School & District Management

Top Principals Expand Reach to Multiple Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — April 21, 2015 7 min read
Principal Kathleen L. Decker talks with art teacher Michael Cababe at Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, an elementary school in Las VEgas. Under a pilot program for successful school leaders, Ms. Decker is also serving as principal at Walter V. Long Elementary School.

Two big-city school districts are piloting initiatives to expand the reach of their successful principals by allowing those leaders to manage two schools simultaneously.

The hope is that the selected principals will produce the same high achievement in the additional school they are responsible for managing. The pilot programs in Clark County, Nev., and Denver—which borrow tenets from franchising in the business world—are an attempt to solve a persistent conundrum in K-12: how to scale the successes of exceptional school leaders and maximize their exposure to more teachers and students.

“Districts struggle to fill—especially low-performing—schools with great principals,” said Bryan C. Hassel, the co-director of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Public Impact, an education research and consulting firm. “So when you find someone who is able to move the needle with kids, why not think about how to maximize their impact on more of your students?”

Asking principals to manage more than one school runs counter to much of the conventional wisdom in K-12 leadership that school leaders are already juggling too many responsibilities in high-pressure environments that too often can lead to burnout. But some school leadership experts said the programs hold promise if districts provide the right support, including a strong leadership team.

The concepts underpinning the programs are not new, Mr. Hassel said, but they’re notable because regular school districts rarely give successful principals the opportunity to run two schools simultaneously. High-performing principals are more likely to move from schools to the central office.

Different Leadership Models

But many charter school networks, for example, expand by replicating the successes of their high-performing principals either by moving them to another school, or putting them in charge of more than one school. And in England, high-performing principals, or head teachers, are given the chance to lead additional schools, he said.

In the Clark County district, Kathleen L. Decker and John S. Haynal, principals at highly rated elementary schools, will run lower-performing schools through a “franchise school” pilot started this year.

In Denver, Alex V. Magaña, the principal of Grant Beacon Middle School, will draw on the skills of his leadership team to take over the management of a second middle school in time for the 2016-17 school year. A second Denver principal is awaiting approval to run an additional school through the district’s “innovative management organization.” Denver’s approach will allow the principals to manage multiple schools based on the same model or theme—an idea drawn directly from the charter school world.

Principal Kathleen L. Decker works in her sparse office at Walter V. Long Elementary School in Las Vegas. Ms. Decker is also the principal at the Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, an elementary school in the city.

“What we are trying to do is replicate our highest-performing schools regardless of their governance structure,” said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the chief academic and innovation officer for the 87,000-student district.

Strong Support

Mr. Hassel said such programs need strong support structures to ensure that the weight of the expansion does not rest on one individual. He said additional compensation and central-office support are critical, as is leadership training for the principals, who will have to lead in a different, less direct way.

Meredith I. Honig, a professor of educational leadership studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, said that aspects of the two pilots appeared “exciting” and “promising” on paper.

In Clark County, she cited the potential opportunities for experienced principals to grow professionally; the new leadership pathways they could provide for teachers and other staff members; the avenues for staff members to develop their skills without leaving their areas of strength; and the mentoring opportunities for assistant principals—a key and often overlooked part of the leadership pipeline.

Denver’s pilot, which shifts many of the managerial aspects of the job to an “executive principal,” such as Mr. Magaña, also appeared to incorporate school leadership research from the Wallace Foundation that proposes minimizing principals’ noninstructional responsibilities, Ms. Honig said.

But beyond planning how to deploy successful principals in more than one school, Ms. Honig said the two districts also need smart strategies for allocating resources to improve instruction.

“One of the things we have learned that school systems need to pay attention to is making sure that they are doing the right work to support learning opportunities for kids,” Ms. Honig said. “So if these arrangements [show] that they have rethought the work they are doing for kids, then they are potentially promising. But if all they are doing is reshuffling the same old work, it may appear to be a more significant change than it really is.”

School leaders who take on more than one school should also be open to adapting their proven strategies to the students, teachers, and conditions in the new schools, Ms. Honig said.

In Denver, the district has established a rigorous process to vet the principals and schools eligible to participate in the expansion program, Ms. Whitehead-Bust said. The district examines the quality of the academic plan, leadership, instructional support, teaching force, and the schools’ finances. The district also scrutinizes the original school’s performance data, she said.

Executive Role

Once he adds Kepner Middle School to his portfolio, Mr. Magaña said he will implement core tenets from Grant Beacon, his current school: a blended learning model, an extended school day with enrichment programs for students, and character development. Kepner serves a student population that is similar to Grant Beacon’s, although it has a higher percentage of second-language learners and is under a federal consent decree that requires the district to provide native-language instruction for its Spanish-speaking students. Mr. Magaña said he plans to hire teachers for Kepner in the planning year and inculcate them in the culture through an internship-like program at Grant Beacon. Both Grant Beacon and Kepner will each have an on-site principal, who will focus on instructional leadership, while Mr. Magaña, as the executive principal, will oversee the management of both schools by working with a team on the administrative aspects of the job, including budgeting and professional development. In addition to the new principals, the “network” team will consist of individuals in operations, professional development, a blended learning director, and an English-language-learners coordinator.

With that structure, the day-to-day principals will spend more time visiting classrooms, observing teachers, and interacting with students and parents, he said.

Mr. Magaña sees the experiment as a leadership opportunity not just for himself but also for the teachers at Grant Beacon who will be able to move into leadership positions at the new school. He is also hoping to groom a qualified Grant Beacon teacher-leader to become the principal at Kepner, he said.

Ms. Decker, the principal of Walter Bracken Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics Academy, a magnet school in Las Vegas, is already working as the leader in an additional school—the low-performing Walter V. Long Elementary School. She is using some of the strategies she employed at Bracken since 2001 when she became principal of that school, then among the lowest-performing in the district. Mr. Haynal, the principal of Dr. C. Owen Roundy Elementary School, which he took from a two-star to a four-star school in two years, will soon add Vegas Verdes Elementary School to his supervision responsibilities.

Both principals volunteered for the district’s pilot.

“I believe that if we are going to fix our schools, honestly, it needs to come from the school level,” said Ms. Decker, who splits her time between Bracken, the “flagship school,” and Long. “It’s not going to come from above.”

The Clark County principals will receive a pay increase of about 5 percent, according to Mike Barton, the chief student-achievement officer for the 318,000-student district. The district has provided them with two full-time assistant principals, who will work at each of the schools, and it is considering assigning a permanent staff member to the principals to smooth any bureaucratic hurdles they may encounter. The two leaders also have more flexibility in how they can spend their school budgets and hire staff, Mr. Barton said.

The Long Elementary staff has been observing teaching practices at Bracken and participating in joint staff meetings, Ms. Decker said. She will focus on implementing a core reading program based on Bracken’s example. She plans to add instructional coaches to help the staff use data to chart students’ progress and hire a staff member to work on increasing the number of students who are in gifted and talented programs.

But while she’s making changes to instruction, Ms. Decker is also mindful of other important issues: repainting walls, building a garden, and beautifying the entrance to the cafeteria. “Some of it is aesthetic, some of it is organizational,” she said. “It’s just a lot of little pieces put together that make it successful.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of Education Week as Top Principals Tapped To Lead Extra Schools


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