Courageous Leadership in Public Education

    You’ll find big “C” Courage on Texas’ public school campuses, but it’s most often the little “c” courage that promotes success of school leaders, schools and students.

    It had already been a hectic January day. It was early in the month of the brand new semester – that time of year when every superintendent, principal and teacher bargains with a higher power for all to go well, then slips on the comfortable shoes, grabs the walkie-talkie, and prepares – not for the worst – but for anything.

    Anything. Like feral cats.

    In the world of public school leaders, feral cats represent one of the more minor issues that can throw a perfectly fine day into full-tilt mayhem. Educators know this.

    So, on that day, when former principal and current Grand Prairie ISD superintendent Susan Simpson Hull received an email from a neighborhood citizen about feral cats under the school building, she didn’t think twice. Let’s go get those cats, she thought. Let’s keep the kids safe.

    “I responded to the email, you know, ‘Thanks for alerting me to the problem; the safety of our children is most important,’” Hull says. “But she [the citizen] wrote back saying the cats are not being taken care of; that they live under the school building; that someone has put a metal plate over the vent. She accused the principal of poisoning the cats and said she was going to contact all the animals rights groups. She even said she was going to report me for animal cruelty! At first, I thought she was saying we had a cat problem, but she was saying I wasn’t taking care of the feral cats!”

    The situation was handled, but Hull says it’s just one of a million stories she could tell about school leaders taking on all sorts of roles.

    “Like, a few years ago, we said no more ‘heat and serve’ food,” Hull says. “Just fresh veggies, salad bars and fruits, and our food would be cooked and prepared in the cafeterias instead of pre-packaged. One parent – a healthcare worker – was furious, and said we had served chicken on the salad bar with the raw salads and vegetables. I was very concerned about that. We discovered with a little investigation it wasn’t chicken at all, it was ham!”

    Feral cats and raw chicken fears. There’s that. Then, there are budget shortfalls, personnel problems, academic underachievement and disciplinary issues. Despite the nature of the complication, experts say time and time again our school leaders bring to the fore a kind of courage that is seldom fully appreciated.

    When most people think about courage, they imagine firemen bravely charging into burning homes, police officers heroically taking down criminals, climbers fearlessly scaling mountains, or military forces valiantly fighting in war.
    “That is the dominant view of courage – the big ‘C’ courage – battlefield courage or the football player with the broken wrist who runs the last play,” says Terry Chadsey, executive director of the Center for Courage & Renewal in Seattle. “The dominant story [on courage] is about that. A man saves the day.”

    School leaders certainly sometimes live in that big ‘C’ world. When asked what she would tell someone aspiring to be a principal about the role of a school leader, Ellie Maxwell, principal at Cibolo Creek Elementary in Boerne ISD, responds with blunt counsel.

    “You have to be strong instructionally. Don’t go into it because you don’t want to teach. You have to have the heart and the passion – otherwise, it will chew you up and spit you out.” Then she offers a series of stark, even chilling, questions for prospective principals to ask themselves. Questions that go way beyond curriculum, budgets, team building, and classroom management.

    “I would ask if you are willing to address the needs of that child who scares you. Are you willing to look into that strange car in the parking lot. Are you willing to put yourself in harm’s way for a child, even put yourself between that kid and an AK-47.”

    That is the big ‘C’ courage. The one we all hear about. The kind from news reports that draw tears.

    “I would ask if you are willing to address the needs of that child who scares you. Are you willing to look into that strange car in the parking lot. Are you willing to put yourself in harm’s way for a child, even put yourself between that kid and an AK-47.”

    Ellie Maxwell
    Principal, Cibolo Creek Elementary in Boerne ISD

    However, Chadsey says this, thankfully, is not the everyday courage needed in the public school environment.

    “The root of the word courage in Latin, cor, is ‘heart’,” he says. “We think of the courage that really moves the world and transforms the lives of young people. Meaning and purpose versus achievement. For many it takes getting knocked back – asking how do I reconcile these really hard things that happen in every leader’s life? Our solutions are Dig in. Let’s work harder, faster. Let’s define the next hot strategy that’s going to fix everything, creating untenable environments and organizations. Even ones that look successful or have successful margins, they just scratch the surface. You’ll find the adults are literally killing themselves. The question is, how do we think differently to create human-sustainable organizations that really help kids?”

    The Center for Courage & Renewal, founded by author, activist and educator Parker Palmer, works to create a healthy world by “nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it.” The group’s offerings include various retreats and development programs specifically designed for teachers, educators and administrators.

    “The most important component of any leader is their capacity to bring their full selves to their day-to-day work,” Chadsey says. “Our society today has an unquestioned space all about external stuff: The right curriculum and accountabilities – we’ll solve any problem. Look around, how is that working for us? Look at healthcare, education, global policy, economics. We’re in a mess. We’re missing the humanity. Without that internal reflection…we’re staying in first gear. We’re not using our full capacity. There’s an organizational picture of this in public schools.”

    It’s not all bad news, though. Some educators in school districts around Texas are successfully taking risks, trying new approaches to education, and reaping great results.

    Take, for instance, Quest Early College High School in the Humble school district just outside Houston. Quest High School isn’t your typical brand of secondary education. Founded in 1995, Quest was the product of a group of determined progressive educators answering the call of students asking for an alternative to the district’s two, 3,000-plus-pupil high schools. Those educators did their homework, traveled and studied smaller school models in America and Canada, then returned to Humble ISD and built Quest.

    “It’s fascinating that a public school district was so progressive that it allowed for teachers to design the school,” says Kim Klepcyk, former Quest principal who is now Dean of Academic Partnerships and Initiatives at Lone Star College in Kingwood. Klepcyk is downright reverential when speaking about the freedom she and her staff experienced.

    “We did things like completely integrated curriculum – all the disciplines taught together,” she says. “We’re talking mastery learning and a rubric for grading everything. We tried to be generalists with a lot of performance assessment.” According to Klepcyk, the staff was allowed to experiment, and learn from failures. For a while.

    Klepcyk said “status-quo, prescriptive standardized testing” eventually pulled the reins on much of what Quest was trying to do. “It undid the reform.”

    Not entirely, though. When Klepcyk left, her assistant principal Ginger Noyes took over. In its fifth year as an early college high school, students are graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, giving them a head start on whatever road they choose to pursue. Noyes, who still works closely with Klepcyk coordinating what happens on the high school and college campuses, continues to push the curriculum envelope in ways she believes the founders of Quest originally intended.

    “The first and very significant thing we do here is called ‘family,’” she says.

    Students from each grade level are grouped together in a family. Each family has an advisor. That group meets daily for 40 minutes to perform activities, advise one another, help each other with school projects, etc. Students within a family stay together throughout their four years of high school. As seniors graduate out, new freshman are brought into the family.

    “If you ask kids at Quest what they like most, the first thing they’ll say is family,” Noyes says. “It all goes back to family and the culture and structure we create.”

    And on Fridays, you won’t find the students at school.

    “On Fridays, every student is accounted for, then they’re taken by bus to a service site,” Noyes says. “A lot of our younger kids perform service at various elementary schools where they’re paired with a teacher. They read to the younger children, work on math problems. Some students go to a surgical hospital where they stock shelves, talk to doctors, or walk through on rounds.”

    Others are interns at the daily newspaper, or they’re at law offices, dental practices, vet clinics, assisted living facilities. Quest has partnered with a host of community organizations to make the Friday service days an integral and invaluable part of the school week.

    “A lot of them have gotten jobs through service partners when they graduate,” Noyes says. “They get going and it just takes off.”

    Amen Mesfin and Carlos Arthur Elizalde Sanchez are both seniors who have attended Quest all four years of high school. Mesfin is preparing to go to Baylor University and study to become a cardiovascular surgeon while Sanchez plans to study finance at Sam Houston State. Both credit their principal and school with planting seeds of success in their lives.

    “Principal Noyes is phenomenal,” says Mesfin. “She has always supported me in everything I’ve wanted to do.”

    “Quest expands the student’s knowledge and prepares them for the real college lifestyle,” says Sanchez. “Principal Noyes is a visionary.”

    “The courage we’re talking about is the courage of school leaders sitting in their offices alone at the end of a really long day, thinking about what they’re going to do next. That can get really lonely.”

    Terry Chadsey
    Executive Director, Center for Courage & Renewal

    It takes courage to knowingly walk into a principalship at a school that has a poor academic record and have everyone looking at you to turn it around. It takes courage to sit across from a dissatisfied parent or a disheartened student who is looking to you to hear them out and ease their pain. It takes courage to bring your ideas and convictions to a table of astute peers and higher-ups who will test your mettle and resolve every chance they get.

    “Those are examples of the kind of courage I have nothing but respect for,” Chadsey says. “The courage we’re talking about is the courage of school leaders sitting in their offices alone at the end of a really long day, thinking about what they’re going to do next. That can get really lonely.”

    Superintendent Hull has experienced that kind of loneliness. The loneliness that comes when you think you’re doing something for the good of your schools and your communities only to get pushback by the very people you’re trying to help. Hull believed she was doing the right thing when, a few years ago, after her school district lost about $15 million because of statewide education cuts, she proposed closing a small neighborhood elementary school — one of 24 elementaries in her district – and dividing its students and teachers between two other exemplary schools in the area.

    “When I met with the staff and with the parents to tell them about my great plan, I was met with resistance and hostility,” Hull says. “They told me, in no uncertain terms, their school was great and to close it would be damaging.”

    “I asked them, ‘If the school is so good, why are there so many empty seats? Get out there and get me some students so we can keep it open.’”

    Which is exactly what they did.

    Hull, the principal and assistant principal rallied the community – even got the school board to let them accept students from other school districts – and before long, Garner Elementary School became the Garner Fine Arts Academy. After a fierce marketing strategy and advertising campaign, Hull says parents and children lined up on campus to enroll, doubling the size of the campus that year. And once the academy opened, it wasn’t education as usual.

    “I went into a fourth or fifth grade class where the teacher was teaching fractions but the kids were converting the fractions into musical notes, putting them on a musical staff and then clapping out the rhythm of the notes based on those fractions,” Hull says. “That was just the beginning.”

    Under Hull’s leadership, Grand Prairie ISD now has 17 schools of choice, young men’s and women’s leadership academies, and in January 2015, Hull formally announced an educational partnership with the Dallas-area, free public charter school organization Uplift Education – the first ISD/charter school partnership in the north Texas area.

    “One of the things about Dr. Hull’s courage is that she allows it to happen fast,” says Teri Wilson, Hull’s chief of staff. “I’ve worked with lots of superintendents. She’s the best I’ve ever worked for. She always honors the person. She lets us make mistakes. She moves fast and she wants innovation. She allows us to goof things up and do better the next time. She is who she is every day.”

    “This is the best and most exciting time ever to be involved in Texas education. The possibilities are incredible.”

    Dr. Susan Hull
    Superintendent Grand Prairie ISD
    Dr. Susan Hull

Superintendent, Grand Prairie ISD

    Perhaps this is not such an uncommon situation or reaction. But, when Hull could have easily and unilaterally shut down a school which was losing her district nearly $30 per empty seat per day, she instead listened to her teachers, her community, her heart, and displayed the kind of courage that the most effective school leaders grow to possess.

    Hull takes little credit, saying courageous leadership never happens in a bubble.

    “At any moment that feral cat story could have become a viral sensation,” she says, laughing, intimating she was grateful it did not. “What helps us be courageous is the ability to laugh at all that kind of stuff. It’s a wheel of leaderships with thousands of folks. The things we’ve done in Grand Prairie work great in Grand Prairie and may or may not work best in other districts. But, this is the best and most exciting time ever to be involved in Texas education. The possibilities are incredible.”

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