How can you create positive, lasting transformation in a school district? One way is to offer support to its principals.
This has been a key strategy in the ongoing partnership between Michigan State University and Flint Community Schools. The partnership now heads into its second year with a renewal of a 2.1 million dollar grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
Barbara Markle, assistant dean and director of MSU’s Office of K-12 Outreach, says they send outreach specialists into Flint schools to work directly with principals.
“I think it’s very important to note that we are not putting programs, per se, into the Flint Community Schools. Rather, our goal is to build the capacity of the people who are there.”
And who better to help build that capacity, than people who have been principals themselves?
Retired principal Shirley Jackson is one of the academic outreach specialists with MSU helping to coach principals in Flint. She served for 8 years as a principal in both Detroit and Southfield Public Schools. She says one of the biggest problems principals face is isolation.
“Sometimes principals who work largely in isolation need a thinking partner to help them organize their understanding of their work and to reflect on what is needed in their classrooms. We act as mediators between them and their thinking to help them build some strategies.”
The coaches are available to the principals whenever they need them. They might join them in an early morning meeting, accompany them in classrooms, or meet with them after school to reflect on the challenges of the day.
“Principals have those ‘aha’ moments all of the time and they probably wouldn’t have those moments if they didn’t have someone to ask them the right questions,” says Jackson.
Other aspects of the MSU partnership with Flint Community Schools have involved working with the school district’s central office to improve communication and systems, and focusing on early childhood development.
So far, two schools, Neithercut Elementary and Eisenhower Elementary, have made such significant improvements they’ve been removed from the state’s priority list.
Flint Community Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab says that in this second year they will add another focus.
“Transitions has been our focus in this next year. How do we help kids be successful as they transfer from the elementary to the middle from the middle to the high from the pre k to the K-12, because you could lose kids in those transition periods and we don’t want to do that.”
Tawwab says the district has seen tremendous gains since the partnership with MSU’s Office of K-12 outreach began, and that they will press on to see continued results.
“We have to continue the work we started, I think that’s very important. We’re not where we want to be but we definitely are headed in the right direction.”