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Breaking Ranks: The Role Of School Leaders In Preparing All Students For Postsecondary Success


Gerry Tirozzi, Executive Director, National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)
Caroline Bloxom, Principal, Pocomoke Middle School (MD)
Tommie McCarter, Principal, Westwood High School (TN)
Marci Shearon, Principal, Arkansas City High School (KS)
Governor Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education

Nearly ninety educators, stakeholders, and policymakers gathered April 24 on Capitol Hill to learn about the role of school leaders in preparing secondary school students for success in college, work, and life. The discussion was cohosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and highlighted the achievements of three Breakthrough School principals as examples of this exceptional and much-needed leadership.

The MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough Schools project identifies, showcases, and recognizes middle and high schools that are high-achieving or dramatically improving student achievement while serving large numbers of those students most at risk of dropping out. Arkansas City High School, Westwood High School, and Pocomoke Middle School represent three schools recognized by the Breakthrough Schools project as exemplifying the core areas of collaborative leadership, personalization, and access to a rigorous and differentiated curriculum for all students.

Gerry Tirozzi, executive director of NASSP, began with a brief introduction to the Breakthrough Schools project. In addition to exemplifying the core areas mentioned above, the principals of these schools have been recognized by the project for changing the culture of their respective institutions—rather than merely the curricula—for narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students, for making Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) for at least three years, for graduating a higher percentage of students than the national average, and for doing so in schools in which more than 40 percent of the student population receive free and reduced-price meals (FARMs, a measure of the poverty level of the student body). Dr. Tirozzi noted that forty-five middle and high schools across the nation are already a part of the Breakthrough Schools project.

Jamie Fasteau, vice president for federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, further emphasized the difficulty and accomplishment in turning around the academic performance of at-risk and hard-to-serve student populations. Ms. Fasteau applauded the efforts of Breakthrough leaders before introducing the three featured speakers.

Tommie McCarter, principal of Westwood High School in Memphis, Tennessee, discussed the three R’s of successful school leadership: Positive Relationships, Responsibility, and Results. Students need respect and high expectations for and from their educators. The principal needs to be responsible for the learning environment of his or her students, which entails both safety and discipline. From 2006–2009, Ms. McCarter’s school has made incredible strides in improving language arts and Algebra I performance (see slides 8-9 of Powerpoint presentation below).

Caroline Bloxom, principal of Pocomoke Middle School in Pocomoke City, Maryland, stressed the significance of oft-overlooked “invisible stakeholders.” These are the parents whose voices are not heard at the school because of the commitments they must make to provide other basic needs for their children. She attributed much of Pocomoke’s success to its use of data—most notably its sharing of performance data with students; they can enjoy a greater sense of responsibility and pride about their work. Ms. Bloxom also noted the importance of the intervention measures her school implements before, during, and after school, as well as at students’ homes, which provide the additional supports many of her students need to ensure their personal wellness and academic success. From 2003–2008, Ms. Bloxom’s school saw a substantial decrease in the achievement gap between white and minority students in both math and reading. The performance of FARMs-eligible students in both math and reading increased even more over this time period (see slide 17 of Powerpoint presentation below).

Marci Shearon, principal of Arkansas City High School (ACHS) in Arkansas City, Kansas, addressed the challenge that change presents and the importance of relationships among teachers, between teachers and students, and between a school and its community. Ms. Shearon highlighted ACHS’s School Counts program, one that gives her students the opportunity to earn—through academic performance and work service—up to a full, two-year scholarship to their community college. Forty-eight percent of her students currently participate in this program, which is only possible through ACHS’s collaboration with Cowley County Community College and the Arkansas City Area Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Shearon’s school has also shown impressive gains over the last five years (see slide 24 of Powerpoint presentation below).

A question and answer session followed during which the speakers addressed the importance of data, professional development for school leaders, the federal role in fostering a positive school climate, parental engagement, and advice for school leaders just beginning the process of turnaround. The question and answer session concluded with the three accomplished leaders offering their recommendations for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). They urged that accountability be grounded in a data system capable of tracking students who leave the school, district, or county, and one capable of tracking the improvement of a single cohort of students as they advance through grades rather than merely assessing each new class (e.g. assessing the new class of seventh graders every year).

Governor Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, addressed the relevance of these leaders’ efforts to the wellbeing of not only their students but of the nation. He noted that five years of dropouts cost the country more than all of the federal bailouts combined, and that the work of these three schools alone—graduating students who might otherwise have dropped out— will save the country $31 million over the course of those students’ lifetimes. He highlighted the federal priority reflected by the stimulus’s $100 billion allocation for education, and urged states to spend the money appropriately. Governor Wise concluded by encouraging greater autonomy and accountability for school leaders, that they be empowered to implement such swift and successful interventions as done by Ms. McCarter, Ms. Bloxom, and Ms. Shearon.

MATERIALS from the event:

Event-Day Agenda PDF filePDF

Speaker Biographies PDF filePDF

Breaking Ranks: The Role of School Leaders Event-Day PowerPoint PDF filePDF (Please be patient; large file to download)

Arkansas City High School Profile PDF filePDF

Supplemental Materials:

Key Pieces of High School Legislation PDF filePDF

Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Imroving Graduation Rate Accountability PDF filePolicy Brief (PDF)

Using Early-Warning Data to Improve Graduation Rates: Closing Cracks in the Education System PDF filePolicy Brief (PDF)

Adolescent Literacy PDF fileFact Sheet (PDF)

Understanding High School Graduation Rates in the United States PDF fileFact Sheet (PDF)

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