Monthly Archives: September 2014

Successful School Leadership: A Conversation with an “America’s Best High Schools” Principal – Part 2 of 4

Last week, we introduced you to our blog series on successful school leadership and discussed leadership within a school. This week, we take a look at leadership as it relates to educating diverse groups of students.


Educating Diverse Groups of Students: Many school leaders work with populations that are increasingly diverse and may not be experiencing success in school. This includes children from low-income families or whose cultural backgrounds or characteristics fall outside of the mainstream. Evidence suggests that successful leaders of schools in highly diverse contexts focus their effort on five sets of tasks:

– Building powerful forms of teaching and learning.

– Creating strong communities in school and strengthening school culture.

– Expanding the proportion of students’ social capital valued by the schools.

– Nurturing the development of families’ educational cultures.

– Identifying and articulating a vision and building collaborative processes that foster open communication.


It goes without saying that leadership practices and the management of a school have a direct correlation on student culture and the expectation for students to achieve higher standards.

It is a challenging necessity to keep students engaged at any level, but in communicating with teenagers and trying to understand “the nature of the beast,” it becomes even more difficult to instill a love for learning in them. So how does University High School (UHS) manage to do so? UHS principal John Pehrson sums it up with the following: “I think we instill ‘it’s cool to be good at whatever you do.’ We celebrate accomplishments. We expect kids to behave and succeed in a certain way and kids respond accordingly. We honor strong character and deal with weak character in a dignified way. We initiate conversations and discussions on meaningful and higher level topics. We attempt to steer conversations and actions from ‘self’ to ‘others’.”

Galen Hunsicker, professor of zoology at Vanguard University for 20 years, and currently a science teacher at UHS, is no stranger to the tactics and necessary nurturing required to keep students engaged. When asked about the school’s student culture and how it contributes to higher standards, Hunsicker replied, “Just look at the fantastic spirit within the more than 100 clubs on campus! When teachers are completely valued within their respective disciplines, then naturally, they feel encouraged to explore new ways to teach concepts. When the administration models positive and creative leadership, so will teachers in the classroom. All of this funnels down to our precious students, who then will be encouraged to explore, to create, to analyze and think more critically. What follows will be greater willingness for students to own their success and reach for higher standards.”

Successful School Leadership: A Conversation with an “America’s Best High Schools” Principal – Part 1 of 4

Scratch the surface of an excellent school, and you are likely to find an excellent principal. Look into a failing school, and you’ll typically find signs of weak leadership. Leaders are thought to be essential for high-quality education. But is this indeed true and, if so, exactly how does leadership work?

School leaders set the tone in a school community. They play a prominent role in defining a vision and driving it forward, but how important are school leaders in promoting learning, and what are the essential functions of a successful leader?

How Leadership Influences Student Learning, a study commissioned by The Wallace Foundation and conducted by The Universities of Minnesota and Toronto, concluded that leadership is not only essential for quality education but second only to teaching among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school.

Based upon research of well-documented and well-accepted knowledge about leadership at the school level, we have identified the following categories of practices as important for leadership success in almost all education settings and organizations:

  • Leadership within the school
  • Educating Diverse Groups of Students
  • Accountability
  • Autonomy vs. centralization


Leadership Within the School

Leaders influence student learning by helping to promote vision and goals and by ensuring that resources and processes are in place to enable teachers to teach well. Below are some leadership practices that help successful schools function as high-quality learning communities:

– Charting a clear course that everyone understands, creating high performance expectations, and using data to track progress and performance.

– Developing people – providing teachers and others in the system with the necessary support and training to succeed.

– Making the organization work by ensuring that the entire range of conditions and incentives in districts and schools fully supports rather than inhibits teaching and learning.

– Allowing the “right balance of tightness and looseness” to tap into the sources of motivational commitment and energy necessary to make positive changes.

– Creating shared meanings and fostering the acceptance of group goals, while also providing individualized support when necessary.

– Understanding that everything is about human capital.


University High School (UHS) in Irvine, California, is a great example of how leadership practices are implemented to positively influence student learning and motivate a school to focus on high-quality education.

UHS was named the best public high school in California and 8th best public high school in America in 2011 by Newsweek. It was also the highest ranked institution on the list that was not a charter or magnet school.

The school has consistently made Newsweek’s list of Best High Schools and, in 2012, set a national record for the most students (ten) from one school to receive a perfect score on the ACT, a feat that less that 0.1% of all students who take the ACT manage to do.


John Pehrson, principal of UHS, suggests the best things a leader can do to have the greatest impact on the success of their school are to:

  • Hire the right people and get out of the way
  • Empower people to exercise their gifts and talents to move a school forward in a positive way
  • Celebrate accomplishments
  • Maintain an open door policy
  • Focus on balance in kids
  • Encourage and support initiative and risk taking, and welcome mistakes


We’ll continue this conversation next week, focusing on the topic of educating diverse groups of students. Do you think Pehrson is accurate? Are there other ways for a principal to have the greatest impact on his/her school?

An Open House with welcoming arms

A good first impression makes a difference! Your first Open House or Back-to-School night gives teachers an opportunity to create a personal connection with parents, gain parents’ support, and establish ways for continued communication throughout the school year.


Before deciding what to do for your school’s open house, walk through your school building and classrooms with the eyes of a parent. Pretend you are walking in for the very first time.  Do your hallways offer a welcoming presence?  Are your restrooms clean?  Are your classrooms colorful and reflective of students work?



Most parents want to see an organized building/classroom with friendly and welcoming teachers and staff.  They are not typically concerned about how many science tests are given, or what materials you use to teach math.  Parents generally want a good understanding of what their child’s school year will be like, how issues will be communicated and handled by teachers/staff, and what they can do to help ensure their child has a successful school year. Here are some ideas to incorporate into your next open house.


Open House School Ideas

Open House

Five Ideas for Open House

Tips for Open House and Back to School Night

Host a Successful Open House



First Impressions Matter

First impressions are lasting impressions. It takes just one-tenth of a second for an individual to make a judgment about someone or something, and most likely, that first impression will never change.

In the case of a school, how can you ensure that you are being judged accurately? How can you make a good first impression on parents? Successful schools do it all the time; they make themselves distinctive and memorable.


More and more, school choice is becoming a powerful element for parents, students, and teachers. It is the reason that a parent will travel across town to a different neighborhood daily in order for their child to attend a school outside of their immediate school zone. So what do successful schools do to create a good first impression and make traveling across town compelling enough to parents? Here are a few tips:

Your frontline should be a pleasure

There is nothing more frustrating to a potential parent than calling a school for information and hearing an unfriendly, unenthusiastic, unknowledgeable voice on the other end. On the phone or in person, your frontline staff should be courteous, helpful, and if needed, empathetic. Make an anonymous call to your school’s admissions office and see how you are treated. Email the admissions office and see how promptly you are answered. Note the quality of the response. Does it represent the atmosphere and feel that you want from your school?

School tours and visits weigh more than you think

Nothing sways a prospective parent more than a school tour. Your best people should be put on this important part of the public relations process. Make sure your tour guide is extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the school. Parents like to see students in action, so plan tours during the time of day that most closely portrays "a day in the life" of a typical student. Have examples on hand that show accomplishments, events, or activities that set you apart from other schools.

Rehearse the entire experience so that you get it right. Take a tour with your designated tour guide from the perspective of a parent. When inspecting a school, parents don’t miss a thing and are easily impressed by enthusiasm, knowledge, and courtesy. Ask questions as if you were looking for a school for your own child.

Your website is your school's welcoming center

A school’s website is usually the first thing a visitor sees. A good website is cohesive, informative, and easy to navigate. Keep it simple and appealing with a logical flow of information and messaging. And most importantly, make sure your website is providing timely, up-to-date information. A school's website should reflect the school's strength and character and speak to its audience appropriately.

Laborious registration = unhappy parent 

First impressions count in marketing your school just as much as they do in any endeavor. Are parents spending hours waiting in long lines to register? Are they required to fill out stacks of paperwork before even setting foot on your campus? Do they have to make several trips to your office over the summer to turn in paperwork? These types of activities create a negative first impression. No wonder parents aren’t excited about signing up for the PTA, volunteering as room mom, or contributing to your annual fundraiser. You’ve given them a bad first impression, so for the rest of the school year, they do whatever it takes to stay away.

Not only does an online registration system help increase enrollment and streamline the application and registration process, but it also portrays a stress-free, open, inviting environment for your parents.

When it comes to schools, school choice is a powerful element that can help create the conditions for a successful school. Families make relocating and home purchasing decisions around which schools they want or don’t want their children to attend. Don’t pass up an opportunity to show your best side. Put your best foot forward in the beginning so that parents receive an authentic impression.

What are you doing to make a good first impression and portray a stress-free, open, inviting environment to your parents?

Are You a School Choice School?

Americans are looking for schools they can trust. Confidence in public schools is on a decline, and an increasing number of parents are opting out of neighborhood schools and entering the chaotic, developing marketplace of school choice.

Charter schools, other public schools within a district, Montessori schools, religious-based schools, and even homeschooling have all become viable options for parents trying to find a healthy, high-functioning learning environment for the education of their child – all in all, a school that is successful.

school choice school

But the elusive recipe for school success is extremely difficult to convey simply and clearly. Yes, test scores are a valuable measurement, but in many cases, they are overvalued.

One paragraph doesn’t tell the story of a book. Similarly, one test score doesn’t tell the tale of a school. Using one tool that is as limited as a one- or two-day test doesn’t accurately portray a school's success.

Although test scores are important, rarely should they be the sole determinant for examining what makes a school successful. A school is a cohesive entity that relies on many factors to ensure a better education for all students.

Research shows that there is not a single thing that schools can do to ensure high student performance. However, research also shows that high-performing schools tend to have similar characteristics that make them successful.

K-12 Online has shared some insight from a few of our successful schools. Take a look at our blog series on successful school leadership.

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