School & District Management

Sometimes Principals Need to Make Big Changes. Here’s How to Get Them to Stick

Managing through change is part of principals’ portfolios
By Olina Banerji — December 05, 2023 8 min read
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Glenn Burns’ Salem High School football team lost the Division Six Superbowl last week in Massachusetts. Burns was disappointed. He had brought his 7-year-old daughter to the game, as well as 200 students from his high school.

But the lasting memory from the game wasn’t the loss. It was from the thriving sense of community the school shared.

“As the buses [that brought the students] pulled out, I thought … I hope my daughter can come to a school like this.”

Burns took over as principal of Salem High two years ago and inherited a fractured legacy. Four principals right before him had left in quick succession. Chronic absenteeism was at an all-time high. Grades were slipping. The school’s athletic program—a high-quality one until the 1990s—had suffered too. What bothered Burns the most, though, was that the parents in the community, the students, and even some of the teachers had lost faith in the school.

A decade ago, the school had about 1400 students; it was down to just about 800 the year Burns joined.

“The chronic absenteeism rate was at 39 percent. I wanted to bring back some pride and joy in the school,” said Burns. He also realized that other issues like low academic performance and student attrition were connected to students not showing up.

Burns went to the heart of the issue but took a slightly winding path.

“I didn’t just ask what was wrong. I asked teachers what was going right, what should be celebrated,” said Burns. What started was a two-year effort to celebrate the school and communicate to parents that Salem High was an institution worth staying at.

Burns’ strategy has been paid dividends—the chronic absenteeism rate is down to 25 percent this year. Student enrollment has ticked up to over 960 students. Even teacher attrition got better.

Schools are complex organizations, and each comes with its unique stakeholders and challenges. Principals who are new to these schools are often tasked with making big, sweeping changes.

To get students, teachers, and parents to take the leap of faith with them, though, principals need to set up the right conditions for these changes.

Building communities—inside and outside school

Burns, right from the beginning of his tenure, was keen to solve the challenge of absent students. There were several other instructional and curricular goals the school had to meet, but Burns said it all linked back to the same problem. His teachers were telling him students would learn more if they just showed up to school.

“We knew if kids felt safe, they would engage and they’d like to be challenged. They would learn more,” said Burns.

To get the attendance rates up, Burns turned several small and big levers. The idea was to surface all the great things about Salem High to parents who might have become disengaged. Now, a “pretty thorough parent email” goes out every week to highlight student achievements.

“These families [in Salem] have known each other a long time. They want to celebrate each other’s kids too,” said Burns.

Every spring and summer, Salem High hosts a bonfire party for student families with hamburgers and occasionally a mechanical bull. It becomes another venue to celebrate the school’s achievements. The “heavy lifting” of solving the absenteeism problem, though, is done by an attendance team that Burns had put together.

Their key role is to stay connected to families through home visits and figure out what’s stopping students from coming to school. “It could be transportation, or that they’re looking after a younger sibling,” said Burns. The attendance team encouraged families to communicate with them, so that the school could help them figure out a plan. This winter, Burns said he’s getting texts from families asking for gift vouchers for essential items, to tide over the holiday season.

The additional responsibility of bringing students back did impact the already strained school staff. Added to the increased focus on academic rigor, which included introducing a new curriculum, some teachers left in the middle of this year.

“That was difficult to deal with. But thankfully we have a great bunch of veteran teachers who stepped in to teach extra. They want kids to stay engaged by putting them in front of qualified teachers,” said Burns.

Model a change that people can see

To bring any change into a school system, principals need to get their staff on board. Nicole Bottomley, the principal of King Phillip Regional High in Wrentham, Mass., said she does this by making sure the why is clear to teachers.

“I’ve seen initiatives go off the rails when we didn’t take time upfront to explain the rationale behind the change,” said Bottomley. Leaders usually build consensus through dialogue. Bottomley said she used a contest instead.

In her previous school, Bottomley wanted to redesign the physical classroom. Standard-issue school furniture isn’t very comfortable or accessible. Bottomley believed that a different type of classroom would elicit more student engagement. Teachers were anxious about the change, said Bottomley, because they weren’t sure how students would behave in a new set-up.

“Would they pay attention if they were all at the same table? Would they become too comfortable to learn? There weren’t any models that teachers could refer to,” said Bottomley. But being part of the experiment helped.

Bottomley invited the whole staff—including librarians and counselors—to participate in the redesign contest. The participants’ submissions had to show a creative use of the physical space, but they also needed to show how these changes would improve instruction.

The nonnegotiable factor was student involvement—they had to be collaborators and consultants to the whole project. The winning classroom redesign was also picked by a committee of students, an unintended benefit because these students became the biggest advocates for the change. “In the classroom that won the redesign, the interaction significantly improved,” said Bottomley.

The school only had the funds to refurbish one space, but the model classroom sparked conversations across the school. Even classrooms that didn’t win moved furniture around to maximize their learning space.

Not every school space could be redesigned though. Spaces like a chemistry lab were locked into the placements of instruments and the gas line.

“I had to be careful that teachers in charge of the lab didn’t feel left out. But it’s also important to remember that not everyone will be on board with the changes,” said Bottomley.

Raise the (table) stakes

Some changes must be made slowly. Bottomley, for instance, redesigned her classroom gradually as more funds trickled in to buy new furniture. The pace makes the change more durable. “It’s okay if big changes take a few years. Once people saw the impact that it could have, the idea sold itself,” said Bottomley.

Other changes need to be swift, and are in the most danger of eroding the trust in the school’s system. But sometimes principals have no choice.

The 700-student North Country Union High school in Newport, Vt. saw a quick spate of suicides in late 2019 and early 2020. Chris Young, who’d just taken over as principal, knew something had to change. “Students were crying out for a whole school conversation on suicide,” said Young.

Young set up a student wellness team, which introduced community-development days to discuss thorny topics like suicide prevention and healthy teenage relationships. Conducted 4-5 times a year, these were 2-hour sessions that included some fixed programming—a guest speaker or video—followed by a classroom discussion facilitated by teachers.

There were big concerns with this plan.

“Teachers didn’t want to play the role of counselors. The teacher association and school board were also uncomfortable with this,” Young said.

But he pushed on. The first few community development days didn’t go to plan. Young said teachers didn’t have the skill set or confidence to take on these difficult discussions in their classrooms.

Young tweaked these sessions. Teachers were asked to preview the material for the sessions in advance, practice the language, and ask their own questions about the topic. Over time, Young says teachers have developed the confidence to talk with their students about difficult topics. There’s anecdotal feedback that students are engaged in these prompted discussions. The school board and teachers’ union have also begrudgingly agreed to the plan, Young said.

“It’s hard to argue with the option of doing nothing [to prevent suicide],” said Young, about the board’s agreement. “The argument is a bit of a flex, I admit. But I believe in this plan.”

Young has implemented this “table stakes” strategy for implementing other changes as well. As a leader, he decides what stays on the discussion table. In a conversation about moving to a new grading system, Young faced opposition from teachers who didn’t want to make any changes to the old grading system.

“I know students hate it. Even parents are dissatisfied with it. But it’s a directive from the state and we’ve stuck with it. Taking the new grading system off the discussion table wasn’t an option,” said Young.

Schools are constantly being asked to reinvent themselves and their policies. School leaders, at the helm, need to steer their staff and students towards goals that are sometimes, out of their control.

Bottomley said it helps her to remember one key lesson:

“Even if the change is fantastic, as leaders we must acknowledge that all change comes with a sense of loss for people. They are losing what they are certain about to take on a new path, and new expectations,” she said. “As a leader, you have to validate those feelings before you embark on any kind of change.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as Sometimes Principals Need to Make Big Changes. Here’s How to Get Them to Stick

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