Principal Pam Williams (left) talks with first-grade teacher Tavane Glass as they walk the hallways at Bethesda Elementary School in Lawrenceville, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Principal pipeline has positive effect on schools

Gwinnett County Public Schools has been using a program to turn teachers into principals for over a decade. Now, a national study confirms that’s effective in increasing students’ performance.

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, examined “principal pipelines” in six large urban school districts including Gwinnett.

Researchers found that schools in these districts with a principal who was trained for the job and promoted within the district outperformed comparison schools in both math and reading.

That doesn’t surprise Pam Williams, principal at Gwinnett’s Bethesda Elementary School. A graduate of the inaugural Aspiring Leader Program for new assistant principals in 2010, she went on to graduate from the Aspiring Principals Program in 2014.

“I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and I thought that being a teacher was the highest level I’d achieve,” she said. “I loved teaching and was very happy doing it.”

But her principal saw leadership qualities in her and gave her tasks to prove her aptitude.

He put her in charge of helping teachers in her grade level to ensure the team meets student achievement goals. She also co-chaired the schools improvement plan committee. “That got me comfortable in leadership settings,” she said. “And then he encouraged me to apply for the vice principal program.”

Williams appreciated the support Gwinnett’s program provided during training and afterward. Gwinnett used its own administrators — principals, assistant superintendents and even the superintendent of schools taught a few classes.

“You’re assigned a mentor for two years,” she said. “I still consult with my mentor now.”

The Rand study noted another benefit of “principal pipelines.” New principals in the districts examined were more likely to stay in their jobs for at least three years.

Funded by the Wallace Foundation, a New York City-based philanthropy focused on educating disadvantaged children, the $85 million, six-year study also found that lower-performing schools in particular benefited from the approach.

Gwinnett County began building a “principal pipeline” in 2011.

“It has long been my conviction — backed up by a growing body of research — that a focus on leadership is the key to school improvement,” said J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent. “Without strong school leaders, we cannot hope to make the gains our students need and deserve. Leadership matters, especially in our schools. Now, the research that confirms this view is stronger than ever.”

All of the participating districts were among the 50 largest nationally and were minority-majority districts, serving a student population between 65 percent and 96 percent minority. In addition to Gwinnett County, the study looked at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, Denver Public Schools in Colorado, Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, the New York City Department of Education and Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.

The “principal pipeline” approach has also been found to be affordable: a 2017 study of the initiative found that pipelines cost 0.4% of district budgets – or roughly $42 per student – per year.

Perhaps the most important lesson Gwinnett’s program teaches, said Williams, is the need for collaboration.

“Schools are democracies,” she said. “You may think you have a great idea, but when you let your assistant principals, teachers, parents and students weigh in, that idea can be so much richer. It takes the entire community to make a school successful.”

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