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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.

Where are we now

Our leadership academies are now monthly occurrences, and we work hard to sure that each session is:

  • Issue-based and relevant: Our leaders engage in case studies and problem-solving protocols to address the “real” issues they face every day in our schools.
  • Data-driven: Our leaders are required to access and analyze the data we use in our district to drive instructional decision-making and be prepared to facilitate conversations about the data.
  • Job-embedded: In addition to our monthly academies, we provide executive coaching to our leaders to help them practice the concepts discussed during monthly academies in the daily context of their schools. Principals also meet in cohort groups with assistant superintendents, who are our principal supervisors, to share effective practices and successes.

With our student population at 72 percent free and reduced lunch and speaking more than 70 languages, we have focused several sessions in each of our academies on building a positive school culture that supports all students. These sessions focus on viewing every child as an asset to the classroom and leveraging the uniqueness they bring to the school community regardless of their race, gender, or economic status.

Additionally, for our Aspiring Leaders Academy, we have added a portfolio-based assessment in which participants complete key work products related to the academy’s content and then meet with a coach to review these products, receive feedback, and continue to advance them. One example of this is a video-based leadership story that each aspiring leader records and updates two to three times throughout the year. We are hoping this new structure will address the challenge of providing ongoing support beyond the monthly academies, so that the content “sticks” and we can realize the vision of building a pipeline of leaders through our differentiated academies.

The impact so far

Since we launched in the 2015–2016 school year, we have seen great success as a result of our leadership academies.

  • One hundred percent of our leaders rated the academies as effective or highly effective.
  • We have realized gains in student proficiency in our ELA and math scores.
  • Our graduation rates have continued to rise.
  • Leaders are also experiencing success in improving the climate and culture within their schools.
  • Aligning academy content to the priorities of our district has made an enormous difference in bringing support for our leaders to the next level.

While it has been resource-intensive to create this customized approach to leadership development, we strongly believe the investment we are making in our building leaders is having a much larger and lasting impact than an “off-the-shelf” approach to leadership development. We look forward to building on the success we’ve seen so far.


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