'Mr. Booth Needs to Stay'

I rarely saw my principals. When I was in third grade, Dr. Moss put iodine on my scraped knee, so I do know her name and what she looked like. I have no idea what the principal of my junior high looked like or what his name was, although I have a clear memory of his closed office door.

My complete ignorance about principals and what they did has resulted in my fascination with the relationships I have seen between principals in high-performing high-poverty schools and their students. I have seen principals hugged, high-fived, laughed at and laughed with.

The principals in the "It's Being Done" schools I have written about for the last 10 years are very much part of the school, and students seem to understand the key role they play in establishing the respectful culture of high expectations -- what Harvard University's Ron Ferguson calls "high support high demand."

But there's one school I've never written about.

The school was one that my colleagues at Ed Trust had found while searching the data for a high-performing high-poverty middle school. It was about a half-hour drive from San Antonio in a rather desolate part of Texas where most people seemed to live in trailers or tiny little houses on remote ranches. The school's town had an intersection with a gas station and an everything-sells-for-a-dollar store, and that was pretty much it. We had been drawn there because the school outperformed many other middle schools in the state despite its high number of students who lived in poverty, and we wanted to see what drove the school's success.

When my colleagues and I arrived, the principal came to greet us. He walked us to a small conference room that was used by the district's school board for its meetings. As we walked through the hallways, I saw a little handwritten sign saying, "Mr. Booth needs to stay."

When we got to the conference room, I asked him what the sign meant. "Oh," he said, "I resigned yesterday."

My heart sank when he said that, because I knew that the gains we had seen in the school's data could be quickly undone by a change in leadership.

The principal said he had been pressured by the school board to hire someone he didn't think would be a good teacher for his school -- and so he resigned on principle.

We sat in the conference room for an hour or so as we talked about the kinds of things that the school did to help its kids -- mostly Hispanic and almost all from low-income families -- meet and exceed state standards at much higher rates than the rest of the state. The principal talked of improving instruction, providing help for students who needed extra help, providing professional development for teachers, and providing interesting activities for kids who didn't have many opportunities for vacations, museum trips, and other staples of middle-class childhood. "I look at the whole kid -- how can I help them to be a complete student, successful in any subject," he said.

The principal talked about his students with empathy and understanding for their difficult lives -- he himself had grown up in rural poverty and said that school was what could make the difference for his students as it had made the difference for him. "If you don't lose sleep because of the kids you aren't reaching, you're not in the right job," he said.

When we left the conference room, my colleagues and I visited classrooms where we saw what we thought was pretty uneven teaching -- some classes were great, some confusing, a couple pretty boring. But we saw teachers who were working hard and who talked about how they could improve what they did.

By the time we walked back into the main entranceway of the school, it had been about three hours.

Instead of one lone handwritten sign pleading with the principal not to go, there were hundreds -- maybe thousands -- plastered on the walls, on the lockers, on the front windows, and the doors. Clearly the kids who wrote the signs had the tacit approval of the teachers, but they were kid-made and kid-worded. "Plz don't go," "Mr. Booth Needs 2 Stay," "We Love Mr. Booth," "Mr. Booth Rocks."

I have never before or since seen a clearer example of how kids understand the importance of principals.