When Texas schools closed in the spring of 2020, Amy Garza, a principal at Medio Creek Elementary in Southwest ISD in San Antonio, had a strong suspicion they wouldn’t be back for a while.
In those early days, no one had answers for what came next.
“Got any good ideas, Garza?” asked Dr. Lloyd Verstuyft – or Dr. V – the district’s superintendent.
She had a few. One was buying plastic boxes for all her Medio Creek “gators” to keep their devices and schoolwork together, safe and sanitized. The “gator boxes” would help the little ones stay organized, especially those whose parents couldn’t be at their sides, and could double as an instant desk to prop up their tablets. If the school opened, they could bring their boxes and keep them at their desks.
Dr. V surprised her by buying boxes not just for Medio Creek, but for every school in the district.
Effective principals boost learning
While it might seem like a small thing, it’s part of a bigger, more significant shift happening at Southwest ISD, a small district of around 14,000 students on the southern, rural edge of the city limits. Close to 90 percent of students are Hispanic and 84 percent are from low-income families.
Everything else we do in our district should be to support school principals.
“In the past, we used to see school principals as middle management. Now we see them as completely essential and necessary,” Dr. V said. “Everything else we do in our district should be to support school principals. That will make or break campuses from achieving their long-term goals.”
Over two decades of research backs this up. An effective school principal can add the equivalent of 2.9 more months of learning in math and 2.7 more months of learning in reading during a single school year, according to a 2021 report by the Wallace Foundation.
New lens on school principals
Looking at school principals through a new lens with guidance from Holdsworth, Southwest ISD launched a number of strategies for sitting and future principals, such as better hiring and evaluation practices and more coaching and on-the-job support.
According to a survey conducted by Holdsworth this spring, 100 percent of the district’s school principals said they receive high-quality, actionable feedback and discuss professional development with a supervisor throughout the year. That’s up from just 20 percent in 2017, the year the partnership started.
For Amy, the sum of all the changes has added up to more space to focus on what and how students are learning in her classrooms.
“Before, I spent 50 percent of my time on instructional leadership. Now it is more like 80 percent and it is quality time,” she said.
A school principals’ influence
The transformation began around 2017, when Southwest ISD joined the 5-year Holdsworth Partnership.
During the 2-year District Leadership Program, Dr. V and his team went on a site visit to study H-E-B’s talent management system, where they learned this: Those with the most influence over the company’s success are store leaders.
Why? Because they shape working conditions for hundreds of thousands of H-E-B Partners (employees). If store leaders take care of their Partners, Partners will take care of customers.
Principals are not unlike store leaders. They set the tone and expectations for teachers and staff, who pay it forward to students.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing that happens at every school system is that magic exchange of learning between the teacher and students,” Dr. V said. “The most influential person to understand and mold what that looks like is the principal.”
More support for school principals
Getting a new boss often makes people anxious.
Not so for Southwest ISD’s 18 principals. When the district created a new role for a principal supervisor, the hire was a big shot in the arm for principals.
Leadership is lonely. For school principals, the campus can feel like an island, disconnected from central office and colleagues on other campuses. Teachers look to principals for guidance and support, but there’s often no formal channel for principals to receive the same.
The new role wasn’t about top-down oversight – it was about ground-up support.
Once on board, the new supervisor provided job coaching and growth opportunities, helped school principals create a vision for their campus, advocated for them when they needed something from central office and served as a thought partner to help them comb through a tangle of issues with no easy solutions.
“It’s made a big difference,” said Amy Garza. “She comes to see us on campus and be a cheerleader for the things we need. She has done coaching sessions with us, she has us reading books. It is really stimulating me as a leader.”
When we get better as people, we get better as a system.
The most recent Holdsworth survey confirms Amy’s experience – 94 percent of principals say they receive coaching on how to grow their leadership skills, up from 44 percent in 2017.
In addition, the percent of principals who said they have a mentor (formal or informal) who has helped them identify their career goals and a path to achieve them went up from 29 percent in 2017 to 65 percent in 2021.
According to Dr. V, it could not have come at a better time, with the pandemic hitting just a few months after the hire.
“We could not have done anything better for them,” Dr. V said. “Personal mastery is of the utmost importance. When we get better as people, we get better as a system.”
One of the foundational beliefs behind the Holdsworth Partnership is that success is rarely achieved alone.
Working hand-in-hand with Holdsworth’s District Support Team, Southwest ISD has taken steps to make school leadership more of a team sport.
One step is helping school principals to practice distributed leadership –basically, giving others the opportunity to own and lead meaningful work. School principals can’t do it all, and aspiring leaders need opportunities for on-the-job training.
For Anitra Crisp, a principal at McNair Middle School, it looks like this: She models how to run a testing meeting or a professional learning community. Then she asks a team member to lead while she watches. Once the team member has it down, Anitra can release ownership.
At first, it was difficult. She didn’t like the feeling of not being in control. But learning about the importance of growing leaders around her through Holdsworth’s Campus Leadership Program and reflecting on her own experience as a first-year principal, Anitra was convinced it was the right thing to do.
Building a high-performance team
In 2017, with the ink barely dry on Anitra’s first principal contract, she went to her new office, sat in her swivel chair and thought, “OK, now what do I do?” She called a former principal friend and asked him for suggestions.
While it makes for a good chuckle, that’s not the first day story she wants her assistant principals to tell.
If I was doing all the work, they would never be ready for the work.
“If I was doing all the work, they would never be ready for the work,” Anitra said.
When the pandemic hit, she was grateful to have built a strong team around her using tools she had learned through the Campus Leadership Program. She didn’t need to have all the answers, she could go to her team and they would figure it out together.
“I truly trust them. If I had a brand-new team during this pandemic, I don’t think I would be sane right now. There is no way I would be able to do this without them,” she said.
Teachers as leaders
Another strategy to make leadership more of a team sport at campuses was the creation of a new leadership role for teachers.
Called multi-classroom leaders, or MCLs, these hybrid teachers spend half their time teaching and the rest coaching their peers.
Not only do the teachers appreciate having a respected peer as a mentor, the MCLs are building skills to help them move up the leadership ladder if they choose.
“Those conversations – which are sometimes difficult – come across so much better from another teacher in the trenches with you, coaching you in real time,” said Anitra.
A system for the future
As the Holdsworth partnership moves into its last year, Dr. V said he is proud of the work they have done and how far they have come as a system. They have laid a strong foundation for growth. When new people are hired, they can hit the ground running.
“We are at that place where we can plug folks into our system. It is a system for the future, everyone contributes, everyone is part of it. We don’t have to start over anymore. That is a big thing for us.”
While he’s proud of what Southwest has accomplished, he insists they will always be a work in progress.
The disruption caused by the pandemic has opened a window for change. He wants to seize it by creating more innovative schools and tackling inequity systemwide. All leaders at central office are diving into equity work facilitated by the Leadership Academy’s Mary Rice-Boothe, also a Holdsworth guest lecturer.
“We are looking at student outcomes data, at our employment practices, everything – we are not afraid to put these things under the microscope because we want to be a system that is inclusive and supportive of everyone.”