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Creating a Culture of Excellence: the Role of School Leaders

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May 04, 2012 07:25 pm


On April 26, the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) held a Capitol Hill briefing showcasing the MetLife Foundation and NASSP’s Breakthrough Schools project, which recognizes middle and high schools that are high achieving or dramatically improving student achievement while serving large numbers of students most at risk of dropping out.

Phillip Lovell, the Alliance’s vice president of federal advocacy moderated a panel of transformative principals who have been recognized by the Breakthrough Schools project:

Thomas Dodd, PhD , Principal, Lesher Middle School (Fort Collins, CO)
Christopher Jennings , Principal, Bloomfield High School (NJ)
Linda Scott, EdD , Principal. Oscar F. Smith Middle School (Chesapeake, VA)
Anthony Smith , Principal, Pierce County High School (Blackshear, GA)

Elizabeth Grant, special assistant at the U.S. Department of Education, also joined the panel to discuss federal efforts to support schools and strong leadership.

So what is a culture of excellence, and how can schools build them? All four principals had different approaches, from Principal Dodd’s belief that a culture of excellence means serving every student’s individual needs and finding a “hook” to plug them into school successfully to Principal Scott’s emphasis on “shifting the focus in the school from teaching to learning.”

School structures are also an important part of building a culture of excellence. Principal Jennings, for example, aims for a more inclusive structure for his school that places special education students with the general population of students for college preparation classes. His idea with this focus is that “access is equal among all students,” he noted. Principal Smith, whose school won a national Advanced Placement award and was one of just a handful in the state of Georgia to do so, made changes so that his best teachers were in classes with the kids who needed the most help; by having AP teachers helping students in remedial classes, he was able to make progress with all of his students, even in the face of a diverse and challenging school population.

Teachers are also an important part of building a culture of excellence, and their development and involvement, in particular, are critical. Principal Jennings noted, “Professional development is important, but the right professional development is a must.” In his school, teachers work out problems and collaborate to find solutions and build up their collective effectiveness. Principal Dodd echoed this: “We’ve brought in experts and professional development teams, we’ve sent people to conferences…but the bet professional development is teacher-embedded professional development.”

During a discussion of which policies have been supportive and unsupportive in transforming their schools, potential cuts to Title I and IDEA were cited as especially troublesome because these programs fund at-risk students with diverse needs. Supports like instructional coaches, smaller class sizes, and extra periods for reading and math were cited as being the most helpful.

It’s clear from yesterday’s dynamic panel that principals across the country, despite being in different regions and communities with their own sets of problems, are finding success in meeting the needs of their schools’ diverse learners. As schools, principals, and teachers are delivered more resources and given the tools they need to succeed, hopefully we will have many more “breakthroughs” at all levels to move more students toward college and career readiness.

Watch video from the event at



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