Just two weeks into the latter half of the 2021-22 school year, principals nationwide are continuing to grapple with the immense challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these concerns — the need for inclusive and equitable education to close learning gaps, for instance, and the importance of strong and consistent communication and school culture to engage students and families — predate but were further amplified by the health crisis.
As a result, the past two years have placed an even greater spotlight on what’s working best and which leaders are standing out most for their progress in those areas. As we launch into 2022, these are five principals you'll want to keep an eye on.
At Wescosville Elementary School in Wescosville, Pennsylvania, inclusivity factors into everything for Principal Tara Desiderio, who leads an “eclectic” student body with high populations of English learners, children with autism and those classified as gifted.
“I think our kids are better for it because they really don't think twice about anyone doing anything better or different or anything in their classrooms," Desiderio told K-12 Dive in October.
Achieving this mindset among the school’s 500-plus students requires her leadership team to “sit back and actually listen” to what teachers, parents and students have to say. It’s also critical to ensure students have opportunities to see themselves reflected in reading selections and other curricular materials, she said.
In addition to prioritizing voice and choice to promote inclusivity, Desiderio makes an effort to model the importance of “falling up” when mistakes are made, advising that “there are no times where we say there are problems. We say there's only opportunities to be dealt with when we're dealing with different situations”
Rethinking approaches to school discipline has been top of mind for school leaders in recent years — and even more so in the wake of the nation’s reckoning with racial injustice in summer 2020. At Las Vegas’ Cheyenne High School, Principal Zachary Robbins set out to find a solution after seeing Black students were suspended five times more frequently than their peers despite making up less than a third of the student body.
Through restorative justice tribunals, he implemented a model where offenders can share their side of the story while reflecting on the impact their actions had on others. To make the approach time-efficient, meetings are limited to 15 minutes of the offender’s time to make sure they miss as little class time as possible.
And to ensure costs remain sustainable, one school counselor’s caseload was reduced to allow time to act as tribunal facilitator, while student peer advocates serve in support roles.
As much as the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted principal tenures, few school leaders served long terms prior to the health crisis either. According to 2019 data from the Learning Policy Institute, 35% of principals stayed at a school for less than two years, and only 11% remained 10 years or longer, resulting in a national average tenure of about four years.
Keith Ball, principal of Marietta High School in Marietta, Georgia, recognizes longevity and consistency are key, especially for improving school culture and student success. In August, he told K-12 Dive the first thing students see and feel is that a school leader is working hard to know everyone’s name and who they are as people rather than just being focused on the position they hold.
“That means everything to most of us as human beings, but as a kid, especially in high school, it is probably the most important thing besides basic human needs of food and shelter and clothing — that somebody you go to every single day is present and cares and is working as hard as they possibly can for you,” said Ball, a 2022 National Principal of the Year finalist.
Under his leadership, the school — with a student population that is 40.2% Black, 35.7% Hispanic, and 47% eligible for free or reduced-price lunch — advanced from a “C” to a "B" grade on the state’s report card as of 2019. It also saw its graduation rate jump from 75.7% in 2019 to 83.7% in 2020.
During her time as principal of Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore, Maryland, Taiisha Swinton-Buck has developed a positive behavioral interventions and supports system focused on “connection before content” to lower suspensions while raising attendance.
In addition to greeting students at the school’s front doors every day and attending athletic events, the 2021 Maryland Principal of the Year’s work to boost school culture has included meeting students where they are on platforms like TikTok. Swinton-Buck’s PBIS initiative has also included an incentive system based on students’ needs and interests, including “Digital Dollars” they can earn to exchange for field trip experiences, sporting event tickets or haircuts at the Digital Ram Hair Studio.
“I feel like she has taken care of me like I'm actually her own daughter,” student Jaelyn Lyles told the Today Show during a September event where host Al Roker told Swinton-Buck and 100 students that NBCUniversal’s parent company, Comcast, was donating a Dell laptop and one year of free internet access for all Digital Harbor students.
In the 11 years Principal Julia Bott has led the Ellis Mendell School in Boston, she has strived to create a more inclusive learning environment. When she stepped into the principalship at the K-5 school, Bott set out to address disproportionately negative outcomes for students of color and has since worked with teachers, students, families and the broader school community to develop a vision that also incorporates lessons learned around preexisting problems and best practices of successful inclusion models elsewhere.
As a result of these efforts, Mendell has gone from being a school on the verge of graded by the state as underperforming to being one of Boston’s top-performing schools.
Yaaaay!!! #BPSProud of @MendellSchool School Principal Julia Bott is the Marvelous Magical Mendell leader committed to children. She provides inclusionary opportunities, celebrates their full potential and brings the joy every day! You rock! All of us @BostonSchools are so proud! https://t.co/jjcs1p0dAW pic.twitter.com/KzzLpXFB8H— Brenda Cassellius (@BCassellius) May 5, 2021
Bott also shares her school’s best practices on inclusive instruction in the districtwide Inclusion Task Force and Advanced Work Planning Committee.
“Julia goes above and beyond to promote the culture of inclusion, antiracism and excellence we foster throughout our entire district. Julia would say she’s lucky to have her students and staff, but they are just as lucky to have her,” Boston Public Schools' Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a May statement on Bott’s recognition as 2021 Massachusetts Elementary School Principal of the Year.