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Written By: Kerry Moll and Patrick Kobler
Can great school leaders – the types of principals who refuse to make excuses and find ways to develop a positive school culture that is suited to raise student achievement - be made? This central question framed a solutions-orientated Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) roundtable on the importance of school leadership, hosted by President Bush this past Thursday. With an array of education leaders present - including former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, co-founder of KIPP Mike Feinberg and Houston ISD Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier – the answer was a resounding yes. Prior to his hosting a discussion on school leadership, President Bush met with teachers, staff and students at KIPP Intrepid and KIPP Explore Academies. Meeting with an 8th grade world studies class, President Bush imparted upon a group of “KIPPsters” that they had to always keep learning – a wise piece of advice that will surely stay with the middle schoolers as they mature into adulthood. Practicing what he preached, President Bush was eager to learn from the principals at the roundtable representing Houston ISD, KIPP and YES Prep, about how we can make great schools leaders. Engaging for over an hour, President Bush and discussion participants left the meeting with a clear idea on how to empower the next generation of school leaders. Below are some key takeaways. Find the Right People Referencing what he calls the “shrug test” KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg spoke to the importance of finding the right individuals to lead America’s schools, as a first step in empowering America’s next generation of school leaders. Feinberg explained that great leaders will look past the excuses – poverty, family problems, being handed unprepared students, to name a few - and find ways to raise student achievement. These are the individuals schools need to identify early as leaders and support their growth. These are the individuals who will create cultures of achievement throughout our Nation’s schools. These are also the individuals who will ultimately impact the success rate of our country’s students. Above all, potential school leaders must have the courage to believe all students can learn. A vital characteristic Dr. Grier eloquently referred to as “the most important characteristic” of a school leader. Frank Cush, the school leader of KIPP Explore, embodied Dr. Grier’s sentiments as he shared his belief “if there’s no struggle, there’s no progress” while reflecting on his own growth as a school leader. Continuing on the theme of courage, Brad Leon shared Teach For America’s ability to find individuals with the belief set necessary to impact all of our Nation’s students. The courage of TFA corps members, he believes, is a major reason why Teach for America continues to create “a force of leaders” with over 700 alumni being in the principalship role to date. Whether leading a charter or school, being a leader of Teach For America or Houston ISD, there was mutual agreement on the need to find individuals with the courage necessary to lead. Create the Right Principal Preparation Programs Hearing from an array of principals and district and charter officials, it became apparent during the roundtable that we need to better prepare our Nation’s school leaders to be the change agents needed in America’s schools. According to Sehba Ali, Superintendent for KIPP Houston, this can be accomplished by finding a balance between academic preparation and real-life preparation. Marla McNeal-Sheppard, once awarded Houston ISD’s middle school principal of the year award, charged education leadership programs to “develop programs that put principals into the work.” A model for the next generation of education leadership preparation programs is Rice University, which combines its degrees in Educational Leadership with its M.B.A. programs. Graduates of this program who go on to become school leaders, “sit next to business leaders” according to Steve Khadam, principal of KIPP Intrepid. A real-world and business minded approach to preparation for school leaders can be a huge factor in the success of a future principal. Provide the Right Mentoring The school leadership roundtable believed that principal training should not end upon one’s graduation. Eldridge Gilbert, principal of YES! Prep North Forest, explained that having, “a great leader beside you to help you learn” is imperative to a new principal’s success. KIPP weaves this belief into its principal training providing first year school leaders like Steve Khadam “a coach for the entire first year” and then on-going and lifelong professional development. Building upon President Bush’s sentiment to the KIPPsters that one should never stop learning, the principals, superintendents and leaders in education put forth that the same philosophy applies to creating great school leaders, capable of significantly raising student achievement. What began with a school visit, ended with a vision to better recruit, prepare, mentor and empower the next generation of school leaders, a position Dr. Grier stated was perhaps, “the most difficult position in education.” President Bush told a group of 8th graders that they should always keep learning. This same advice can be applied to the current state of education, as we must learn from the best programs, districts and principals on how to produce great school leaders.
Be sure to check out The Bush Center’s Education Reform Blog next week for an additional article on the Houston School Leadership Roundtable that will focus on the state and district conditions necessary for principals to be successful. This blog was written by Dr. Kerry Moll, Director for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute, and Patrick Kobler, Program Coordinator for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute.
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