school principals

How our leadership academies are creating better school principals

Research supports building stronger principals to effect lasting change -- and it starts with leadership training

The city of Syracuse’s public educational system, and its long-term economic health, are nearing a tipping point. According to a recent study by the Century Foundation, Syracuse has the highest rate of extreme poverty concentrated among blacks and Hispanics of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Like many other urban school systems, Syracuse City School District (SCSD), where I serve as chief academic officer, has faced a number of challenges: Retaining teachers past their third year of teaching, too many competing initiatives that were unaligned to larger goals, and—most pressing—low academic performance among disadvantaged students.

A couple years ago, we took a fresh look into what it would take to move the needle on these enormous challenges. The research was clear: the largest non-classroom-based impact on student achievement as well as teacher retention is the effectiveness of building principals. We also recognized that school leadership is quite possibly the most difficult job to do well. We knew we had to make a substantial and systemic investment in our principals if we were going to make progress.

How we started

In 2015, we decided the best course of action was to build a series of leadership academies. We started by asking ourselves two questions.

  1. What does it look like to be a great leader in Syracuse?

To answer this question, we turned to the leadership effectiveness framework we had created in 2013 with Insight Education Group. Consisting of two domains, Instructional Leadership and Organizational Leadership, the framework defines what it means to be an effective building leader at all phases of a leader’s career and sets high standards for effective leadership based upon research and best practices.

We expect our leaders to exhibit effective instructional leadership, including establishing a shared vision for success and creating a culture of data-driven decision-making. In addition, they are expected to create a culture of high expectations, manage innovation, and lead with integrity and fairness.

  1. What are our school leaders telling us is their greatest need?  

To answer this question, we listened to our leaders. We engaged in discussions with them about their needs for long-term professional development and what it would take for them to feel supported.

Based on information gleaned from these two guiding questions, we partnered with Insight Education Group to develop unique goals and pathways to school leadership for four different stakeholder groups: Aspiring Leaders, Vice Principals, New Principals, and Veteran Principals. While our goals for each stakeholder group differ based on each group’s role, we also worked hard to have continuity so all school leaders have a common language with which to operate.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at