Laura Varlas

What Does It Take to Lead a Successful Urban School?

The distinguished school leaders who convened for the Urban Panel at the 2011 ASCD Annual Conference answered this and other questions based on their work at leading thriving urban schools.

Invariably, their answers came back to school culture and climate.

"Our mission and vision give us our identity; all of our students and staff must know and champion them," said Baruti Kafele, principal of Newark Tech High in New Jersey. "A good leader must believe in the ability of every child to learn and that it is possible for each one of our students to succeed in college," said Tim King, founder of Chicago's Urban Prep Academies. "We've got to keep the mission and vision out front. It's got to be bigger than anything else," added Linda Nathan, headmaster of Boston Arts Academy.

Implicit in these answers is the importance of personal connection in school communities.

Nathan's school uses advisory programs and compelling honor roll assemblies, among other initiatives, where young men of color, in particular, are asked to share what made them successful and how they will influence their peers to achieve, as well.

"If we're going to get education right in this country, we must know our kids," said King. At Urban Prep, all students have school-issued cell phones that are instrumental in fostering communication between home and school. "We can tell by looking at kids if something is wrong, but if we don't look at the child, we'll never know," said King. Teacher evaluations at Urban Prep also include criteria for how well teachers develop relationships with students.

"There are some gaps we need to look at before we can address the achievement gap," noted Kafele. Attitude, relevance, and opportunity are among them, but the relationship gap is also crucial. "How can I teach you if I don't know you? Close these gaps, and you'll have the mechanisms in place so that students can learn."

The practices that support these healthy and high-achieving urban schools include lengthening the school day and year; clearly defining goals and expectations (and supports when those expectations aren't met); and instructional practices centered on student engagement, participation, and ownership of learning.

Professional learning is also key.

"If you can't meet together as faculty, you will not be able to shape your school's climate, culture, and instruction," said Nathan. "If there's not time in the schedule, then we redo the schedule. Our school is 13 years old, and we've had 15 schedules."

"If our staff doesn't know each other, how can they benefit from each other's expertise?" asked Kafele. "Principals, you don't have to do it all. There are folks in your building who can do it better. Get to know them."

Comments (1)

Katherine Wanslee

April 6, 2011


Your statement,“Inplicit in these answers is the importance of personal connection,” is powerful because I also feel that positive, personal, and professional connections with colleagues, students, and our communities creates opportunities for success.

I really like this statement referring to the vision and mission statements and the quote,“A good leader must believe in the ability of every child to learn and that it is possible for each one of our students to succeed in college,” said Tim King, founder of Chicago’s Urban Prep Academies. Developing a personal connection with students, getting to know their strengths and the events in their lives are important strands needed to hold the belief that every student can and wants to learn.

Thanks Laura for also framing the Urban Panel’s point; developing connections with our colleagues and administrators is just as important for success as our relationships with the students.

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