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What Makes a Successful Urban School Leader?

It's an easy question to ask, but hard to answer. A group of experts discuss the many attributes needed.

From making sure a school is safe to maintaining academic standards to meeting NCLB requirements, urban school principals have to attend to a plethora of issues within the walls of their buildings. But what makes a principal effective? What leadership skills do they need to succeed?

Many people agree this is a key issue in K-12 education, and a new institute being developed by the College Board aims to quantify those requirements and help train principals to become more effective leaders. The College Board, which opened five new schools in New York City between 2004 and 2005 and is developing up to 18 total grade 6-12 public schools, held a forum in September in Chicago with education leaders on just what makes an effective building leader. The goal: to gather ideas of what skills principals can focus on sharpening during training sessions at a new leadership institute.

The issue has so many facets that the educators who attended the forum filled 148 pages of notes. Topics discussed ranged from principals needing to understand how students learn to whether school boards are too political and interfere with principals' authority.

The key to good leadership is consistency--in authority and in instruction, says Michael N. Riley, superintendent of the Bellevue (Wash.) School District. But this is a factor that principals can't always control. Too often, school boards overrule building leaders and superintendents. District leaders who may be making changes to schools often have to stop when new boards change policies. If principals are to be effective, then school governance needs to stabilize, he says.

Another way to help principals be better leaders, says Riley, is to make them understand exactly what constitutes good instructional methods.

"We had an honest discussion about what we know about instruction and whether the United States has a way of identifying what good instruction is," Riley says.

Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, who also attended the forum, says principals can be isolated in their jobs. They don't often get the chance to communicate with other principals. Principals should seek out mentors--either retired principals or administrators in the district who once served as principals--to talk to about their daily struggles.

"Principals have to take care of themselves," Sparks says.

The Care and Feeding of Staff

They also have to take care of their staff. Establishing honest relationships within their building is key to how the school will perform, educators say.

"There are programs for cultivating student socialization, but if those are going to be successful, it's really important adults in the building be models," Sparks says. "They need to learn how to be more committed listeners, how to engage with other people and have really honest, open conversations about important things."

It's all about conscious leadership, says Helen Santiago, executive project director of the College Board Way.

"Conscious leadership is about understanding why you make the choices you do, being reflective about those choices and how any choices you make will have multiple impacts when they hit the school," says Santiago.

Santiago and Marlyn Lawrence, executive project director for Leading the College Board Way, say key overall themes emerged from the forum. These include the need for principals to create a positive culture, be open to making changes, understand the impact of decisions, communicate well and align curriculum with instruction.

Creating a culture can mean everything from what kinds of information and student work are posted throughout the building to how teachers talk to students and to each other. "The culture defines the identity of the school, its primary mission and overall vision," says Santiago.

Principals also have to be committed to helping their school make changes. "You have to make your school adaptable," Lawrence says.

Because principals can at one minute be facilitating meetings and the next minute be on the phone with the press, they have to be good communicators, says Santiago. They also have to focus on allowing staff to communicate and work together. This can be as simple as making sure the daily schedule allows time for teachers to spend time with one another, says Lawrence. DA

Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.