Nothing is more important to the near and long-term future of Baltimore than the quality of its public schools. Having strong teachers, involved parents, and kids coming to school prepared to learn are all important components of high quality schools. However, in many years of working with and in City schools, one of the most important characteristics of a high achieving school has become extremely clear to me: a great principal.
A school’s principal is the undisputed captain of his or her “ship”. I have seen time and time again how a strong, dynamic, compassionate, well-organized principal can literally make or break a school. This crystallized for me a few years ago when I had the occasion to work with three schools in the same circumscribed neighborhood of the City (not to be disclosed here!).
Despite serving children of identical socioeconomic status, one of the three schools had significantly better academic achievement scores, markedly fewer disciplinary actions and remarkably more inviting interior spaces than the other two. Not surprisingly, that school had a stellar principal. She was in the halls all the time; she knew all the students’ names and employed firm but compassionate corrective measures when necessary; she thought outside the box; and did everything she could to bring effective outside resources into her school.
My audacious idea is simple: The Baltimore City Schools CEO should launch a “Great Principal Initiative” and set about recruiting the best possible people to fill this incredibly important role in our 180+ city schools. The key would be to obtain a waiver from state and city position requirements. As the qualities that make a great principal do not necessarily require an education background (indeed, there is much to be said for having a fresh approach to entrenched problems in schools), our CEO should be free to recruit excellent managers from the private or non-profit sector who have a passion for improving children’s lives. We might even get some large corporations to allow one of their top managers to take a lengthy sabbatical to be principal of a school with which that company develops a relationship. Don’t get me wrong—I highly respect educators, as my mother-in-law and mother were both teachers, but I sincerely do not believe that principals must have such a background. So, although this proposal will cause some waves, particularly among the teachers’ union, it is much more important that we do all we can to improve our schools for the kids’ sake.