Creating and Sustaining Successful K–8 Magnet
September 2008
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Build Leadership Capacity

While much effort can go into finding just the right leader to start a magnet school, other such factors as retirement, promotion, or life circumstances requiring relocation can change things on a dime. With their pioneering spirit and ability to connect a school plan to a district vision, magnet school leaders are natural candidates for district-level positions. The founding principal at River Glen, for example, now serves as associate superintendent. It is not uncommon for magnet school teachers to become coordinators, assistant principals, or even founding members of new magnets trying to execute the same theme. Thus, magnet schools can profit from implementing a system of distributed leadership, in which leadership extends beyond the administrative offices or traditional titles. Such is the case at all of these featured schools; while each currently has a strong administrator leader at the helm, each has strong teacher leaders as well. Cultivating this broader base of empowered staff means that a school's performance does not rest solely on either the shoulders of a tiny group of upper-level personnel or on the presence of one charismatic leader, only to flounder when these people leave.

Today, two of the six featured schools still have their founding principal (Normal Park and Combs) while the other four have successfully changed leaders at least once. Staff report that having distributive models of leadership has been a critical component for these successful transitions.

Ray Swoffard, associate superintendent of Hamilton County, uses the term having a "strong bench" to describe the need for ongoing leadership development among staff. At each of the school sites, selected classroom teachers receive training or experience to ready them for a principalship or other administrative role. There is a clear expectation that every faculty member will be a decision-maker who serves as an agent of change to raise student achievement. There are plenty of opportunities to lead a committee, a project, or a personal charge. Taking initiative is encouraged and expected no matter what role one holds at these schools. As one Combs' belief statement puts it: "Leadership is a choice, not a position."

So, while longevity of tenure and seamless transitions can never be guaranteed, at each of the featured magnets, there appears to be a core of committed staff who can step up to take the reins if needed. For example, at FAIR, administrative leadership transitions were carefully supported by the steady presence of a group of founding classroom teachers and art instructors. New principals at Hoggard and River Glen report that they relied on the leadership of the magnet coordinators and key staff to help the school maintain its successful programs and practices as they moved into their new role.

Even without a principal succession to manage, a shared leadership model is a pragmatic policy, particularly for magnet schools, given the additional tasks involved in their implementation (e.g., recruitment, enrollment, public relations, creating and improving the facilities, developing innovative curriculum). In all the profiled schools, the magnet coordinator is reported to play a vital role, which in some cases is folded into an assistant principal position that manages many aspects of curriculum and program development. Parent liaisons, after-school coordinators, and district staff are also key players in managing projects and maintaining critical partnerships with families. In some schools, classroom teachers collaborate with grade-level team leaders and instructional support teams for co-teaching opportunities, handling discipline, and developing appropriate student interventions. In this circumstance, the school leader's primary role becomes empowering others by "modeling the way through hard work, high expectations, and the belief that everyone is important," says principal Summers of Combs. With this dynamic in play, schools can develop the strong bench from which leaders are home-grown throughout the building.

Take, for example, the number of staff involved in leading various programs at Hoggard. A document charts the many roles and responsibilities shared among faculty, including their leadership in academic life and parent activities (see fig. 5 on p. 32). The chart details staff roles in the area of parental involvement. One Hoggard teacher comments, "You can never complain about decisions after they are made because you will have always had a chance to have input." Staff committees are empowered to do research and bring in resources to help them make decisions, focusing on such areas as the school budget; safety and discipline; course work in mathematics, science, and technology; multicultural issues; and the library and the media.

Figure 5. Excerpt of Chart Showing Leadership Roles Across Mabel Hoggard Math and Science Magnet School Staff

Image shows which individual or groups are responsible for school events such as Principal Roundtables, Open House, Meet Your Teacher Day, Family Picnic, Family Math Night, and Fall Carnival.

Source: Mabel Hoggard Math and Science Magnet School. Used by permission.

The U.S. Department of Education does not mandate or prescribe particular curricula or lesson plans. The information in the figure above was provided by the identified site or program and is included here as an illustration of only one of many resources that educators may find helpful and use at their option. The Department cannot ensure its accuracy. Furthermore, the inclusion of information in this figure does not reflect the relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this information; nor is it intended to endorse any views, approaches, products, or services mentioned in the figure.

Even with distributed leadership in place, however, a new principal cannot always be found within existing staff, and, in that case, a careful transition process needs to be developed. Hoggard has a track record of choosing and supporting strong leaders, a legacy that helped sustain the school's success even after founder Bill Evans retired. Upon finishing their tenures as principals, Evans and his successor Jimmie Chapman have remained active in school life, serving as mentors for the current leader, Celese Rayford. Rayford was carefully selected and deliberately brought on in March 2005 before the end of the school year, with the intent of allowing time for relationship building and giving her early access to the teacher transferand-hiring process in case any staff decided to leave (although none did). Not every exiting principal can give up income to ease a leadership transition, as Chapman did, but all schools can benefit from establishing a well-thought-out leadership plan.

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Last Modified: 09/28/2009