Gathering an accurate impression of each partner school was the first step for SEDL facilitators across each of the five critical areas for school improvement. Doing so quickly was particularly important in the area of leadership. While shared leadership is acknowledged as a powerful form of school administration, at the FIRST partner schools, the principals retained most of the power, made most of the administrative decisions unilaterally, and thus wielded tremendous influence on the staff's perception of the FIRST initiative and their willingness to fully participate.
At Community High School, relationships between staff and administrators were generally positive, and the Assistant Principal was particularly enthusiastic about the FIRST project. His enthusiasm would eventually lead him to overload the project with initiatives, but at the beginning, it served to create momentum, interest, and commitment among school staff.
During the first year, tensions between the four academy principals at Banner High School came to a head. When the former superintendent had made them equals as administrators, she had not provided them with any model for operating as such. The resulting power struggle defused improvement efforts and negatively impacted interpersonal dynamics. The SEDL facilitator sought to assuage hurt feelings and discover and disseminate leadership models that might work between these four administrators. She was unsuccessful at finding such a model, and ultimately decided to focus the FIRST project on only one of the academies.
Leadership at Tall Pines was a very apparent area for potential improvement. The principal, though well meaning, seemed not to understand the function or practical value of shared leadership. While both a steering committee and campus leadership team were in place, there were no clearly defined areas of responsibility for each or between the two. The principal rarely shared substantive decision-making with either body, and in fact appointed some members of the campus leadership team despite district guidelines calling for their election. When the principal did delegate responsibility, he neither monitored nor followed up to gauge progress or to identify how he could support staff efforts. As a result, many tasks were never completed, or if completed, were not recorded. Within this environment, the SEDL facilitator sought to develop a shared focus and a sense of self-efficacy among the staff. While this approach yielded enthusiasm in small group settings, plans were often jettisoned in responses to some crisis or other, and no coherent improvement plan could be developed and maintained.
The principalship at San Fernando School and Pelican High School changed hands after the first year of the FIRST initiative. At each of these schools, SEDL facilitators "began again" with new administrators, and built upon the relationships they had established with school staff. At Pelican the facilitator was able to establish an immediate positive relationship with the new principal, while at San Fernando, teacher leaders maintained continuation of the project and specifically asked the new principal in the hiring interview if she was willing to support the SEDL project. In both instances, this turnover negatively impacted the momentum of the project, but did not completely erase the achievements nor void the plans made for implementation of school improvement efforts.
SEDL staff worked with FIRST school principals where they were, and in some cases, where they were not. When three of four principals in Banner High School's new academy structure evidenced a lack of interest in or focus on how SEDL might support them, SEDL shifted its focus to full, supportive cooperation with the one principal who remained active and interested.
At Tall Pines Middle School, the need for better management of routine procedures impeded efforts at communication, change, and improvement. The SEDL facilitator worked to develop leadership skills of the principal and of school staff. She advocated for utilizing existing structures to share decision-making with the staff, and by the end of the project year, the campus leadership team was more involved in important decisions about school personnel and policies. In addition, the SEDL FIRST facilitator ultimately met with the school principal behind closed doors and confronted him about the need for stronger management and greater administrator visibility in the school. The principal was able to accept this counsel, and made changes. At Community High School, one principal's enthusiasm for the focus on freshman students led him to over-build that program, nearly to the breaking point. The SEDL facilitator at Community High advocated for the staff and brought this principal to an awareness of - and sense of humor about - his tendency to take on too much.
At two FIRST schools, the project's second year began with new principals. SEDL facilitators took responsibility for educating these administrators on the history, purposes, and progress of the FIRST initiative. At Pelican High School, SEDL consistently supported and advanced the strengths of the new principal, even in trying times of adjustment. The SEDL facilitator pushed the new Pelican principal to define his vision of leadership, and supported the principal in implementing that vision throughout the predictable highs and lows of adjusting to a new school and a new assistant principal. At San Fernando school, the SEDL facilitator explained the staff's choice of mathematics as a school focus, and supported the principal in advancing this focus even as the district pushed for a shift to reading. The SEDL facilitator helped to assure the principal's interest in professional development and assessment were incorporated into the school improvement plans, and reminded the principal that change takes time. When this principal also left the school, SEDL began again with San Fernando's third leader, explaining the FIRST initiative's focus, detailing the history and achievements of the staff, and offering continued assistance.
Through FIRST and other school improvement initiatives, SEDL has developed an abiding respect for the role of leadership in any school change effort. These efforts advance most effectively and smoothly in schools where principals are committed to high quality instruction leading to success for every student; are adept at handling both day-to-day operations as well as the crises that routinely break these routines; enjoy strong working relationships with district and school staff; and have both the professional security and commitment to advance and utilize teacher leadership. Unfortunately, principals with such broad and deep strengths are few and far between. In addition, all school leaders are subject to relocation, retirement, and reassignment. Shifts in leadership, even when anticipated, can have profound, lingering, deleterious effects on teacher morale and school improvement efforts.
SEDL supported principals who had skills and strengthened the skill base of principals who struggled with leadership. Developing personal relationships with these administrators was an important first step. Once this foundation was established, SEDL facilitators shared professional literature on leadership with principals and coached the principals on leadership strategies ranging from use of active verbs and first person plural (in their communication with teachers) to implementing significant shared leadership. SEDL also sought to connect these school administrators with a wide web of ongoing support, and so assisted in building relationships between FIRST school principals, and supported their professional development and attendance at national and local conferences.
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