As I walk into the training facility for educators in Gwinnett County Schools in Georgia, my eyes widen. The J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center is huge, a 420,000 square-foot complex with 1,000 parking spaces and a variety of meeting spaces and lecture halls.
If architecture is a reflection of values, there’s no doubt that Gwinnett values the growth and development of its people.
Education is a people-heavy enterprise. Our ability to achieve excellent and equitable results rests upon teachers’ ability to bring out the best in their students, and upon leaders’ ability to bring out the best in teachers.
Recognizing that leadership is a powerful lever for change in this equation, Gwinnett has been on a quest over the past decade to build its own pipeline of outstanding principals, with impressive results.
We’re on a similar quest in Lamar CISD in partnership with The Holdsworth Center. As part of the center’s two-year District Leadership Program, I traveled to Gwinnett with a group of central office leaders to see their pipeline in action.
If you liken the process of building a principal pipeline to building a house, we’ve laid the foundation. Gwinnett has already built the house.
The visit was eye-opening. From the superintendent to the principals and teachers, there was a unity of vision and purpose I have rarely seen in a school district. Viewing the “completed house” gave our team the inspiration to keep pushing forward as we strive to finish our own.
Building a pipeline
What does building a principal pipeline mean? It means identifying, developing, placing and supporting leaders in a thoughtful and systematic way – the opposite of hiring in a pinch and throwing new leaders into a “sink or swim” situation.
Being a principal is a tough job that takes incredible skill and creativity. It’s on the leader’s shoulders to create a positive, engaged school culture where teachers and students feel empowered, respected and motivated to do their best work. Research has shown that principals are second only to teachers when it comes to impacting outcomes for students.
Preparing principals well, matching them to the right school communities and giving them on-the-job support makes an enormous difference in how well they are able to lead.
Led by veteran superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, Gwinnett County Schools serve an economically diverse population of 180,000 students in 141 schools. Wilbanks has said that “systems rise and fall on leadership.” In his role for more than three decades, he’s been able to create a sustained focus on growing a pipeline of outstanding leaders.
The Gwinnett strategy is delivering on its promise of improved results for students. Earlier this year, a RAND study found that students in schools with a principal who was trained for the job and promoted within the district outperformed comparison schools in both math and reading. Pipelines also improved retention – for every 100 new principals, pipeline districts saw eight fewer losses after three years. (A note: For this study, Gwinnett was among a group of six districts nationwide working to build principal pipelines. These results include all six of those districts.)
Additionally, Gwinnett hasn’t selected anyone outside of the district for a principal position since 2010, a testament to the depth and strength of the pipeline they have built. It’s been so successful, Gwinnett will soon serve as a statewide model through the Governor’s School Leadership Academy in Georgia.
A model to follow
At the heart of Gwinnett’s system for growing leaders is the Quality-Plus Leader Academy, which offers different entry points and programs tailored to aspiring leaders wherever they are in their leadership journey. At the Academy, leaders receive substantial training in instructional knowledge and leadership skills. Support continues once they are on the job. New leaders are paired with mentors for two years and receive ongoing training from top district leaders, including the superintendent himself. They also join support networks to combat feelings of isolation and improve their performance.
Gwinnett is very specific about what it takes to become a leader. If I am an aspiring principal, it is crystal clear the competencies I need to master and the steps I need to take to navigate into the system.
Central office leaders plan career paths and fill vacancies with insights from a leader tracking system that looks similar to athlete profile cards on ESPN. You can see the person’s picture, their current role, previous experience, certifications, skills and aspirations. When selecting principals, Superintendent Wilbanks gets personally involved, meeting with community members and soliciting their input to ensure a good fit.
The teachers and principals we met with were not only deeply invested in their work with students, but with their own personal growth and development.
Building a robust leadership pipeline is not easy or quick, but we believe it’s something every school district can – and should – strive to accomplish. Gwinnett is a vanguard district creating a model for others to follow.
Building our own “house”
In Lamar CISD, we are excited to continue framing our leadership house. We spent the first two years laying our foundation by defining what great leadership looks like and winning buy-in for our framework. We have always had a strong family-like culture, but articulating and reinforcing that culture has created an amazing sense of unity around our vision.
Inspired by the continuum of professional development experiences for educators at Gwinnett, we then created our own Leadership Institute, a framework we consider a work in progress. Here is the basic outline:
- Preservice – By-invitation opportunity designed to support teachers in developing leadership skills while completing a master’s degree in administration in a one-year cohort at the University of Houston
- Bridge – Semester-long experience for aspiring administrators with opportunities to practice leadership skills while partnering with district mentors
- Induction – A cohort of first-year administrators (mostly assistant principals) engage in practical and relevant learning in an atmosphere of peer support
- Emerging – The year after induction, administrators begin preparing for the principalship with a series of activities designed around the themes of instructional leadership, human capital, executive leadership, school culture, strategic operations and the role of the principal
- Induction 2.0 – Provides support to first-year principals as they acquire and practice the skills for leading a school and balancing time management
- Leadership Strands – Experienced principals can apply to one of two leadership strands: Learning Leader and Mentor Leader, which allow for continued leadership growth tailored to personal interests
We feel we’re off to a very good start, but still have a long way to go. Identifying up-and-coming leaders, for example, is an area we have targeted for deeper thinking. No matter where we are today, the work will never be finished. At Gwinnett, they are still actively refining many parts of their model. Education might look different in 10 years, and the development opportunities we offer must adapt and adjust.
The good news is that we now have a much deeper understanding of what it takes to identify, develop, place and support leaders. With this knowledge, we feel confident that we can build sustainable systems where students thrive. This is why we’re going to keep planning additions to our leadership “house” in Lamar CISD. After all, we want to ensure that every student, parent and teacher who enters our “house” feels like they’re at home.