Blog: The Educated Reporter

Guiding Principals: How to Recognize Innovative Leaders

EWA’s 66th National Seminar was recently held at Stanford University, and we asked some of the education reporters attending to contribute blog posts from the sessions, including one examining President Obama’s universal preschool proposal. Today’s guest blogger is Hattie Brown Garrow of the Virginian-Pilot. Stream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. Visit EWA’s topics page for more on school leadership and governance

Want to know whether a school is truly innovative?

Talk to the students. Are they able to reflect on what they’re learning? Or do they simply say what they’re doing? Observe group work closely. Students must work together for an assignment to truly be collaborative. The “divide and conquer” strategy doesn’t foster deep learning.

And if every student project looks the same, that’s not innovation.

That’s the advice of Michelle Spencer, principal at New Technology High in Napa, Calif. Her school believes in project-based learning and relies heavily—as the name implies—on technology.

New Technology High hosts more than 1,000 visitors a year, including many reporters who are interested in learning about how the school works.

Often, Spencer said, a reporter will show up and “get kind of jazzed about the group work.” They may even say something nice about what they’ve observed.

But what they don’t realize, Spencer said, is that in some cases “what they saw wasn’t really that impressive. Working together is not learning together.”

At James Dent’s charter school—Gilroy Prep in Gilroy, Calif.—innovation means letting students work at their own pace through blended learning. (Learn more about Gilroy Prep with this eight-minute video by Navigator Schools.)

“What we’re very effective at is allowing students to go as quickly as they possibly can using the technology,” Dent said.

Students use software programs that are adaptive in nature, meaning they can move ahead if they grasp a concept quickly. Students who need more time on a topic can return to a previous lesson.

If a visiting reporter isn’t so sure whether a student is doing more than surfing the Web, it helps to ask some questions, Dent said.

“If the student’s on the computer,” he said, “you have to engage them and ask them, ‘What are you learning? How does this relate to what you’re doing in the classroom?’ And hopefully the student will be able to express that.”

Washington’s Toppenish High School isn’t able to put the latest technology into the hands of students through one-to-one computing, Principal Trevor Greene said. Instead, his school focuses on relationships and tending to students’ basic needs.

Ninety-six percent of Greene’s students are minorities, and they all qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. It’s a rural school with teens whose parents tend to be migrant workers or who work overnight in casinos.

Toppenish students attend a daily 24-minute “advisory period” where they meet with an assigned teacher, someone who sticks with them throughout their entire high school careers.

The school has also formed partnerships with local businesses to provide students with more opportunities, Greene said. A nearby slaughterhouse, for example, donates animal eyeballs for science classes.

North High School in Denver also faces challenges related to poverty. Principal Nicole Veltze said her student body is almost entirely Latino, and 90 percent of students receive lunches free or at a discount.

Prior to arriving at North, Veltze helped turn around a feeder middle school. That task included building a team—a process she called “making sure you have the right people on the bus”—and creating strong systems and structures. For example, groups of teachers were given the same students so they could work together on prevention and intervention efforts.

Veltze said she also asked students to look at their own performance data because it allowed them to set personal goals. She brought many of those same ideas to North High and has experienced similar success.

“We were the highest-growth school of all traditional public high schools in Denver,” she said. “So we’re really proud of that acceleration in just one year.”

Veltze’s advice for education journalists: “I’d challenge reporters to walk into classrooms and really analyze how students are thinking with whatever they are doing.”