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School-Wide Efforts

Two “Dispelling the Myth” Principals Talk About Believing in Kids

Two principals of turnaround elementary schools discuss how important it is for school leaders to have high expectations for students.

I was lucky enough to speak awhile ago at Learning Forward (opens in a new window), an organization dedicated to the professional growth and development of educators. It was great to talk with a group of educators dedicated to professional learning. But even better was that two principals about whom I have written a great deal were both in attendance. I was able to introduce them and then sit back and hear them almost immediately connect on the issue of how important it is for school principals to have high expectations for students.

One was Deb Gustafson, principal of Ware Elementary School (opens in a new window) on Fort Riley in Kansas and an assistant professor at Kansas State University, helping prepare principals for her district and the state. The other was Sharon Brittingham, former principal of John M. Clayton Elementary (opens in a new window) in Delaware and currently an assistant professor with the University of Delaware, providing training and coaching to principals and aspiring superintendents around the state. (To read more about them, see Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (opens in a new window).)

Each of them became principal of a high-poverty, low-performing elementary school that was a mess in more ways than one. Not only were few students reading or doing math at anything like grade level, the schools were known for poor morale and huge discipline problems. Within a few years of their arrival each of their schools was one of the top-performing in the state and each had a welcoming and positive climate. Ware is still there; and Clayton, after a few rocky years following Brittingham’s departure, is back.

We all had breakfast at the Learning Forward conference one day. They were really interested in hearing about what the other was doing to prepare principals, because they are each convinced that principals are the key to school improvement.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes before the two of them were on the subject of the power of belief in kids, swapping horror stories about principals and aspiring principals who still don’t believe that all — or almost all — kids are capable of meeting high standards. (They make exceptions for students with significant cognitive disabilities, but those are the only exceptions they make.)

When Brittingham arrived at Frankford, a school that had historically served African American students in the area, she found teachers who openly said, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit,” a redolent phrase in that rural area dominated by the poultry industry. She would say to them,

If you don’t believe all kids can learn, what are you here for?

She still says that, only now to principals and aspiring principals. To all she says, “Act as if you do believe because that’s what you’re paid to do. If you can’t, find another profession.”

Brittingham’s attitude resonated immediately with Gustafson, who had walked into a similar situation at Ware Elementary. When teachers explained that they were disrespectful to students because they were responding to the disrespect they had been shown by students, she always had the same answer: “The way kids function is an absolute consequence of the way adults function.”

Both she and Brittingham agreed that far too many educators still prefer to blame kids’ families and economic circumstances rather than doing the hard work of figuring out how to help them learn to high levels.

“I cannot believe that in 2015 there are still educators talking about things we can’t control,” Gustafson said — with some exasperation.

Gustafson’s words are emblematic of the way expert educators who have led school turnarounds talk. For an example of a principal who is still in the middle of a school turnaround, see my column in the Huffington Post: School Turnaround — Where Is That Magic Formula Again? (opens in a new window)

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