March EOE Authors of the Month

1.What motivated you to write Leadership in America's Best Urban Schools?
Every year, we are inspired as we visit amazing elementary, middle, and high schools that achieve outstanding results for every demographic group they serve. While we know that the quality of teaching makes a huge difference, we also know that leaders played critical roles in influencing teaching and learning at these schools. We wanted to share what we have learned from outstanding leaders who have helped create some of America’s best urban schools.

2.Tell us a little about your work with the National Center for Urban School Transformation.
At the National Center for Urban School Transformation (NCUST), we pursue three goals. First, we seek to identify and celebrate great urban schools that achieve multiple evidences of excellence for every demographic group of students they serve. Annually, we conduct our America’s Best Urban Schools Award Program that allows us to identify, select, and award impressive urban elementary, middle, and high schools that do not utilize selective admissions criteria. We engage in a variety of efforts to learn more about how these schools achieve such strong results for all of their students. Secondly, we endeavor to share what we’ve learned about these amazing schools. In addition to writing articles and books, we host an Annual America’s Best Urban Schools Symposium, where we offer educators from across the country opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations with leaders from the great schools we award. Finally, we enter into partnerships with districts and schools that are eager to accelerate their progress toward becoming outstanding schools that achieve great results for every demographic group.

3.Briefly, what are the essential leadership characteristics found in high-preforming urban schools?
In high-performing urban schools, leaders are thoroughly convinced that all of their students can achieve excellent academic results. As well, the leaders are convinced that they can provide a quality and quantity of support that will enable their faculty and staff to make essential improvements in school culture, curricula, and teaching so that all students are likely to succeed. All of this requires 1) a powerful passion for educational excellence and equity; 2) a deep commitment to the students, families, and school personnel with whom one works; 3) great clarity about the changes needed in school culture, curriculum and instruction; and 4) a persistence that does not accept failure as a final outcome for any student or any group of students.

4.What is one of the biggest challenges facing urban schools today?
Our biggest challenge is the myth that urban schools are hopeless. Dozens of societal factors, organizational problems, and fiscal concerns lead many to perceive a lack of hope for urban schools and the students they serve. In contrast, each amazing school we have identified provides one more solid piece of evidence that we can create outstanding urban schools that can transform the lives of the children.

5.In your book, each chapter includes a section entitled, “What It Is and What It Isn’t.” Share with us one of your favorites.
Chapter 6 includes a “What it Is” about confronting disbelief. This is one of our favorites because unchecked comments and complaints can fester, creating a culture of apathy and low expectations in schools. Leaders must confront these comments in ways that nurture the shared belief that all students have the capacity and the right to be held to high expectations.

6.Your book provides a range of practical strategies for leaders. If you could share only one piece of advice with educators, what would it be?
Great leaders help many others exercise great leadership! One person can’t do this alone. Leaders must identify, nurture, and support others who will assume important roles in helping educators make sense of the curriculum together, design powerful lessons together, improve student engagement in learning together, analyze student work together, create a positive, transformational culture together, and celebrate success together.

7.Tell us one of your favorite stories about a school leader you’ve worked with or observed.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting and learning about the outstanding principals of our award recipient schools . One, in particular, shared the story of his first few years at the school – a remarkable story of persistence. “We had a school full of teachers who basically saw these students as poor kids who couldn’t learn,” the principal recounted. “We had five kindergarten classes, and the kids were all over the place. They were under the tables and hitting each other over the head with blocks, behaviors explained as ‘age appropriate.’ This had gone on for years. The kids would go on to first grade with nothing.” He continued. “Teachers were really comfortable with saying if these kids don’t get it at first, second, third, or fourth, they’ll get it at sixth, seventh, or eighth, but all they were doing was dropping out.” It was clear to the principal that his school needed a paradigm shift.
He began with kindergarten, providing full-day interventions to bring the children up to grade level. “You’ve got to see these kids as having the potential to do it. Here we were at zero benchmark. So, we put all of our resources in kinder. At the end of the year, we were at 93% benchmark, and those teachers’ paradigms started to shift. They said, ‘Wow, these kids can start learning.’”
By the end of his first year, the school had shed its school improvement status. But, the work had taken its toll. “I was ready to leave,” the principal admitted. His efforts to raise expectations were met with widespread resistance. “He was constantly being fought,” recalled the assistant superintendent. “It was hostile. Teachers were grieving everything. During staff meetings, everyone was complaining.” Yet, the principal persevered. “Through it all, he listened. He took notes. He saw the potential in these kids, and he out-weathered those naysayers,” the assistant superintendent explained.
The principal set his sights on supporting the handful of teachers who believed in his efforts to raise expectations. “I was just bold in standing by the teachers that were setting a standard.” He was in their classrooms every day, praising their work, acknowledging their contribution, and encouraging them as they pushed themselves and their students toward higher levels of performance. By the end of the year, the results said it all. The children in these classrooms had gained significant ground. With renewed confidence in the potential of their students and in the support provided by their principal, this small group of teachers began the paradigm shift that lead this school to be deemed one of America’s best urban schools.

8. What or who inspired you to become an educator?
Lynne: The teachers in my life.
Cynthia: When I was in high school, I had a chance to tutor a second-grade student in reading. I was motivated as I helped him learn.
Joe: When I was in high school, I discovered that one of my friends could not read. I tutored him as we rode the bus together.

9. What has been one of the most humbling experiences of your education career so far? 
We find ourselves learning from the principals and teachers we endeavor to support, just as we learn from the principals and teachers who have won our award. We are both humbled and inspired by dedicated educators who strive each day to improve the lives of those they serve.

10. And finally, please tell us your favorite thing about being in Education in one word.

About the Authors

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr. is Dean of the College of Education, Executive Director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation, and the QUALCOMM Professor of Urban Education at San Diego State University, USA.

Cynthia L. Uline is Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership and Director of the National Center for the 21st Century Schoolhouseat San Diego State University, USA.

Lynne G. Perez is Deputy Director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation at San Diego State University, USA.

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