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Jane Shirley – Exceptional Leaders Need not be the Exception

July 26, 2013 by Patrick Kobler

“They are not going to miss me because I built a team.  We have so many people ready to step up and lead.” – Jane Shirley, Principal of William Smith High School

In 2005, Jane Shirley assumed the principalship of William Smith High School in Aurora, Colorado.  Eight years later, the school’s majority-minority student population - half of which is considered economically disadvantaged - has increased its average ACT composite score by 6 points, attendance by 20 percent and ninth-grade reading scores by over 20 percent.  Each of these dramatic increases has helped erase the achievement gap in tenth-grade-level literacy between William Smith’s minority students and their non-minority peers.

Jane’s impact on student success is exceptional, but it does not have to be the exception.  Often stories of educational triumph portray those who create positive impact as supernatural heroes.  While Jane is a hero, her ability to raise student achievement was not supernatural.  It was rooted in experiences, vision and high-quality principal preparation through AREL affiliate Get Smart Schools (GSS) that equipped her with the skills necessary to be a successful school leader. 

Jane began her educational career as a teacher, which she attributes to pursuing “because [she] was not a great a student.”  As a kid, Jane struggled with math. It was a challenge she later realized because of “a mismatch for how [she] was taught.”  Informed by her experiences as student, Jane centered her classroom vision on what drives students to want to learn and what skills are needed to be successful.  Teaching students what is relevant, says Jane, is crucial for a school’s success.

Through continuous reflection and targeted plans for improvement, Jane drove student growth as a teacher.  Her successes eventually led her to work for her superintendent’s office, where she created visions and developed strategies to restructure chronically failing schools.  During this time, Jane also earned her principal’s certification. 

After helping turn around numerous failing schools, Jane left her career in education to own and operate the Rattlebrain Theater Company.  There, she regularly wrote and performed in critically acclaimed shows, while honing her entrepreneurial skills as a small business owner. 

Five years later, Jane felt called upon to leave her theater business, when she took note of how William Smith– a school in her district since 1976 – had been labeled a “school for bad kids.” Understanding the challenges of the principalship, Jane was compelled to further develop her leadership skills by joining GSS.  Attending GSS, says Jane, helped her take “the entrepreneurial skills I gained from previous experiences to build a school team around a vision.” 

Wanting to “prove what is possible with students who are disenfranchised or ready to drop out,” Jane utilized the skills gained through her various career experiences and by attending GSS to create a team aligned behind a powerful vision: create a place where students can leave with choices in their lives.

Instilling this vision throughout William Smith’s culture required hard work from everyone.  The school’s average attendance when Jane became principal, for example, was an abysmally low 75 percent.  Graduating students able to succeed in college and careers under these conditions is nearly inconceivable.  But guided by experience and high-quality principal preparation, Jane has demonstrated that creating a team and vision to overcome these conditions is not only possible – it is necessary.

Through hard work, developing teachers and leading the school community behind a powerful vision, Jane was able to lead a school transformation on all academic fronts, ranging from a now 95 percent attendance rate to a 20 percent rise in tenth-grade science proficiency.  These dramatic increases are but a few chapters of a larger story that tells the transformation of a drop-out factory serving just 85 kids, to an institution of authentic learning that now serves over 300 students with an annual waitlist. 

For Jane, the most important success was leading a school community from a reputation of “drug use [and] dropouts” to an institution focused on developing “students who graduate as informed citizens, become involved in their communities and impact them in positive ways.” 

After eight years of service as a school leader, Jane will now transition to Vice President of Leadership Development for Get Smart Schools (GSS).    Asked if it will be difficult to transition, Jane humbly says, “They are not going to miss me, because I built a team.  We have so many people ready to step up and lead.”

Great school leaders build a vision for excellence and develop a team able to achieve such excellence.  Jane exemplifies this mark of transformative leadership and proves that while the principalship is a challenging experience, tenacity and quality principal preparation can help our school leaders to bring about exceptional transformation.  Most importantly, Jane Shirley proves exceptional leaders need not be the exception.

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