Success begins with the principal

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Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

Public schools that overcome the colossal odds that go hand in hand with extreme poverty must have a number of things working in their favor. Five things, to be exact, as has been proven time and time again by research and experience. Among them are parent and community partners that rally around efforts to improve the school and a faculty of qualified teachers who have a can-do attitude.

Two others are a safe and orderly environment where children can learn in peace, and a challenging curriculum that builds on skills students learn each year.

Yet, individually and collectively, these “essential supports” would be aimless and ineffective if it were not for the most crucial factor of all: A principal whose leadership sets high standards and provides the charge that motivates others to get on board, improve themselves and move in the right direction.

A recent report on public school reform in Chicago underscores the importance of these key ingredients. Published by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the report notes that students enrolled at schools with such supports are 10 times more likely to post significant gains in math and reading. Researchers also measured the effects of outside factors—such as crime, homelessness and whether children are in foster care—on public school improvement. They found instances of improvement even in the worst communities, but noted that improvement is much more difficult, even with the five supports in place.

In this issue, we feature three public elementary schools in Chicago—all with poverty rates that are above average—that have undergone dramatic transformations under the leadership of a dynamic principal. Contrary to ongoing debate about local versus central control, it didn’t seem to matter who hired the principal. Local school council members made the choice at Marsh Elementary; the district handpicked the principal at McCorkle. At Peirce, the principal was chosen by a regional administrator under a now-defunct process.

What mattered is what the principals did once they got the job and, it seems, how long they stayed. (Two of the three remained at the helm of their school for more than 15 years. The third is in her tenth year.)

Janice Rosales tackled student discipline first and made connections with the growing immigrant population in Edgewater whose children attended Peirce. She spoke Spanish; her predecessors did not. On this foundation, she built a team of teachers, many of them nationally certified, and extended the school day an extra hour to spend more time on reading and math instruction. Since 1990, pass rates on reading tests have doubled.

Discipline was also key to Gerald Dugan’s success at Marsh, where firecrackers and gang graffiti were commonplace when he arrived. He partnered with parents so they would help him crack the whip on unruly students. Dugan also persuaded teachers to raise their expectations about students’ capabilities and stepped up instruction in all subjects. Like Peirce, pass rates more than doubled.

Janet House, whose tenure as principal is the shortest of the three, came to McCorkle with the perfect set of skills to turn the school around. She had worked at the district for a respected accountability chief and then taught at a high-performing school in Grand Boulevard, home to McCorkle. Her first move was to spruce up hallways and classrooms with plants and student art, then she moved on to raising standards in behavior and providing more teacher training. Again, scores went up and mobility went down.

So the key is making sure every school has a strong principal. That’s easy to say, and CPS has made principal development a priority. It’s hard, though, to see where those efforts have paid off. Accountability requires the district to assess its own progress and share the results.

ABOUT US I am pleased to welcome our newest group of editorial board members: Maria Vargas, counselor, Lloyd Elementary; Marvin Hoffman, principal, North Kenwood Oakland Charter; Guadalupe Martinez, principal, Latino Youth Alternative High School; Keri Blackwell, program officer, Local Initiatives Support Corp.; John Paul Jones, director of community outreach, Neighborhood Capital Budget Group; Steve Zemelman, Illinois Network of Charter Schools; Peter Martinez, director, UIC’s Center for School Leadership; Julia McEvoy, education editor, Chicago Public Radio; and James Wagner, president, DuSable High School Alumni Coalition.