Great school leaders are key to driving success in the Saint Louis Public Schools. “If we can put an excellent principal in every one of our schools, we can really accelerate progress,” notes SLPS Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams. Research backs up his theory, a recent meta-analysis of 35 years of school leadership found that principals’ actions account for 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement. Yet, historically, SLPS has struggled with retaining and growing strong talent. In 2015, the SLPS Foundation helped to incubate the District’s Office of Talent Strategy and Management (TSM), a new effort to attract and cultivate excellent school leaders in SLPS. Start-up funding from donors like Ameren, Boeing and Wells Fargo Advisors were critical to these efforts to strengthen the hiring process, and to ensure that great current and aspiring school leaders stick with SLPS. Since the Office of TSM started in 2015, results have been strong: the newly-hired principals are showing academic growth in their schools and the five-year retention rate for SLPS school leaders has risen by nearly 20%.
In addition to revamping the way that principals are recruited and selected in the District, the Office has created a range of professional development efforts in which teachers take on leadership roles in their schools. “I love my classroom,” noted one participant, “but I also wanted to contribute to our whole school’s transformation.” The harsh reality is that SLPS has been losing teachers, especially early career teachers, soon after they gain their sea legs in the District. Higher salaries and lower stress levels in neighboring districts are part of the lure, but “that wasn’t the whole story,” explains Haliday Douglas, Director of the Office of Talent, Strategy and Management. One of the key activities he and his staff led were “Teacher Voice” sessions during which they listened and learned from 100s of teachers. “Our conversations with teachers and researchers told us SLPS could be doing more,” says Douglas. “We learned that there are key levers—beyond just compensation—that influence whether or not we can grow and keep our own talent. We need to value and recognize teachers’ efforts, offer progressive professional skills development, create flexible career pathways for them and provide opportunities for extra service/responsibility and compensation.” Based on those findings, the Office of Talent Strategy and Management has created a range of new opportunities for teachers to grow as “teacher-leaders.” These include a partnership with Venture Café at Cortex to foster innovation, multiple collaborations with universities that train school administrators, and individualized design projects in which teachers tackle specific challenges in their schools and cohort-based leadership development.
For Annette Fields, currently an Academic Instructional Coach at Sumner High School, joining SLPS Aspiring Leaders program has been “one of the most beneficial experiences in my teaching career.” She’s considering becoming a principal, but wanted more information about what the role entailed. “Aspiring Leaders exposes us to the best leaders in our community,” she noted, “This is not about ‘sitting and getting’ professional development. Through simulations, we learn how to test new skills and try different approaches.”
For the past two years, nearly 30 emerging school leaders have participated in the Aspiring Leaders Program which provides experienced classroom teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to transition into formal school building leadership roles. The program is an 18-month, cohort-based experience. Aspiring Leaders meet to learn from veteran administrators on everything from creating a great school culture, to coaching staff, to working with families. Participants also design a leadership project to improve their own schools. In addition, each participant is matched with a coach who gives constructive feedback and help participants execute on goals.
Michael Baird, an Academic Instructional Coach at Cleveland NJRTOC High School, has transformed the way he is approaching professional development at his school: “teachers have told me that my new coaching approach has promoted new practices and student growth within their own classrooms,” he noted. 100% of the graduates in the first Aspiring Leaders cohort have stayed in the District, and six have been promoted to higher levels of SLPS leadership.
The Office of Talent Strategy and Management also coordinates the Educator of the Year celebration, an event in May that will honor some of the District’s strongest performing teachers from pre-K to 12th grade. “Teachers and school leaders are one of our most valuable resources,” concludes Dr. Kelvin R. Adams, “we appreciate the support we have from the community to help ensure they continue their careers with our students who deserve the best.”