Leadership and School Success: The Practices and Behaviors of Principals in Successful At-risk Schools
Students in many at-risk schools are not achieving at the same academic levels as their counterparts in middle-class schools. Many live in poverty, lack background experiences that would help them be successful, have parents who have not completed high school and may not speak English as their first language. The challenge for educators is how to ensure these students are successful despite these obstacles. This is even more critical today due to the rigid standards set by both state and federal legislation with the advent of the Standard of Learning tests in Virginia and the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. Students not meeting these standards will not be eligible to graduate from high school, a prerequisite for social and economic success in our society. A review of the literature indicates that the behaviors and practices of the principal influence and contribute to the success of students and leads to the thesis of this study: Effective leadership contributes to school success. Two key questions are asked: "What are the leadership behaviors and practices of principals in highly successful school with high concentrations of at-risk students?" and "How do principals in these schools influence the learning outcomes to close the achievement gap?" This study answers these questions by examining the behaviors and practices of principals in successful at-risk schools with a study of one successful at-risk school supported by a survey of the teachers in that school and two other successful at-risk schools. The findings led to some of the following conclusions: the vision of the principal is paramount for school success; the culture of the school must be as nurturing to teachers as the students; the teaching of the curriculum is foremost; the principal protects time for teaching and provides programs to address individual students' differences; the culture must embrace families as it does teachers and students; the principal is sometimes a "benign dictator" who makes decisions without the consideration of the teachers, and the primary job of the principal is instructional leader. Some of the recommendations propose that principals in at-risk schools know and articulate a vision for their schools success; create a warm and nurturing environment for all stakeholders; know the curriculum and recognize effective classroom instruction; provide programs that address individual students' needs and time on task for learning; understand when they must be the "benign dictator" instead of a collaborative leader; and use effective managerial skills in order to perform the primary job of principal: instructional leader.