Collaboration. Leadership. Support. Such old-school ideas appeal to education reformers looking for what works best to raise achievement. Where they see promise: principals.
While much of the political conversation focuses on great teachers, one terrific year for a student can't grease the track through high school. What studies are pointing to is a need for great schools, where every grade prepares students for the next.
"Research has proven that school principals' leadership has a direct impact on student achievement," Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able said. The best principals bring together a community of parents and teachers working together, honestly evaluating what helps kids learn, she said.
Creating such principals has become the mission of a Stockton college focused on real-world practice and well-researched solutions.
"We have a very high dropout rate, violent cities, and our kids aren't going to college and our out-of-school youth aren't finding jobs. Maybe it's time to do things differently," Catherine Kearney said.
She is dean of Teachers College of San Joaquin in Stockton, created by the San Joaquin County Office of Education. The small college specializes in programs for working teachers, with 48 students in its incoming administrative credential class.
"We are unapologetic about the fact that we are in a revolution," Kearney said. With one in four administrators in Stanislaus County (and even more in San Joaquin County) expected to retire in 10 years, the time for change is now, she said.
Her program to train principals focuses on two premises:
Schools with high achievement are connected to the community, to parents and to other stakeholders.
People learn best by doing, under the tutelage of someone who is excellent.
Program graduate Kat Brown said that both were key reasons she selected the program. A program coordinator at French Camp Elementary School, Brown said she sees her co-workers as "the collective mind." But even with preparation, the road forward isn't always smooth.
"I don't think collaboration is an innate ability like breathing. It takes time. You're going to have to invest the time in breaking down barriers," Brown said.
In Ceres, Central Valley High School Principal Amy Peterman said she was lucky to inherit a collaborative system built into the school culture.
"Teachers really have taken ownership over being decision makers," she said. Colleagues often observe others' classes during their prep period to offer feedback.
Teachers have too much on their plate to do it alone, Peterman said. "Educators are realizing that collaboration is essential."
Veteran Principal Diane Scott said much the same thing, sitting in her nook of an office at Rose Avenue Elementary in central Modesto. The school twice has been named a California Distinguished School under her watch, and dozens of name tags for regular Rose Avenue PTA volunteers hang in an office frame.
Scott ticks off what she sees as the best principal attributes: "Having a vision and not losing sight of that you're dealing with children. Being accessible. Being personable. Having pride in our school."
When she was first handed the principal's key ring 26 years ago, she was expected be a good manager. Supplies needed to arrive on time. Staff meetings were about turning in the proper forms. Excellent teachers kept a class quiet and orderly.
More than two decades later, she arrives at school each day at 6:45 a.m. and generally leaves about 11 hours later.
What's working, what's not
Checking in on classes, she wants to see energized, engaged students and takes notes of what's working, and what's not, to compile later. She keeps an eye out for urgent e-mails on her smart phone as she walks. Weekly teacher meetings for each grade were arranged before summer started, with a yard duty worker on the roster to run physical education games for students.
"That's the reform. That's the change," she said. High-stakes testing has changed the culture of classrooms and the job of principal.
"When the test results come in
it's how did we do? It's not all about you. It's all about us," Scott said.
That moment of reckoning comes this week, with the state's release Friday of standardized tests students took in the spring. A small sigh and a wan smile escapes as Scott glances at the calendar.
Rose Avenue has kept its test scores high despite a sharp rise in low-income students and families in crisis in recent years. An early-morning disturbance two weeks ago meant several of her students awoke to gunshots and walked to school past a bloody crime scene.
"That's all going on," Scott said. "We're the only stability some kids have in their life. Life's hard right now."
Elane McCarty of Ripon sees that as she works in a Stockton Unified school. She takes night classes at Teachers College, earning her administrative credential and a master's degree in education. She said she chose the program because of its hands-on connections. "How else do you learn?" she asked.
In her school, she sees gang-tied parents fight and knows families steal cash from candy fund-raisers. Kids who barely multiply are pushed to perform algebra.
Something has to change, she said, and she'd like to be part of the solution.
That's what Kearney looks for in her candidates. "We don't run away from hard questions and hard circumstances. We work with our students to be problem solvers," she said. "We don't ignore the fact that we're in the Central Valley. We address issues of English learners and equity and access.
"If school is relevant and relationship-driven, the rigor is going to be there. We can change schools forever and we can change those statistics. We're changing education, one school at a time."
On the Net: Teachers College of San Joaquin, www.teacherscollegesj.edu.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339.
10 THINGS PRINCIPALS WON'T SAY (BUT WANT YOU TO KNOW)
1. Need to talk? Set up an appointment (mornings are usually best). Don't expect an impromptu conference whenever you spot me on campus or in town.
2. Sometimes, a teacher does stink. Legally, I can only listen to your complaints. But if this is just a personality clash, tough.
3. My take on testing: A squirmy test-taker was sent to my office: "My underwear is on backward," he said. My school is being judged by assessments taken by kids who may have their underwear on backwards.
4. The mouths of babes: We hear about family problems, and way too much about everybody.
5. The child you see at home? That's almost never the one we see at school.
6. Don't tell me your child would never lie to you. All kids make mistakes, and great students are often the ones most afraid to tell their parents when they screw up.
7. Unruly student strategy: My favorite is to let them sit while I keep working. It gives them a chance to calm down. Try it. Kids who throw things or hit when angry usually have parents who spank them.
8. My biggest pet peeve? Parents who complain to me before talking to the teacher.
9. We have bullies. We suspend them again and again, but it's very tough to expel a student. The truth is, they have a right to an education.
10. C'mon, parents, it's your child's homework. We know what a seventh-grader can do. Kids need to make mistakes and struggle through things; it's how they learn.
Source: Readers Digest, September issue