all doors but one and got parents to help us secure that one. And it meant cleaning up the neighborhood around the school. Parents, the community and teachers needed to see the school as a safe place where children could and would learn."
The principals were all cognizant of the barriers to learning and academic achievement that poverty can produce, but none would allow these conditions to be used to lower expectations. They convinced their staffs that while poverty is the current reality of their children's lives, it is not the final determinant of their futures. This was a message that all three instilled in their students and faculty, and those teachers who could not or would not buy into these heightened expectations were encouraged to leave.
All three principals understood that if people were expected to improve their performance, they needed opportunities to build the intellectual and practical skill sets necessary to succeed. Using whatever fiscal or material resources they had available, these principals worked diligently to provide professional development and individual and collective support for their staff. Teachers recognized and appreciated the support and professional autonomy they were receiving:
"We're very supported by the principal. We're able to go to her with questions and ask for resources. As for professional development, if we have questions and there's a resource out there and we think we can find the answer, we're allowed to pursue that. There's autonomy. I feel much supported because I do a lot of teacher training in the computer lab. The principal is very supportive of us doing new things" (Teacher at Fraser).
When the resources were not there to provide the needed support, these principals often took it upon themselves to model best instructional practices. For example, the principal at Hamilton began teaching an eighth grade math class, which is noteworthy in the U.S., because American principals rarely engage in direct classroom instruction. Not only did she model the type of professional behavior she expected of her teachers, she actually turned around a failing class of students. This was not something lost on her staff, as one of her teachers noted:
"You can't ask people to do things you're not willing to do yourself. When there was no one to teach a struggling eighth grade class, she did it herself. And the students made gains that year. I think leading by example has made all the difference."
Once their schools' key safety concerns were addressed, principals began working with teachers, support staff and parents to consider ways to create structures that would enable success or remove obstacles to it. Of the three schools, Fraser had accomplished the most in terms of redesigning the organization primarily through the use of a site-based decision-making team. This team distributed key responsibilities to five site-based management committees: curriculum, discipline, parent involvement, morale and beautification. All five committees had parent representation and, in order to better coordinate their efforts, all five committees send a representative to the school decision-making team. The principal was especially intent on engaging parents as active participants in school improvement initiatives because she recognized that prior to her arrival many of these same folks felt disenfranchised from their children's education, viewing the school with suspicion and distrust. To counteract these perceptions, she went out of her way to reach out to parents and make herself readily accessible to them. For parents and community members, having a principal who never seemed to be too busy to listen to their concerns helped to build trust and made them feel that they were valued. They finally had someone who would champion their needs and give them a voice in school decision-making:
"She has parent involvement committees within our building. She's established a Parent Patrol, where parents are outside our building in the morning and after school, making sure that the children are safe on the playground and off the schoolyard. We have parent involvement in the building where parents will work during the day as volunteers just to sit at the desk by the front door and, as people come in, have them sign in, whatever" (Parent at Fraser).
This principal knew that if her school had a solid link to the local community it was more likely to be supported in difficult times. Therefore, in addition to organizing social, sporting and charitable events for parents, her committees also began evening classes and community meetings.
While the principals at Costello and Hamilton had both started to redesign their schools around similar types of site-based decision-making teams, our evidence suggested they still had considerable work to do in order to reach Fraser's stage of development, especially in terms of school-community relations.
When looking across the cases, all three principals set and maintained a clear purpose and direction for their schools and exerted a very strong, positive influence on people's willingness to follow their lead. All three exhibited the core skills that Leithwood and Riehl (2005) contend are necessary for school success. At each site, the school's central mission, that the needs of children were paramount, was explicit. This was not a mere rhetorical flourish but rather a deeply held belief that became increasingly apparent over time. The principals' first step was to make sure that students, parent and teachers felt safe, cared for and provided a secure, nurturing environment. In each case, the principal secured the building by limiting access and screening visitors, but simultaneously made the school more inviting to students and their parents.
Creating safe, inviting environments required principals to become a visible presence, especially during arrival and dismissal, when they could greet students, parents and other community members. The principals also made their presence felt in hallways, classrooms, auditoriums, lunchrooms and gyms, signaling to teachers, support staff and, most importantly, students, that they were aware of what was going on in the school and making sure that everyone was performing at the high levels expected of them. Their presence was intended to reassure, not to intimidate or coerce. They wanted to reassure teachers that student indiscipline would not be tolerated and reassure students that they would be treated with respect and kindness. This visibility created a three-way visual dialogue in which they were simultaneously watching and being watched. They were scrutinized as to how they handled themselves in various circumstances, and in every case they modeled commitment to the core beliefs they were trying to instill. The principal's commitment became the school's commitment, her expectations became their expectations, and her mission became theirs as well.
All three principals understood that creating the right environment was only the first step in improving student performance. They understood that children and adults have to believe that the goals being set for them are attainable and that they will be provided the resources and development needed to achieve them. None would allow the conditions of high poverty to be used as an excuse for poor performance, but they knew that if teachers and students were going to improve their performance, they needed opportunities to build their intellectual and experiential capacity.
In order to promote professional development and provide individualized and collective support for their staff, the principals used whatever fiscal and material resources they had available.They role modeled best instructional practices and, where ever possible, redesigned organizational structures to facilitate higher levels of performance. Central to these organizational changes was the desire to strengthen school cultures and build collaborative processes, often through the creation of common planning times. Occasionally changes were met with resistance and a principal's commitment and persistence tested. Tough decisions sometimes had to be made and, more than once, teachers were 'encouraged' to transfer to other schools. Although these were not pleasant experiences for the individuals involved, when the principal felt that a teacher was not working productively in service to the school's mission, she did not hesitate to replace them, but only after all attempts at professional development had been exhausted.
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