District Support Is Key to Principal Success

The following post originally appeared on the Learning Policy Institute’s Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog, a series that explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

In September, Steven Elizondo, principal of Golden Hill K–8, a dual-language immersion school in San Diego, began the complicated task of planning for “phase one” of school reopening. Golden Hill, like all district schools, had started the school year online. But students who needed on-site support, including elementary students who were experiencing learning loss and special education students with high needs, would be back on campus in mid-October, while others would continue with distance learning. The logistics for starting in-person learning safely and getting the correct information to families and staff were daunting. But Principal Elizondo was not in it alone. Thanks to the district’s collaborative learning structure, he and his counterparts at other schools were able to tap the expertise and experience of a colleague who had developed protocols and processes for returning to school, as well as a communications strategy for families and staff. Using these models saved precious time and supported consistent practices across the district.

This is just one example of the way in which collaboration and a strong sense of community among principals, facilitated and encouraged by the district, build Elizondo’s capacity—and that of his colleagues—to lead in a difficult and unprecedented time.

High-functioning school principals are essential for ensuring that students have access to strong educational opportunities. They shape a vision of academic success for all students; create the conditions necessary for teaching and learning; cultivate leadership in others so that all adults feel empowered to realize their school’s vision; guide instructional decisions that improve teaching and learning; and manage people, data, and processes to foster school improvement. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has focused increased attention on the stark inequities in educational opportunity that are driving vastly different experiences for students and families, the role of the principal has become even more critical in identifying and meeting students’ needs.

By fostering a collaborative culture and ensuring that principals have needed resources and supports, districts play an essential role in the success of site leaders and the students, staff, and families in their school community. This is one of the findings of a September 2019 Learning Policy Institute study of districts in California in which students had outperformed their peers in state math and English language arts assessments. An examination of the practices in seven of these “positive outlier” districts—including San Diego, where Golden Hill K–8 is located—found effective leadership practices to be central to school success. Key district-level strategies for promoting these practices include fostering a positive learning culture by listening to and empowering educators, engaging leaders in collaborative professional learning, and being responsive to principals’ site-level needs.

As with schools all over the country, Golden Hill closed its doors to in-person instruction in March 2020. While the transition to online learning was difficult for the school of 450 students, Golden Hill—whose population includes 25 percent English language learners and 90 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch—had some distinct advantages, including helpful district structures and supports.

Durable and Supportive District Structures

Elizondo and the Golden Hill community benefited from the backing and support of the district. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) had established structures to support a districtwide community of learners, including among its school principals. First, the district fostered a positive culture in which educators work together to support the growth of all students. This served as a model for principals’ interactions with teachers and with the broader school community.

Under Elizondo’s leadership, the school had developed a supportive and respectful culture, a commitment that Elizondo doubled down on when the pandemic hit. As stated in his message to the Golden Hill community, “A positive culture is the foundation of all successful schools. I believe this can be achieved by getting to know the students, staff, and families; developing a strong social/emotional learning program; and treating everyone with the kindness, love, and respect we all deserve.”

Explained Elizondo, “When everyone starts with the same intent—that we are all here for the kids—the principals are much more open to saying, ‘Hey, I actually don’t know how to do this,’ or ‘Can you provide some direction?’ or ‘This is where I need support. In turn, staff are going to be more willing to be vulnerable and reach out when they need support.”

SDUSD maintains a positive culture, in part, by being responsive to principals’ needs. For example, principal conferences and other district-sponsored learning opportunities cover topics that directly address issues that principals grapple within their schools, such as supporting students with diverse learning needs and implementing Common Core State Standards. The district also has structures in place (through area superintendents and subject matter experts) to provide ongoing support and connect principals to the resources they needed, like guidance on planning a master schedule and suggestions for course offerings.

Finally, the district facilitates collaborative professional learning opportunities for principals that promote schoolwide, cross-school, and often cross-role collaboration. The primary vehicles for facilitating collaborative learning are principal conferences—learning events focused on developing best practices and building community. As part of every conference, principals meet in their area groupings (of approximately 25 principals) where they share resources and ideas. “When I’m struggling with something, such as addressing a family with a particular struggle, being able to go to my colleagues and do some brainstorming and collectively come up with some ideas has been great,” reflected Elizondo.

In this time of COVID-19, district structures and practices continue to support principals as they lead their schools. The district’s positive culture was foundational to supporting a smoother transition to online learning. The trust that had been cultivated over the years made it much easier for educators and community members to work together to create safe and healthy learning environments.

By providing critical assistance, like training in effective distance learning, the district provided tangible support for Principal Elizondo and the teachers and staff at Golden Hill, and it further cultivated the positive, cooperative culture. This district support included ensuring that food was distributed to families in need and that all students had computers and internet access. Also, schools that needed assistance reaching students who were chronically absent were assigned a district staff member to connect with students and families through home visits and other means.

The Essential Role of Professional Learning

In addition to continuing principal conferences and collaboration among principals virtually, the district provided other professional learning opportunities to meet the schools’ current needs. A major focus was on how to be effective in an online environment. For example, this year Principal Elizondo’s area superintendent is working with him on facilitating his school’s professional learning communities and is joining him to co-lead the work online.

Collaborative professional learning opportunities continue to facilitate principal cooperation. Although the schools have closed to most in-person learning, principal conferences continue to provide a forum for site leaders to connect with one another. These events have proven to be especially useful as principals struggle to lead schools during the pandemic. Principals are now using virtual breakout rooms during Zoom sessions to collaborate on everything from presentations for parent meetings to developing surveys to determine what students need for productive online learning.

Along with professional learning for principals, the district provided a series of modules for teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, and counselors, as well as new online resources for teachers thrust into the unfamiliar world of distance learning. For example, math department staff created slides to correspond with the math curriculum for each of the 13 grade levels in each of the units. Teachers can use these slides to support their online instruction.

States and districts can use federal funds to support these and other evidenced-based practices. Specifically:

  • States can allocate up to 5 percent of the funding they receive under Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to teacher and leader development and an additional 3 percent exclusively for leadership investments.
  • To help states and districts address some aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides early childhood settings, schools, and districts with nearly $16.75 billion in federal funds. This funding can be used by districts to provide “principals and other school leaders with the resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools.” States and districts can also use these funds for any activity authorized under ESSA, such as leadership development and support.

Future stimulus aid for schools will likely include similar allowable uses of funds, which districts and states will also be able to use to support principals.

Elizondo’s experience is supported by the research. LPI studies of principal turnover (conducted in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals) and principal professional development (conducted in partnership with the National Association of Elementary School Principals) speak to the importance of the district role in supporting, empowering, and retaining effective school leaders.

According to LPI’s review of the research on principal turnover, having access to high-quality professional learning (including professional development content focused on principals’ learning needs), in-service supports such as mentoring and coaching, and opportunities to network with peers can improve principals’ sense of efficacy and satisfaction and, in turn, improve retention. Further, district supports, including district strategies for retaining principals, and other forms of central office assistance can be related to principals’ decisions on whether to continue in a school and a district.

Unfortunately, our research found that principals in high-poverty schools and in schools with higher percentages of students of color were less likely to be supported by their districts. In these studies, more than 4 in 5 surveyed principals reported facing obstacles to participating in professional learning. The obstacles most often cited were lack of time, lack of money, and insufficient coverage to leave the building. Districts could address these obstacles by providing principals with the time they need to engage in professional learning, the financial support to cover expenses, and the staffing needed to provide coverage.

An Investment That Pays Dividends

The approaches, structures, and practices that school districts put in place to support principals can change principals’ experiences and ability to successfully lead their schools. These efforts also go a long way in supporting districts to effectively serve their communities, both in “typical” times and in the midst of a crisis.

Stephane Levin is a research manager at the Learning Policy Institute.

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