By Eleanora Archie
Bruce Randolph Middle School in Denver seemed to have everything: A brand new campus, the latest technology, and teachers who came from all over the country. But the school had one problem: Principal Sophia Masewicz couldn’t control the students. According to Denver Public Schools superintendent Jerry Wartgow, “the school got off to a rocky start when administrators failed to set clear expectations for attendance, behavior, student records and other basics of school life.” If you want to find a common problem at so many schools where students are failing to learn, don’t count the number of computers. Look for a strong principal who sets clear standards.
As an educator who has taught in suburban public schools, independent prep schools, a Catholic school, and a school within the Denver Public Schools, I’ve seen the difference between schools with a strong foundation and those without. I have learned from my experience that there are five key characteristics that must be present from the beginning of the year in order for a school to succeed: an effective principal, a school-wide discipline plan, an academically organized curriculum, staff unity, and a strong school community.
The first characteristic, an effective principal, is the most important element for a school to be successful. Oftentimes overlooked, the principal, like a coach, leads his team to excellence. He sets the tone and demands academic achievement. He has a clear vision of the school’s main goals and he keeps everyone on track to achieve those goals. His job is complex and just as important as CEO’s. He knows what Mrs. Jones is teaching, how Angelo’s mother is doing as a weekly volunteer, and when the boy’s bathroom needs a new light bulb. He motivates his staff and values his teachers.
A teacher is not able to effectively teach unless there is a discipline plan in place from the first day of school. In the book The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher, Harry and Rosemary Wong explain that discipline is not mainly about the actual punishment that a child receives for breaking the rules. Discipline is a plan which shows how the school wants the child to behave at all times in the school. This plan is implemented by teaching the child the routines that make the school day run smoothly. Students receive rewards and consequences for their positive or negative behavior. A good principal insists that the students are well-behaved and it shows in the respectful behavior of the students.
At many successful schools, the curriculum is well organized, outlining what a child is going to learn for each subject during the entire year. Often, teachers work together to make sure that their classes are learning the same things around the same time. Academic goals are set and met for each child. Good schools implement a complete curriculum that they follow for several years, unlike many public schools where it is very common for teachers to return in the fall to a new and unfamiliar curriculum that they are forced to teach during the upcoming year.
There are successful schools which may have a much more improvisatory curriculum. It’s not impossible for such schools to succeed, but it is more challenging – perhaps too challenging for some schools that are having trouble meeting basic educational needs.
It is imperative that schools have teachers and staff members that work together as a unified team. In the schools where I worked which were most successful, teachers conversed in the halls, classroom doors were open, the front office staff wanted to help teachers find what they needed. Staff meetings were helpful and not wasted by meaningless complaining. With leadership from a stalwart principal, a unified staff is the foundation of a constructive school environment.
Lastly, schools need to build a strong school community. Parents and community members who look forward to attending fairs, plays, and teacher conferences are more likely to support the school. Good principals seek out extra help from the community, and are happy to have volunteers at their schools.
The discussion over how to fix failing public schools is too often a debate about ideology or miracle cures like more computers or lowering class size, rather than about common sense elements of a basic education. Smaller classes and more technology are fine – but the most fabulous car in the world can’t go anywhere without a good set of wheels.
Copyright 2002, Independence Institute
INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.
JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.
ELENORA ARCHIE is a Research Associate with the Independence Institute.
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