Last week, I joined a team from the Hawaii Department of Education in Gwinnett County, GA just outside of Atlanta. We were there to see how a best in class school district roughly the same size as ours prepares their future principals for the rigors of school leadership. In fact, just today, Gwinnett was named the only two-time winner of the highly coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education! We were joined by Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark from Charlotte-Mecklenberg (NC) and Tricia McManus of Hillsborough County (FL).
What we saw deeply impressed me and the principals, complex area superintendents and assistant superintendents in our group. Here are my takeaways:
- Leadership is a priority across the entire system because it is at the heart of their reform agenda. Gwinnett’s Superintendent Wilbanks actually teaches the first three days of their aspiring principals training every year. Each quarter, every single principal and vice principal meets in person with him to get their marching orders. And training occurs in a state of the art training facility that feels more like a higher education classroom (picture attached)
- A clear theory of action and consistent messaging keeps everyone on the same page. They believe that “two kinds of people work in our system – those that teach and those that support teachers”. Newly minted Vice Principals were able to recite the district’s mission from memory because this is the way that every single training program begins the day. Core beliefs like this are what unify a high performing system.
- Leadership standards reflect clear performance expectations. Standards for what a principal should know and be able to do guide how the district recruits, selects, coaches and trains aspiring leaders as well as evaluates those on the job. Principals were clear on what was expected and felt prepared to deliver.
- Setting a high bar for selecting principals reinforces that the principal ship was earned, and not inherited. A full day selection process has candidates facilitate a learning community of teachers, interact with an irate parent, and prioritize responses to an overflowing email inbox.
- Do fewer things, with higher quality and tighter alignment. Hillsborough County took a year to align their training programs – ensuring the content, readings, exercises and language felt seamless for participants. Whereas we often have mismatched support opportunities in Hawaii, these three districts generally offer only two to three training programs at key stages of educator’s careers.
I left feeling hopeful that we in Hawaii are headed in the right direction, but that we have much to learn. By the wintertime, a design team will present Superintendent Matayoshi with our own principal leadership standards and a gameplan for how to provide a tighter system of support for our school leaders. I believe these critical first steps will move leadership development farther into the limelight and better prepare transformational leaders to succeed within a rapidly changing education landscape.