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Strengthening K-12 school leadership

Strengthening K-12 School Leadership

The Geneva City School District had undergone a lot of turnover in leadership when Trina Newton was hired as superintendent in 2012, a year after it was identified by the state as a district in need of improvement, and the turnover wasn’t over even then. In fact, staff changes continue to this day as new positions are created and established positions are vacated then filled.
Trina Newton“Almost every single administrator in this district is new, so they needed guidance in order to become seasoned in a short period of time,” Newton, also now dealing with a majority-minority district going through its own changes, says of the past school year. “We had to realign and refocus.”
To do that, the district continued a longstanding relationship with the Warner School of Education’s Center for Professional Development and Education Reform, which provides leadership coaches that “help us think outside the box and push us to be innovative,” notes Newton.
Statistics from recent years are telling: The year Newton arrived, based on the latest information available at the time from 2008, the high school graduation rate was 70.6 percent; in 2014 it was 84.8 percent. The dropout rate, meanwhile, plummeted from 15 percent in 2010 to 7.9 percent in 2014.
Tracy Marchionda“We’ve had so many different types of changes, but the consistency for us has been Warner,” says Tracy Marchionda, director of innovative programs for the Geneva district, who has worked with a coach since 2011. “We know if we need something, they’re there. They’ve been invaluable to us.”
Coaching is the backbone of the leadership development program at the Center, which also provides workshops, administrative and school board retreats, and superintendent searches, as well as works with school districts interested in building leadership skills in teachers. The service assists organizations in increasing performance, retaining talent, and broadening perspectives.
It is a service in hot demand. The Center’s coaches went from guiding and supporting some 40 people in 2013-14 to nearly 146 people in 2014-15, a surge that happened exclusively through word-of-mouth. The New York State Council of School Superintendents has reached out about partnering on a number of projects, including one for the New York State Education Department to train teachers statewide to be peer evaluators, and to train others to serve as “outside evaluators.”
Coaches, who tend to be retired superintendents, principals, and other administrators regarded as all-stars in their field, meet with their matches once, sometimes twice a month, although they must be available at all times for emergencies.
“We’re invested in the people we work with,” says Mike Ford, the Center’s director of leadership development and a leadership coach. “We know how hard their jobs can be.”
In early June, Ford received an e-mail from a district leader he was coaching. “Any chance we can talk? Are you still up?” the note read. It was 10 o’clock at night. Ford picked up the phone and learned that a high school principal was having issues with the faculty and was about to do something harsh. He passed on some strategies the district leader could use to help diffuse the situation, which she did the next day in a meeting with both parties. “She masterfully brings the whole thing to a positive conclusion, and sends a quick text to say she’s so grateful and that the result was better than she ever imagined,” Ford recalls. The next day he receives another message from the woman, raving about the resolution. Three days later, however, another e-mail, this one at dinnertime and not so chipper. “The principal had backslid, made a couple fatal errors, blew up the whole thing,” he says.
Ford reminded the woman that she had helped the principal get on the right track once, and assured her it could be done again.
“It’s not always a direct line upward,” he explains. “You move to good places but people are people, things happen, and the line falls back.”
The upshot? As Ford told the district leader: “I’m sure this is going to turn out fine. It’s just not going to be easy.”
It’s comforting to hear an objective voice on the other end of the phone in a stressful, controversial or crisis situation, someone “who can say, ‘I hear what’s going on, I want you to think about this and this, take a deep breath and a step back, and don’t lose sight of the goal,” says Geneva’s Marchionda, whose coach recommended she read Michael Fullan’s The Six Secrets of Change: What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive.
Many educators find working with a coach challenging but critical in reaching their potential—and helping others reach theirs.
Michelle CrisafulliMichelle Crisafulli knows she has a strong personality, and that sometimes people are put off by her tendency to be overly analytical and direct. As principal of Van Buren Elementary School in the Baldwinsville Central School District, she worked with Ford during the 2014-15 school year to learn how to craft and deliver messages that took into account how they would be received. He worked with her one-on-one and sat in on a meeting to later model ways she could have handled some things differently.
“I was really focused on getting the mission accomplished, but wasn’t paying attention to how some of my decisions were being perceived politically,” she says.
Identifying her strengths and weaknesses ultimately gave her the confidence to look in her district and elsewhere for opportunities to move ahead in her career. As of July 1, she is principal of the Altmar Parish Williamstown School District’s Junior-Senior High School in Parish.
Confidentiality is crucial—and at times difficult for those at the top to embrace.
Ford recently talked with a district leader intrigued by the idea of coaching, but hesitant about being out of the loop if an issue arose and he couldn’t offer feedback.
“I said, ‘Can I help you understand one thing?’” Ford remembers. “‘Sometimes their issue is you, and they don’t want to talk to you about how to deal with you.’”
Jeramy ClingermanJeramy Clingerman, superintendent of the Marcus Whitman Central School District in Rushville, is on board with that line of logic.
“I want administrators to be open in their thoughts and ideas and conversations that are taking place, and know that none of it is coming back to me,” says Clingerman, whose district has five coaches funded through a grant. (One-third of districts that work with Warner in this way use grants to cover 100 percent of the cost, which runs about $4,800 for superintendents and $2,400 for building-level leaders.) “This is an opportunity for growth, a time to process and formulate. I don’t want them to feel like everything is an evaluation.”
Despite a career in education spanning more than two decades, Brad Zilliox, high school principal in the Wheatland-Chili Central School District in Scottsville, appreciates the opportunity to explore ideas with a coach without involving his superior. “Regardless of your years of experience, it’s always a comfort to have that option,” he says.
For the past two years, Zilliox has seen a growth in the number of students transferring into his rural district from other environments, with some behind in their graduation track and with learning gaps. Many of them feel like a fish out of water in their new school, so Zilliox has been digging into their academic profiles with help from a coach to find ways to make better connections with individual students and their families.
“In this age where we rely a lot on e-mail or letters or recorded calls, we’re going back to more of an old-school approach,” he says, “by forcing face-to-face conversations with the students and parents together, to focus on this idea of partnership and working as a team.”
That collaborative spirit also applies to coaches and the people the leadership development program is currently working within more than 20 school districts throughout Western New York.
“People often ask about the difference between coaches and mentoring,” Ford says. “Mentors tend to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. We tend to go into coaching with questions rather than declaratives.”
Geneva’s Newton is ready for more questions. “We’re not where I want to be,” she admits. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but until every single subgroup across the board has at least a 90-percent graduation rate, I’m not going to be happy.”
Crisafulli, now at Altmar Parish Williamstown, didn’t even need to be in contact with her coach to hear his advice.
“You know that angel and devil on your shoulders?” asks Crisafulli. “It was like having Mike as the angel on my shoulder. When I had to make a decision, I’d think, ‘How would he approach this?’ I would consider him my friend and somebody I can call for the rest of my life and say, ‘Can I run something by you?’ I’d have no hesitation about that.”