Good programs need good principals

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In 1996, Jungman Elementary School in Pilsen, along with 70 other elementary schools, was put on probation for low reading scores. Only 12 percent of its students were scoring at or above national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Within two years, the percentage had soared past 30.

Jungman insiders say the key to their progress was the combination of smart, stable school leadership and Tim Shanahan’s literacy framework. “It’s a great program,” raves Interim Principal Zaida Hernandez, a former Jungman teacher who became assistant principal in 1997. “It was a big, big change to get all of us on the same page … to get everyone to see the importance of reading.”

“That probably was the most essential piece of the puzzle that was missing,” says former principal Fausto Lopez, who left Jungman in 2000 to become principal of Bowen High School.

But that piece fit because so many others were already in place. “It wasn’t just the framework,” says veteran 1st-grade teacher Anne Barry. “We were a school that wasn’t in a lot of flux. We had a principal who had been here a long time.” And not just any principal. “He’s highly read,” Barry says of Lopez. “We talked about best practices all the time.”

Long before probation began, Lopez had invested in professional development through Project CANAL (Creating a New Approach to Learning) and the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science (TAMS). He also had dismantled many of the barriers that often separate bilingual and monolingual teachers at a school—nearly half of Jungman’s children are in bilingual programs.

When probation arrived, Lopez skipped the approved list of external partners and asked central office to let him have Shanahan, who had previously supervised student teachers at Jungman and worked with parents through the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“We saw everybody doing their own thing,” recalls Shanahan. “Everyone taught reading, but they taught it as long as they wanted to. There were no kinds of mandates on things. They had 25 reading programs, essentially.”

Teacher Mary Beth Clark credits Shanahan with providing a clear focus and a straightforward set of priorities that all teachers could accept. “This is sound practice whether you are teaching in Spanish or English,” she says. “Fluency is important in any language. Writing is important in any language.”

Shanahan’s style also won over teachers. He went the extra mile by getting into classrooms and bringing in resources. “He showed by his teaching, too,” says Barry. “He’d pull a couple of kids together and teach fluency … which was cool.”

Even at the end of his stay, Shanahan arranged for teachers to get more books. “Goodness,” says Barry, incredulity in her voice. “We were able to buy some books for our classroom libraries.”

While the external partner offered carrots, the stick of probation pushed the staff into collaboration. “When probation came, it shocked us into reality,” says Clark. “It forced us to come together: We’re going to choose one reading series. We’re all going to use it, not just say we’re using it. We’re going to do all that it requires us to do, not just the parts we like to do.”

Probation also gave the school’s administration extra gas for its drive to revise the work schedule. Lopez created three common preparation periods per week for teachers of children in the same grade to plan together. “This was the first time we really got [common preps] to work,” says Hernandez.

“Having those opportunities [for discussion] is what helps break down walls and gets teachers talking to each other,” observes Clark. But it doesn’t come naturally. “You have to be courageous enough to say ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ not just sit there feeling uncomfortable and say, ‘Well, I just won’t do that part since I don’t know how.'”

Shanahan says Principal Lopez was an essential partner. “Fausto, to his credit, spent a great deal of time when I wasn’t around walking around classrooms, looking for the things I was telling him to look for,” he says. He continued doing this even when Shanahan sent graduate students to observe and give feedback. “If he had disengaged,” says Shanahan, “they wouldn’t have seen the big improvement.”

Lopez himself sees the observations as secondary to his professional knowledge and relationship-building skills. “I am conversant with the framework. I can interpret data from the ITBS,” he notes. “I think the teachers respected that. I could engage them on a level of professional conversation.”

Teachers add that the power of expectations had a big impact. “It was always assumed, of course you did the framework,” says Barry.

Passing the torch

More than a dozen schools now on probation are recidivists—they had been off for a year or two and then bounced back on. In contrast, Jungman’s achievement gains have held up over five years. Those years include the transition from Lopez to Hernandez as principal.

“By the time I left, my teachers were my partners in leadership,” says Lopez.

None more so than Hernandez, a former kindergarten teacher whose advance to the principalship was gradual. Her first step was from classroom teacher to bilingual coordinator. When she started that job, she spent part of each day mentoring the new kindergarten teacher. “I would go back to the classroom as needed. I could collaborate with the other teacher,” she recalls. “The transition was slow, which helped the students, who didn’t feel abandoned, and also [helped] the teacher coming in. It gave me the opportunity to start working with teachers little by little. I think that was a benefit for all of us.”

During that time, Hernandez started courses for an administrator’s certificate “so that I could be assistant principal. It didn’t happen all of a sudden.” She became assistant principal in the fall of 1996, just before the probation ax fell.

But probation didn’t change Lopez’s management style, one Hernandez was committed to developing in herself. “We worked very hard on developing school-based management. To me, that is key,” says Hernandez. “If teachers feel that ownership, they are more willing to collaborate.”

In the summer of 2000, the gradual transition ended; Lopez agreed to take the top spot at Bowen as it was put on intervention, and Hernandez became interim principal at Jungman. Hernandez had just finished her summer coursework with LAUNCH, an innovative training program for principals, and was planning to leave Jungman to do her LAUNCH-required internship.

“[Lopez] called Friday. I had to make a decision by Monday,” she recalls. The school clerk was leaving, too, she knew. If Hernandez left, Jungman’s entire administrative staff would turn over at once. “It would be too many new people in the leadership,” she says, so she stayed and worked out an arrangement with LAUNCH.

“I believe the majority of the staff was pleased I decided to stay,” says Hernandez. When she took the job, she had to find an assistant principal and a bilingual coordinator, plus train a new clerk. “Thanks to the staff—and I think it was their appreciation of me coming back—we pulled through.”

This year has been a bigger challenge. Hernandez took a five-month leave of absence, and the acting principal sent from central office upset the apple cart.

“It was a wake-up call to the staff,” says Clark. “We were accustomed to an administrator who’s organized, who’s on the ball, who’s doing what needs to be done. We didn’t have that support from the administration. It wasn’t there. We had no idea what goes on behind the scenes until it wasn’t there.”

Faculty members faced a choice, Clark says: “Either we can continue what we’ve been doing without any support, or we can take it easy for a few months because we know nobody is watching us.”

For Barry, the choice was clear. “As a teacher, I set my own goals. If I do my job, I do my job. The framework is natural to me.”

For a core group of teachers, that’s likely to have been the case. But Hernandez acknowledges she’s still picking up the pieces. “It could impact student achievement this year; I’m not sure,” she says.

In uncertain waters, teachers considered jumping ship. “A lot of people started working on their resumes,” says Clark. “Hopefully, now that things are back the way they were, they’ll change their minds.”

Hernandez knows that even if they stay, she’ll still have work to do. “The teachers are more open to talking, but we still need to work on the idea that it’s OK to go visit each other’s classrooms and share ideas,” she says. “It’s a big challenge. I hope one day before I leave this place, that we can accomplish that.”