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Principal as Politician

Politics are as important as pedagogy in raising achievement

Ricardo “Rocky” Torres

By the end of year two as building principal, my team and I were able to say that we achieved some unfathomable feats. Having taken over a school consistently performing in the lowest 5 percent in the state, we were charged with producing results, aka student achievement. In Ohio, we have a third-grade reading guarantee, which means that students must meet a certain threshold to be promoted to fourth grade.

When I arrived, my school’s promotion rate was an abysmal 82 percent. That meant that every summer the school would need to re-organize teachers’ schedules and class sizes, and open new sections as 18 percent of their third-graders would need to repeat the grade. By the end of my first year as principal we moved that promotion rate to 97 percent, and by the end of my second year to 100 percent.

Additionally, we moved the school’s K-3 Literacy Grade on the state report card out of F status for the first time in the history of the measure. Not only were we able to move the promotion rate and K-3 grade, student test scores on NWEA Map testing increased so much so that the number of students scoring in the 95 percent percentile warranted the establishment of a gifted and talented program.

We further partnered with the community to establish a Boys and Girls Club on-site for aftercare and homework help, and forged a relationship with the Classical Guitar Society to provide music enrichment options to our students.

So, how did this happen? Is it merely as simple as being driven? Not exactly. I will tell you a little about myself and how in my experience politics played more of a role in increased results than practice.

WHO'S ROCKY?

I was born and raised on the West Side of Cleveland. The once industrial mecca was far from the shining city it was when I grew up there, but it’s home and like any true Clevelander, I could not be prouder to be from here. My neighborhood was a hub for Latinos, particularly Puerto Ricans. You can almost say I grew up in a bubble, not knowing that the rest of the world around me really wasn’t Puerto Rican.

The near West Side, as the neighborhood is often referred to by locals, was a wonderful place to grow up. Sure, there was crime and issues of urban plight, but as a kid it was a place that provided the fondest of memories. Growing up, I remember spending time on Clark Avenue and Scranton, getting ice cream and frituras (Puerto Rican fried snacks) and listening to Salsa music.

I went on to college and started a career, and eventually found myself at an impasse. I had studied business and was working as a manager for a company but I felt empty inside. I noticed that I had the outward appearance of American success: an advanced degree, a decent salary, a nice vehicle, a comfortable living situation, and plenty of disposable income. I began to ask myself whether those things really mattered.

I took some time to reflect and ask myself what I was truly interested in and why. Having grown up in an urban area, I realized that I had deep feelings on things such as income equality, and opportunity. I knew that a quality education was the key to unlock many opportunities, and combat these inequalities. I wondered if there was any way I could be a change agent.

I researched the possibility of getting into public education as someone who never studied education. I was admitted to the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) and had to decide if I was going to make the leap and move to New York City. Against advice from many, I arrived in New York one June.

If you have ever lived in New York or visited during the summer, you know exactly how stifling hot in can be. I began an intensive summer teacher prep program and found myself teaching high school English within a few weeks. Of course, this was a learning experience and I was with a certified co-teacher, but teaching a ninth-grade credit recovery course for students from all five boroughs was quite the adventure. I grew to love the work and the kids, and I knew I had made the right decision.

My first teaching job was in Harlem. I worked as a Bilingual Special education teacher while I completed my Masters of Science in Bilingual Special Education from City College. I grew to love teaching and learning. My passion was noticed by the administrative team, and soon I was asked to sit on committees, school-wide planning teams, and to be a teacher team leader. Given my previous management work in the private sector, I had many leadership skills that I could carry over into education.

My principal approached me one day and asked me if I had ever heard of Bankstreet College of Education. I had of course heard of it as I was an educator in NYC, but admittedly I did not know too much about it. She told me that she was an alumna of Bankstreet and that she was able to study there completely for free. She further asked me if I would be interested in her nomination to study school administration and compete for a full-ride scholarship. I was not certain that school administration was in my cards, but when asked to apply for an opportunity such as this, one rarely has a reason to say no.

I completed the application and essays, and waited to hear back from the program. I was called in for an interview, for which I was nervous, and a few weeks later received amazing news. There were around 50 applicants for the prestigious full-ride scholarship to Bankstreet, and it turns I was one of only a few students that was offered the full-ride scholarship. In some ways it was as if school leadership chose me and not the other way around.

I STUDIED TO BE A PRINCIPAL

I started the Bankstreet program in Leadership for Educational Change. I giggle at the title of this article, because at Bankstreet, I studied exactly that. The program was grounded in the idea of creating change in schools. It was two calendar years long and quite intense. The second year included a full year internship and action research project that involved creating change in your internship site. All this work takes place while you are still working full time, and taking courses.

I loved my experience at Bankstreet and found that it pushed my thinking in ways I never thought possible. Upon leaving, I truly felt that I had studied and prepared to be a principal. My family eventually began asking me to return. I was offered a job back in Cleveland, and subsequently on the day that Lebron James announced his return to Cleveland, I committed to moving back as well. I worked there for a year, before I received the call that would change my professional life and experience forever.

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the summer of 2015. For anyone that works in school turn-arounds, you know that days can feel like weeks, and months like years, so the fact that I can still experience the senses from that summer speaks to how pivotal that experience was for me. Like a typical Cleveland summer, I was of course sweating. Half sweating from the July heat, and half sweating from nerves.

Just a week and a half earlier, I was called to the central office and asked to take over for a school performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state of Ohio. I was placed right back in my old neighborhood on the Near West Side of Cleveland. The school had consistently been extremely low performing. In fact, ever since standards and accountability measures were introduced, the school failed to ever really reach any of the standards. I approached the building for morning meeting with the outgoing principal. He had just finished the end of his fourth year as building leader, and decided to move to a suburban district closer to his home.

At this point I was not sure what the journey of complete school turnaround would look like, but I was certain that I could not allow school performance to continue as it was. The student population was 75 percent Hispanic/Latino, and the school was located in the neighborhood in which I grew up and spent much of my formative years.

I was entering the work with a conviction and drive far stronger than that of an urban educator looking to create change and positive results. I was entering this work from the lens of it being personal. Herein I recount the highs and lows of my journey, and provide some insights in to how to start creating gains given the current political environments we face in public education.

PRINCIPAL OR POLITICIAN?

Research will show you that school turnaround is very difficult work. Unless you work in the realm of education, it is often difficult to understand the level of complexity and idiosyncrasy that goes into planning and executing change in a manner that is both positive and sustainable. On my journey, I noticed that one essential element, which underlies almost every aspect of how to engage in this work, is the element of politics. Whether we like to recognize it or not, public education is strewn with political power plays.

Whether it is at the building level or school board level, politics and wants and needs drive much of how things occur in public schools. Knowing that we are charged with creating higher outcomes for students, we often form plans revolving around the instructional core, curricular resources, interventions, and programs. While these are all very important aspects necessary to embrace in a journey towards school turn-around, if we lack some political savvy nature, the plans will oftentimes fall flat.

Consider how often you need to consult, or even schmooze for that matter? Soon after taking on my role, I found that no matter what you knew, it was all about how you delivered, and who you convinced. Here are some the “battles” and action plans I had to put in place in moving towards change at my school.

It seems like a simple practice that teachers will teach within their certified licensure areas. Once again, it seems like a simple practice that teachers will teach within their certified licensure areas. I say this twice as this was one of the first battles I had to fight when taking over the school. The school has a heavy English Language Learner (ELL), and more than 25 percent of students receive special education supports. I started to wonder about servicing. To my surprise, there were gaps in teaching assignments. By gaps, I mean over servicing of certain students, while under servicing of others, and yet other teachers teaching in grade bands and subjects in which they were not certified to teach.

So, how did I get through battle number one? Well, first I had to audit all licensure in the building. Then, I had to sit with the administrative team and devise a plan on how we would roll out the changes we knew were necessary. As with anything we had to be political. Coming in new, it is not as easy as just saying you are moving. I needed to meet with HR and double confirm licensure requirements. The administrative team had to review the union collective bargaining agreement to ensure we were not in violation of any articles. Furthermore, we needed to discuss the changes with the teacher’s union at the building level to ensure they understood the feedback and the why so that we were all on the same page with messaging.

All in all, the audit, planning, and politicking process took a couple weeks, but the results ended up being positive. The important piece here was ensuring we had all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed. Once that was done, we were able to work on buy-in and then present our pitch and changes. This does not sound like a difficult process per se, but it is more daunting than one thinks. Additionally, this is not something that you simply learn in a principal prep course.

While licensure is merely one example of the changes that occurred, rest assured that playing politician looms within most important decisions. I recall lesson planning guidance. I remember that I loved curriculum and lesson planning as a teacher and was shocked at others lack of interest in the topic.

So, how did I work with my team on moving the needle regarding lesson planning? This is an iterative and continuous process that we are working on until this day. All that being said, we have seen much progress in this area, and started to create the necessary change through politicking. As building leaders, could we have created harsh mandates and forced the process? Sure, there were some subtle elements of this, but if we wanted our teachers to engage in the work in an authentic way, we needed to be strategic, get the key players and influencers on board.

In approaching the work in this way, we were working to ensure authentic change and understanding around what lesson planning really was and its purpose. We started by looking at our current state, then determining what was needed to get the changes necessary. We requested copious amounts of feedback from staff and union heads at the building level. We needed this to know how to begin to draft a plan towards creating change. We needed to meet with teacher teams, provide them with extensive training, monitor use (repeatedly), and provide feedback, feedback, feedback. As previously stated, changes in planning practices are evident, but the need to be a politician in the planning and pitching of the proposal is of the utmost importance.

SO, WHAT'S NEXT?

While the gains to date are noteworthy, the work left to be done is extensive. The school is still not up to state standards, and we are still plagued with physical plant, instructional practice, and mindset issues. The benefit I feel that I have now is experience in the role of the principal politician at moving to create change.

Whether it is with your community (i.e. establishing a Boys and Girls Club), your staff, or central office, you will often need to schmooze to ensure your agenda gets pushed. No matter how many courses you have taken, you must remember that you are essentially selling your ideas. While there are sources of absolute power based on your role, merely exercising this power without a political frame and plan to drive it, usually merely results in compliance. While this may seem good to some, it is far from the authentic engagement in the work leaders would like to see for change to occur.


Ricardo “Rocky” Torres (rocky.a.torres@gmail.com) is a turnaround principal in Cleveland, Ohio.​

 

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