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School's Out for the Summer: Which Means Some of the Real Work Is Happening Now

We know that principals are the linchpin of school success. But it is by understanding some of the work that instructional leaders do to lead success that we can actually see why they are so important.
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For the most part, kids are out of school for the summer, which means now is when some of the hardest work of educators is being done.

As one former principal told me, two especially important elements characterize a successful school year: "opening and closing a school. If you don't get that right -- along with all the other -- you are doomed."

The opening of school, of course, is when kids are most excited and teachers freshest. It is when the culture and climate is set for the year, and when kids learn the routines and expectations.

But what, I asked her, was so important to do at the close of the school year? I should say that the principal in question is Barbara Adderley, the former principal of M. Hall Stanton Elementary School. Stanton was a high-poverty school that, when she arrived in 2001, was one of the lowest performing schools in Philadelphia; when she left in 2009, it equaled or excelled most middle-class Pennsylvania elementary schools.

When she says something is important, I pay a great deal of attention.

She responded that, among other things:

  • Principals and professional learning committees of teachers need to look at the past year's data to make decisions about:
  • Goals for the following year. If 42 percent of students met state reading standards, maybe the new goal should be 52 percent; if the attendance rate was 92 percent, the goal should be 94 percent; if the suspension rate was 4 percent, the goal should be 2 percent.

  • Programs. If students aren't mastering the math standards, maybe a new math program is needed.
  • Budgets. Make sure the budget supports the new goals and new programs.
  • Teacher placements. For example, particularly strong teachers that have helped their students grow the most need to be with the neediest kids.
  • Professional development. Teachers around the country need a great deal of time to: unpack their state's standards so that they understand what their students will be required to know and be able to do; map out curriculum; build assessments; and develop lesson plans. Principals need to organize this work carefully, because ordinarily teachers only a few "professional development days" in the summer during which all that work has to get done.
  • Principals and teachers need to sit down one-on-one to talk through what worked during the year, what didn't, and what should change for the next year.
  • Principals need to build the class rosters for the following year and organize the handoff conversations among the teachers so that, for example, the first-grade teachers talk with their students' kindergarten teachers and receive their students' portfolios. All this is so they can spend time over the summer planning their instruction for the following year.
  • These are only a few of the many tasks principals who take seriously their role as instructional leaders have to do at the end of the year and over the summer to plan for opening school in the fall. Barbara didn't mention it, but probably assumed I would know that there are master schedules to build, teachers and other staff members to hire, and instructional materials and supplies to wrangle.

    These are huge and important tasks that need to be done not just well but at the right time so that schools are ready to begin immediately operating at full speed in the fall.

    We know that principals are the linchpin of school success. But it is by understanding some of the work that instructional leaders do to lead success that we can actually see why they are so important.

    (If you are an educator -- teacher, principal, or central office staff -- I'm interested in hearing what you do over the summer to get ready for the fall. To leave a comment, log in through Facebook.)