Great schools require great leaders. Research continues to back this simple yet significant statement. Philadelphia schools have improved steadily over the last several years, but to accelerate this progress, our city must invest in strengthening school leaders.
It should come as no surprise that principals play a critical role in driving positive outcomes for schools and students. In fact, principals account for an estimated 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement, a significant amount for a single person. Even so, more can be done to position principals for success.
Several years ago, I was promoted from a high school teacher leader to a middle school principal. Despite my ambition and teaching experience, I was not fully prepared to run a school.
I had bold ideas of what our school could be, but I faced challenges with my faculty in support of these goals. I needed to align my staff with my vision for success, because while our school was already good, my charge was to make it great.
Then, a colleague urged me to apply for the Neubauer Fellowship, offered through the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders. At the time, I didn’t know how much this program would re-energize me and provide the leadership development that I needed to reach my full potential.
Principals need far more than strong instructional skills. I learned through the Neubauer Fellowship that the best school principals are like CEOs of their schools. Strong leadership requires business acumen, strategic planning, and skills to lead adults. Akin to an MBA for educators, the Neubauer Fellowship filled those gaps and helped me become a more effective principal.
Of all the professional development that I’ve experienced, the fellowship stands in a category of its own. During the first week, expert faculty led a session on motivating staff. We learned to shape and tell our personal stories in order to help faculty understand our passion for education and how our experiences inform our vision. Doing so would help our teams understand why we – as leaders – make certain decisions.
This was a lightbulb moment.
I realized I had never shared my own story with my faculty. They knew my resume, but they didn’t understand the “why” behind the progress I strove for and the changes I asked them to implement to reach these goals.
Inspired by this session, I decided to model vulnerability in order to create trust and build deeper relationships within our team. I gathered my staff and shared my personal story to demonstrate why I passionately believe that our students deserve access to diverse opportunities and experiences. I explained that I wanted our students to visit the library and read novels because my father, who was a voracious reader, took my sister and me to the library every week, which opened my eyes to new ideas and cultures and developed my love of reading. I pushed for our kids to attend ski trips because I believe it’s important to expose inner city kids to experiences they may not have otherwise.
In sharing my story and encouraging my staff to do the same, I created trust which did not exist before. From that day on, we began to motivate and push each other to aim higher.
Now, we seize every opportunity to bolster our students’ education. One of my teachers wrote a successful grant to give our students Chromebooks. We expanded our sports programs and currently offer everything from golf to football. Students now take PSAT tests and go on a wide variety of school trips.
Last year we received the School District’s award for most improved student attendance, rising from 38 to 63 percent of students attending 95 percent or more school days. This year we increased in every category on the School Progress Report and were recognized as one of the most promising schools. Our score on the district’s School Progress Report jumped from 32 to 71 in three years. And our teaching staff is committed to our collective vision — with 100 percent retention over the past two school years.
I am only one example of the Neubauer Fellowship’s impact. Across the city, my colleagues improve schools of all types – including charter and faith-based schools – and impact student outcomes. Nearly one-third of the city’s principals will be part of the program as of July, and together, we lead 80 percent of the top-performing schools in the city and reach 65,000 students every day.
Individually, we prove that strong principals yield transformational results. Together, we have the power to drive systemic change for Philadelphia’s schools. I encourage Philadelphia to continue to strengthen its investment in educational leadership, not only because it’s our civic responsibility to prepare all students for college, career and life, but because the future of our city depends on it.
Shakae Dupre-Campbell is a 2017 Neubauer Fellow and the principal of Middle Years Alternative for the Arts and Humanities, a school for fifth to eighth graders located at 47th and Fairmount Avenue.