School Turnarounds: How Successful Principals Use Teacher Leadership

by | March 17, 2016

As the Opportunity Culture® initiative was beginning, three principals signed on to lead low-performing, high-poverty schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Metropolitan Nashville districts. The odds were stacked against them and their students—one school, for example, has student transiency rates of 70 percent and higher.

But within a few short years, their schools all showed very high growth—one school was in the top 1 percent in North Carolina for growth, and the other two received the highest growth score possible in the Tennessee system, with one getting the highest level of growth in math in Nashville in grades three through eight.

At all three of these schools, the principals led a team of multi-classroom leaders (MCLs), excellent teachers who stay in the classroom and lead teaching teams. MCLs provide support through coaching, co-teaching, co-planning, and team collaboration, while taking accountability for the results of all students in the team.  In a new series of vignettes and an accompanying video from Public Impact®, the principals tell what they did and how their roles as principal changed when they could rely on their MCL teams to spread great instruction throughout the schools.

While all three used somewhat different tactics, the vignettes point to the many places they overlapped, including their overarching themes of:

  • Choosing wisely: “What changed was the way I hired people,” says Alison Harris Welcher of her experience as principal of Ranson IB Middle School in Charlotte. In a school with many newer teachers, Harris instituted a rigorous interview process focused on teacher-leaders who had the competencies to lead other adults, and on team teachers who were willing to be led.
  • Teaching leadership: “One of my strongest MCLs was working through a team challenge, and came to me and said, ‘What do I do?’” says Christian Sawyer of his experience as principal of Bailey STEM Magnet Middle School in Nashville. “I looked at her and said, ‘My question to you is, what are you going to do?’ That was a real moment for her and for me, because she realized she is the leader, and I wasn’t going to give her answers. It was tough—she walked into the situation and completely turned it around, but it wasn’t easy at first. That exemplified the shift for me that teachers really are the true leaders.”
  • Focusing on using data to improve instruction: Michelle McVicker, principal of Buena Vista Enhanced Elementary in Nashville, relied on her Monday morning meetings“the most important piece, where MCLs are held accountable for the reinforcement, refinement, and training of their team—the most critical, boots-on-the-ground thing they do”—that brought the MCLs together for intense reporting and discussions about each team’s data and progress, followed by an hour of “instructional rounds” observing one MCL’s classrooms.

The vignettes and video include many other actions the principals identified as keys to their team leadership and the growth of the students and the teachers. That leadership is critical in an Opportunity Culture®, which extends the reach of their excellent teachers and their teams to more students, for more pay, within recurring budgets—but applicable to any principals leading turnarounds and those interested in strengthening  teacher -leadership and enabling a collaborative approach to improving student achievement.

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