A couple of years ago, my school district faced some real challenges: We had persistent achievement gaps, particularly among students of color and those in special education. Meanwhile nearly half of our school leaders were new to the role. For our 65 schools in Chesterfield County Public Schools, Virginia, 29 principals were in their first or second year. If we were going to improve learning for every one of our 61,000 students, we knew we needed strong leadership in every school. That meant as a district we had to strengthen our support for those novice school leaders.
We took a deep look at the role of our principal supervisors. Over two years, we overhauled that role and created a principal coaching and mentoring program that is starting to show results in our schools. Here’s how we did it.
Analyzing the problem
We started our internal discussions by auditing our principal supervision processes. We wanted to closely examine the professional learning opportunities we offered, how we described the principal and principal supervisor positions in job descriptions, and what criteria and evidence we used to evaluate principals. We surveyed a range of stakeholders including central office leaders, principals, and other building administrators. It was an uncomfortable process, as we quickly realized that our team had not put the necessary supports in place for our principals. In the past, Level Directors, as we used to call principal supervisors, did not routinely provide principals with feedback or offer much support with instructional leadership. Nor did they give principals much autonomy to make building-level decisions. They had primarily focused on working with constituents.
With support from the George W. Bush Institute, we used the information we collected to adjust some of our protocols, improve communication, re-structure our principal meetings, and rethink the kinds of professional learning we offered our principals. Principals, principal supervisors, and other central office staff worked on these projects together, and each role had equal voice. Through this collaborative work, central office staff learned more about principals’ daily challenges and relationships between central office staff and principals got stronger.
Learning to improve principal supervision
In the meantime, I wanted to find a professional learning experience for my team that would help us develop and implement a strong coaching and supervision system for our principals. After reading some of the Wallace Foundation’s materials on coaching and through recommendations from former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Ann Clark, we found the NYC Leadership Academy. We enrolled as a team in the Leadership Academy’s Foundations of Principal Supervision program. Working together over the course of this year-long program, we developed research-based equity-focused strategies for improving school and system leadership in our district. We wanted to develop stronger, more independent school leaders who could identify and address inequities in our schools. Our principal supervisors, each of whom works with about 13 principals, learned new strategies for building trust with their principals and developing timelines with checkpoints for reviewing progress throughout the year. We realized the importance of having shorter meetings with a succinct focus so that principals could quickly return to their day-to-day instructional and building management responsibilities. We began having conversations that push principals to self-reflect and focus on the root cause of an issue rather than just looking at outcomes like student achievement or poor school climate evaluations.
To emphasize our principal supervisors’ critical role in developing strong and sustainable leadership throughout administrative teams and creating leadership opportunities for staff and students, we also changed their title from Level Directors to Leadership Directors.
We continued to seek feedback from our principals. Among other things, they expressed the need to strengthen their relationships with students, and to support teachers in doing the same. As part of that, they wanted to develop a better understanding of social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care. We made it a priority to help our educators improve these relationships in part as a way to reduce classroom management issues and in turn reduce student discipline incidents. We’ve already seen some significant results. At Lloyd C. Bird High School, our Leadership Director Dr. Belinda Merriman had courageous conversations with the school leaders about the need to think outside of the box about their discipline practices. The school team started working with leaders and teachers to encourage them to have immediate conversations with students about disruptive behavior, rather than remove them from the classroom. During the 2017-2018 school year, student disciplinary incidents at this school fell by nearly 40%.
To address real learning and school culture gaps, my team also worked with principals to develop new comprehensive school improvement plans with a strong focus on student achievement; professional learning for principals that would support strategies for improving student learning; and innovation in the classroom.
One of the most powerful tools to come out of Foundations was the SMARTE goal. As educators, we all know about SMART goals without the “e” – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Inspired by Elena Aguilar’s work, the Leadership Academy added “E” for equitable, pushing us to consider how our goals address issues of inequity for all students, teachers, and leaders. When we introduced the SMARTE goal concept to our principals, we asked them to consider practices like which students are being called on in class; which students are enrolled in advanced classes; and how we assess student performance in determining who is eligible for advanced classes. Our principals began engaging in dynamic conversations about what they were seeing in classrooms, about discipline procedures, increasing active engagement, and allowing students to be a part of decision-making processes.
Building a leadership coaching program
Along with all this, we developed a coaching model centered on the importance of self-reflection for both the coach and the principal. Our Leadership Directors are now recording their coaching conversations with principals so that the directors can evaluate themselves and examine how the strategies they are using are impacting the principal and the school. Leadership Directors are learning from each interaction they have with their principals. And principals are learning to self-reflect on their own work while developing a supportive and trusting relationship with their supervisor.
In my next piece, I will detail how we took our district through a strategic planning process.
Verta joined the The Leadership Academy in 2018. Prior to that, she designed, managed, and delivered professional learning experiences and programs for sitting and aspiring school leaders at UnboundEd and New Leaders. Verta began her 20-year career in education as a teacher in Prince George’s County Public Schools, and then as a literacy specialist for the New York City Department of Education. She was principal of Bronx Arts for five years and served for several years as a leadership coach for principals and residents at New Leaders. Verta has a B.S. in communications and middle school education from James Madison University, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University.