Today’s Premier Principals: Leading by Doing

by Rhonda H. Lauer on November 17, 2011

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As part of the exciting series Reading for Life, Foundations’ President and CEO Rhonda H. Lauer shares her expertise and insights about grade level reading. Join Ms. Lauer as she offers key viewpoints and commentary based on her extensive experience working across the country to give our children and young people the educational opportunities they deserve.

Late last month, sixty-one leaders representing both public and private schools from around the nation gathered in Washington, D.C., to be honored as 2011 National Distinguished Principals. Since 1984, the National Association of Elementary School Principals has recognized and celebrated outstanding elementary and middle-level principals who set high standards for instruction, student achievement, character, and climate for the students, families, and staffs in their learning communities.

In reading about this year’s cohort, I was particularly struck by the story of Jeanne Siegenthaler, Principal of Dixon Elementary School in Brookfield, Wisconsin. In addition to being honored as a 2011 National Distinguished Principal, Ms. Siegenthaler was named Elementary Principal of the Year for the State of Wisconsin. Why all the accolades? First of all, communication is one of Principal Siegenthaler’s top priorities. Each day, she is in the halls, the cafeteria, classrooms, even outside chatting with students waiting for the bus. She knows her students, their parents, and staff. Plus, in just three years, she has raised her students’ reading and math scores from the bottom to the top of the school district.  She explains her success this way: “I certainly can’t do things on my own. It takes a team…. My goal is to make sure that I have a building that staff members want to come to work in and students want to come and learn in.”

Her comments remind me of a great article on leadership by Mike McCarthy, Maine’s 2010 Middle School Principal of the Year. In the article, he outlines “Ten Big Ideas About School Leadership.” Here’s Big Idea #4, Paddles in the Water: “In Outward Bound, you learn that when you are navigating dangerous rapids in a raft, the only way to succeed is for everyone in the boat to sit out on the edge and paddle really hard.” By “dangerous rapids,” McCarthy means times of crisis. I agree, but would add that a great leader motivates her team to have their paddles in the water at all times, not just during crises.

For the past 48 years, Madeleine P. Brennan has had her paddle in the water as principal of Dyker Heights Intermediate School 201 in Brooklyn. The school earns As on the city’s progress reports and sends many students to top city high schools, even though 68% of the 1500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. “Teenagers fascinate me,” Ms. Brennan says. “They are peculiar ducks, neither fish nor fowl. And you have to love them to really work with them. If you don’t love them, you are up a tree.”

Running a school is no simple matter. We know. For 20 years Foundations has used time-tested tools and strategies to help schools of all kinds ensure the highest quality educational opportunities for their students. Often, this means helping them find motivated, experienced, and passionate leaders like principals Jeanne Siegenthaler, Mike McCarthy, and Madeleine Brennan, who can inspire staff, engage the community, and raise student achievement. This fall, Foundations’ experts found two such leaders for charter schools in Southwest Philadelphia.

With schools, as with most things in life, the key is quality. Do the schools have quality leaders, quality teachers, quality classroom instruction? Are they teaching children to do math and to read early and well? Are they equipping them for a future full of promise and opportunity? We need to ask these questions of all schools. And we need to make sure our schools have strong leaders who can answer these questions honestly and – when the answer is not yes – are equipped to make tough decisions.

Like our nation’s premier principals, we must have all our paddles in the water all the time to move that literacy needle. Our nation’s young people deserve nothing less.

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