Honoring outstanding school leaders

by Joe Nathan

Steve Massey, Nell Collier, Datrica Chukwu and Bill Wilson are great school leaders, and this is a time when students and schools urgently need them. As I look back over many years and look ahead to a new year, experience and research convince me that we need to learn and apply more from great leaders.
Educators throughout the world have asked Karen Seashore Louis, University of Minnesota professor, to discuss her research on school leaders. After a preliminary review of research, she and colleagues concluded, “Leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning.” Then: “After six additional years of research, we are even more confident about this claim. To date we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.” (Read more about the research at http://bit.ly/1R9ExRc.)
So what do great leaders do? Louis’ team listed four major areas: setting directions, developing people, redesigning the organization and managing the instructional program. These certainly apply to Massey, Collier, Chukwu and Wilson.
Massey, the Forest Lake Area High School principal, has recognized the value of offering a strong mix of traditional academic and applied vocational courses. That’s what researchers call “setting directions and managing the instructional program.”
Massey recently told me via email that about 1,000 of the school’s 1,600 students take at least one of these courses. Despite working in a society that often undervalues applied, technical courses, Massey has worked skillfully to retain them. I’ll say more about the value of such courses in the coming year. You can read more about the options Forest Lake Area High School offers at http://bit.ly/1YYpawp.
Collier and Chukwu led Friendship Academy of the Arts in Minneapolis for three years; Collier served as the executive director and Chukwu as the academic director. At this K-6 charter school, 91 percent of the students are students of color. Ninety-three percent of the students are from low-income families. Over the past five years, according to the statewide Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, reading proficiency has grown from 62 to 83 percent, math proficiency has grown from 49 to 90 percent and science proficiency has increased from 7 to 71 percent. The school features a variety of projects, including one where students read and write about a famous American of their choice. Then, they dress up like the person and make a presentation to families, teachers and friends describing key accomplishments of this person. Chukwu and Collier did many things, including working with staff to not just look at data about student achievement but to design a variety of learning experiences that increased student motivation and helped them improve their skills.
Wilson has spent more than 50 years working for racial justice and expanded opportunity. He was the first African-American elected to the St. Paul City Council and later served as Minnesota Commissioner of Civil Rights. About 15 years ago he founded and currently serves as the executive director at Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul. Wilson has led development of a school culture that honors academic accomplishment and self-discipline. The school staff includes a number of bilingual people of color, some of whom graduated from the school. Higher Ground Academy has received local, state and national awards for its ability to “beat the odds” in student achievement. More than 85 percent of its 11th- and 12th-graders are taking some form of dual-credit courses. All of its students are students of color, mostly children of East African immigrants or immigrants themselves to the U.S. At Higher Ground, 97 percent of the students come from low-income families.
Louis and her colleagues concluded, “Among all the parents, teachers and policymakers who work hard to improve education, educators in leadership positions are uniquely well positioned to ensure the necessary synergy” to improve schools.
Unquestionably teachers are vital. But leaders can encourage or discourage the most effective teachers.
Massey, Collier, Chukwu and Wilson are only four of the many Minnesota school leaders who are showing the way. They deserve thanks and recognition not only from professional groups but also families, community groups and the news media.
We need to do more learning from and make wider use of these fine folks.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]

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