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A Strategic Approach to School Leadership: Gwinnett County Public Schools

October 23, 2014 5 minute Read by Holly Kuzmich and Eva Myrick Chiang

In June, the George W. Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) and New Leaders published a report called Great Principals at Scale: Creating District Conditions That Enable All Principals to Be Effective.  This report and accompanying toolkit outlines 15 school system conditions that enable principals to be successful.

For example, one of the conditions is that a school system should give principals the authority to hire, reassign, or dismiss their school-based staff.  It seems obvious, but too often it’s not the case that principals have this authority.

Since its release, we have traveled around the country speaking about this report. We are often asked the question: “Is there a school district that is doing this work well?”

A district that is tackling this incredibly difficult work well is Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) outside of Atlanta, Georgia. GCPS has taken an intentionally systemic school leadership strategy to improve its schools and raise student achievement, and the district has results to back up its work.

GCPS was chosen as one of the Wallace Foundation’s six “Principal Pipeline” districts, was a finalist for the highly prestigious Broad prize in 2009, won the Broad prize in 2010, and was recently announced as the 2014 Broad prize co-winner along with Orange County Public Schools. These awards were based partly on the outstanding student achievement results of the district.

GCPS CEO/Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and his team believe in autonomy for leaders balanced with accountability. School leaders in the district are held to high standards, but they are also empowered and supported so that they can determine how they will reach these standards.

Clear expectations for principals at GCPS are set and clearly communicated. These expectations outline rigorous requirements about performance and school evaluations. Principals at GCPS are given autonomy over things like school-based budgeting, scheduling, and staffing. This empowers them to make decisions for their schools based on each school’s needs.

A supportive district-wide culture and dedicated resources help make this type of support and empowerment possible. Central office staff members at GCPS view the development and support of school leaders and teachers as critical to their roles—no matter what those roles may be.  It is clear from the superintendent’s office to the classroom that this support is a priority in the district.

Additionally, GCPS has created a cohesive system of hiring, induction, ongoing training and support for principals. The district has three leadership development programs to ensure that the leadership pipeline for the district provides quality talent for leadership roles.

One of the leadership development programs is the district’s Aspiring Principal Program (APP). The APP is a year-long program designed to provide training to GCPS’ rising assistant principals. This is just one example of the additional training and supports that the district provides its employees.

Though some of these strategies may seem like common sense, it is actually rare for a district to take such a comprehensive and long-term approach to leadership. Many times districts put initiatives in place with the best of intentions, but those initiatives are under-resourced or not fully supported and they disappear quickly. In Gwinnett, everyone knows that leadership is a priority that is fully resourced and fully supported. It is clear to all that this is an initiative that is not going anywhere.

It is the holistic and strategic approach that Gwinnett takes that is unique. It is difficult to get any large organization to make the kind of lasting changes that GCPS has made. The GCPS leadership team has been able to take a high level view and plan for the future while also implementing programs and solutions that make a difference in the short-term as well.

Soon, the Bush Institute will be releasing a new case study that gives and in-depth look into Gwinnett County Public Schools’ approach to school leadership. This case study details the district’s approach to school leadership and the steps they took to implement their systemic plan.

Research shows that principals matter. That fact, combined with the results that districts focused on strengthening leadership in their systems like GCPS are getting in student achievement, demonstrate that districts have a key role to play in making leadership a priority.

Holly Kuzmich is senior vice president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center and Eva Myrick Chiang, program manager for education reform at the George W. Bush Institute, manages the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) program.