Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Great Public School Leadership Means a Commitment to Each Child

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Toppenish High School, in south central Washington State, is a rural high-poverty school with 99% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch and a 95% minority student body. The community’s economy rests primarily on agriculture and tourism, two sectors suffering from the recent downturn.

Schools with such profiles in such communities are often ones that grapple with inadequate funding, find student groups struggling on standardized tests and have lower graduation and college-going rates. But proving that great school leadership is a key component of beating such odds, Principal Trevor Greene has set high goals and invested in key improvement strategies that are showing amazing results for Toppenish High School. He was recently recognized as MetLife/NASSP’s 2013 National High School Principal of the Year.

Teachers, unsurprisingly, are the most important in-school factor in student achievement. However, they are hardly alone. The entire school community can help mitigate external factors, such as a troubled home life or varying levels of poverty, when children come through the door each morning. From janitorial staff that ensure a clean and healthy environment, to cafeteria staff that provide meals, to school counselors who help students cope with home and academic stress and more, a school is a village that works together.

The principal is responsible for coordination and execution of these combined efforts across actors, as well as setting the overall tone of a school. And Principal Greene is a stellar example of how a principal can help a school dramatically improve its outcomes. His priorities reflect both an innate understanding of the student population he serves as well as a commitment to the success of every child. He emphasized parental engagement, brought in a graduation specialist to help keep students on track, and expanded the curriculum to include more rigorous options. And in an additional demonstration of a commitment to the entire student population he serves, Principal Greene also expanded adaptive physical education and music opportunities for special education students and brought on a migrant advocate to ensure that the school meets the daily needs of migrant students and families.

These reforms cumulatively lifted the level of expectation in the school – students would not just be expected to graduate, they would be expected to be college and career ready. And as a result of the changes initiated by Principal Greene, enrollment in STEM courses increased dramatically, as did state test scores. Dropout rates decreased.

Principal Greene is one of many great principals working in our nation’s 95,000 public schools today. His successes highlight the potential each and every school has to provide a quality education for children as a stepping stone into the middle class.

Principal Greene is to be celebrated not just for his leadership, but also for his example to others. In order to increase student performance on outcomes that matter – not just on standardized tests – principals must look at every aspect of the school’s environment and make tough decisions and priorities, as he did. October is National Principals Month, a time to celebrate the leadership of our principals nationwide.

The fundamental promise of America’s public school system is that every child, regardless of race or socio-economic status, has the right to a free quality public education.  There are those who attack public schools and say that teachers and administrators use poverty as an excuse for low performance. Examples such as Toppenish High School show that a school can have a nearly 100% minority and 100% poverty student population and succeed because the professionals in it know how to turn things around – it begins with a commitment to each child, especially to those that face the greatest challenges.