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Online only: Building Blocks to School Improvement

How school leaders can help their schools change and improve

Lisa Hillian and Craig Reed

School Improvement. The district has several unaccredited schools. What does this mean in the eyes of a school board member? Part of being a board member is to make sure schools operate well. But operation and accreditation are on two ends of the spectrum. When people approach board members in the community, they want a quick fix and easy turn around. Obviously, the principal is a key factor in implementing school change.

However, the supports from the school board, superintendents, and central office staff are just as critical to implementing change. School board members, superintendents, division specialists, and other leaders should coordinate their efforts to move challenged schools. How can school board members make this contribute to challenged schools?

Top down approach

Hiring a superintendent who values school improvement is important. In other words, a superintendent who can refer to when he or she was a principal and review how they ran the school and what was the most important is essential. A superintendent should value instructional leadership. But candidates should also be able to articulate how this would this look. First, start with the big picture. When parents send their children to school, they want accredited schools.

Operations are important, but a solid, functioning accredited school sounds better. The superintendent should visit a school district that has a similar make up as his or her district. If more than half of the schools in a district are unaccredited, then conversations and observations should begin. Next, have the superintendent to answer these three questions:

  1. Review the school district’s accountability plan (What is the most important, what is the least important)
  2. What processes and systems does the school district have in place?
  3. How can central office members effectively help the schools put effective processes and systems in place.

Once the questions are answered through research and planning, the real work begins. School board members drive major decisions. There are some aspects that board members of schools that are in improvement initiatives should consider. While the principal is the head instructional leader of a building, school board members and division leaders can provide additional supports for challenged schools.

Realistically goal oriented

Obviously, the goal of a focus or priority school is to become fully accredited. However, the impulse to show rapid improvement can often cause schools to set unrealistic or unfeasible goals. For instance, if a school has a 35 percent pass rate in reading, then it is unlikely that student achievement will increase to 75 percent within one school year. For several reasons, priority and focus school principals must resist the impulse to set unrealistic goals for their staffs and their schools. Instead, principals in such settings should set realistic goals that both teachers and support staff believe are attainable. While the goal is to eventually reach all state and federal benchmarks, principals should focus these schools in making significant incremental growths in student achievement.

Teacher salaries

Thinking about teachers, specifically the ones who work in low achieving schools, should be a main concern. Operations and policy is a focus; however, the community still wants good schools. When the media discusses a school district, they are not going to stress, about operations and policy as much as they would discuss that a district is a good place for a child to get an education because several schools have met accreditation status. This says a lot about the school board team and where the funds are mainly used, particularly teacher salaries. This means getting teachers who have attended the best education programs into your district. However, there must be an attraction first.

School improvement is tough, but when incentives are available for the best teachers, it works in the best interest of the child and district. School board members and superintendents should consider which incentives would be good to attract new teachers to school improvement in comparison to the rest of the states, board members should be knowledgeable of the average salaries of teachers. The salary should be competitive and attract experienced effective teachers to want to be a part of the district. Having competitive teacher salaries helps to increase the chance for schools to meet accreditation.

Funding for improving instruction

Because the student populations of priority schools tend to have many challenges, quality instruction is imperative. However, in most cases because of high teacher turnover and poor public perception, acquiring strong teachers can be difficult. In most cases, principals in priority schools must work with inexperienced teachers and develop them into quality high-performing individuals. This can be challenging. As such, targeted professional development to meet the needs of inexperienced teachers is a must. Just as principals in such settings must have a concise focus, they must also have very specific focus regarding professional development for their staffs. If school board members understand why the funding for professional development for schools is important, then schools will support the school improvement initiative.

Working and directing stakeholders

As a school board member, it is important to understand that challenged schools will have several sources of support. This often includes the state department of education as well many other agencies including consultants. These schools will need to receive support from their divisions as well. While the intent of having numerous stakeholders to provide support can be beneficial, it can also serve as a detriment if the efforts are not focused or consolidated. The obvious intent of consultants, outside agencies, and division staff may be school improvement; however, this will not happen if each external stakeholder is working toward a different goal. It is the responsibility of the principal to direct outside stakeholders toward common goals. Leaders in challenged schools should also identify which stakeholders should work to serve a school. As a school board member, understanding the goals of a school and the roles of each stakeholder is can be beneficial in regards supporting schools that are in improvement status.

Removing ineffective teachers

It is important that teacher salaries are competitive to ensure that the best instructors are available to teach the most challenged students. At the same time board members must understand that removing ineffective teachers is also critical to increasing academic achievement in a challenged school. Principals in priority schools must have a concise focus, develop processes and systems and implement quality professional development. These are intended to support teachers and ultimately yield improvement for students. At the same time, principals in challenged schools must make judgements in identifying ineffective teachers and have the necessary skills to remove them.

While the goal should be to develop teachers, principals must be able to identify teachers who resist professional development efforts or simply are unable to meet requirements despite support. For a school board member, it is important to understand this aspect of schools that are in improvement initiatives. More importantly, it is important for school board members to be cognizant that removing ineffective teachers may cause resistance within a school.

Supportive of change

When considering the numerous factors that are involved with school change such as numerous stakeholders, new processes, and even the removal of ineffective teachers, it is reasonable to expect some amount of resistance from teachers, parents, and even community members. Change can be difficult. School Board members should be cognizant of this. The best way to deal with this is to focus all stakeholders on the goals that are set for schools. Moreover, it is critical that school board members are supportive of building level and central office administrators if they are taking steps and actions to move toward goals toward improvement.

Building blocks

Change is a complex process. As an integral part of that process, board members must make decisions that will benefit schools that are designated as low achieving. Understanding the complexity of school improvement as well as the initiatives and systems that must be in place to support these schools will help board members and community members not only support change but also sustain success.


Lisa Hillian (lhillia2@nps.k12.va.us) is an assistant principal at Granby High School in Virginia’s Norfolk Public Schools. Craig Reed (craig.reed@gc.k12.va.us) serves as principal of Peasley Middle School in Virginia’s Gloucester Public Schools.

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