The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

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 The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

Strategies of Highly Supportive Districts

  • Involve community leaders in setting a common vision; developing the district and individual schools’ strategic plans; and maintaining ongoing communication with, involvement of and feedback to key stakeholders.
  • Communicate to the public the need to prepare students successfully for college, advanced career training and the workplace; the performance of the system and each school; and ways in which the community and parents can help improve results.

Engage the Community in Establishing District Values and Beliefs

Districts can support principals by involving teachers, parents and the community in making decisions and in setting the vision for the district and for individual schools. Districts also can help principals develop effective working relationships with parents, businesses and other stakeholders outside of schools, which can lead to richer and more authentic learning opportunities for students.

When Archer County developed its strategic plan, it took deliberate steps to engage principals and their communities. The strategic planning process was critical to the district’s success, and the community was involved from the beginning. The superintendent gave this account of involving the community in establishing a strategic vision for the district:

    “We spent a year on the front end before we even started implementation. That process, at the system level, was one that was inclusive of a microcosm of the entire school system community. ... It meant that faith-based groups, the clergy, law enforcement, business owners, parents, students [were involved]. ... I think that helped provide the foundation for the initial cover for principals as they make changes in their building. ... So I think the whole strategic planning process that we use really was one that helped provide a support mechanism for principals, because now, our whole process is transparent.
    “... It’s kind of a different way to go about it when you’re on the front end during that first year, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. You have to have tough skin because you’re going to listen to what parents have to say and what students have to say. Everybody is coming together to talk about these issues.
    “... When we developed our beliefs, they were really community beliefs, because ... those beliefs came from that 30-member planning team — the microcosm of the community that I mentioned that consisted of board members, students, teachers, community, and all of those. So you end up with community beliefs.”

SREB interviews with Archer County staff showed the intensive effort in establishing a consensus around the county’s core beliefs. Five of the six Archer County respondents talked about the importance of a “common vision” for the district. Part of this common vision was that schools should be supported by the district, but take ownership of their problems and solutions. Four of the six respondents referenced “empowering schools” and “decentralization” as key district improvement strategies. When the district had completed its community-centered strategic planning process, principals were required to follow a similar process to involve their own communities in developing school-level improvement plans. Archer County demonstrates that a strong, clear central vision for a district does not prevent schools from establishing, with advice from their communities, their own visions, plans and improvement strategies.

Involve the Community in Hiring Principals and Fundraising

Several of the districts in the study, including both of the highly supportive districts, reported involving the community in filling principal vacancies. One superintendent said: “If you’ve got some buy-in from the teachers and the parents in selecting the principal, then they’re going to help make that principal successful.”

That superintendent’s district has excellent community support. All schools in the district have corporate and community partners and active parent-teacher associations and booster clubs. The school board has encouraged community support by offering matching funds for public fundraisers, with higher matching formulas for schools serving less affluent populations.

Educate the Public

To provide principals with the community support they need to improve graduation rates and prepare more students for postsecondary study, work and citizenship, districts must communicate repeatedly to parents and community leaders the educational conditions that will promote the intellectual engagement of all students. Districts need to communicate to parents and communities that meeting today’s minimum graduation requirements is not sufficient preparation for college and careers — that a higher level of achievement is necessary for all students.

None of the respondents in this study mentioned district strategies or actions to educate the public about how schools can more effectively prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century. According to a recent Center for Public Education analysis of international test results, the performance of U.S. students in math is “mediocre,” and high school students are below international averages in science. Meanwhile, most states have set proficiency standards on their state tests below the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Proficient level, resulting in a considerable gap between what students must know to pass state assessments and what they must know to be ready for college and careers. Many low-income and minority students in this country enter school at an academic disadvantage, and as a whole, U.S. students tend to fall behind in the middle grades.37To prepare elementary students for the middle grades, to prepare middle grades students for college-preparatory high school courses, and to prepare high school students for college and careers, districts and schools must create educational conditions that will foster the motivation of all groups of students to learn at higher levels. Students, teachers, parents and principals must work together toward this goal.

Develop a Formal Structure of Community Partners

With the exception of the two highly supportive districts, having a formal system of community partners at the school and district level did not seem to be a factor in shaping the districts’ vision and strategic plans or in gaining support and resources for reform efforts. Archer County created formal community partnerships to reach consensus on educational goals and a district strategy to meet them. Abel County is in a state that requires school councils, including teachers and parents, to work with principals in leading each school. Formal partnerships through which school and district leaders regularly seek input and feedback can improve efforts to address the needs of students being served, set district and school priorities and identify strategies for meeting them, and inform a broader audience about efforts to graduate responsible students prepared for their next step in life.

The challenges of improving America’s schools are so great that it would be impossible to address them successfully without community and parent partners’ being fully involved, supportive and understanding of how high schools can graduate more students and prepare graduates for further study, advanced training and responsible citizenship. Helping schools build that framework of support within the community — so that the school is supported by the district and the community, the teachers can support their principal, the principal can support the teachers, and everyone works together to support students in their learning — is the key to the seventh and final strategy districts can use to support their principals.

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