Effective School District Leadership: What Principals Need From Their Supervisors

by | Mar 24, 2021


Something we’ve learned from the COVID-19 crisis is that collaboration across every level of school leadership is essential for supporting students. A recent case study from Learning Policy Institute shares just one story of many about a school district that provided crucial support for principals as San Diego leaders planned for schools to reopen. What can we learn from these success stories about effective school district leadership?

We took a look at the evidence and found four critical ways for school districts to support principals:

  1. Promote a positive and collaborative professional learning culture.

The aforementioned Learning Policy Institute case study shares the story of how Steven Elizondo, principal of Golden Hill K-8, found the support he needed from San Diego Unified School District leaders during the COVID-19 crisis. Elizondo explains that the district nurtures a collaborative culture focused on students’ needs, which gives space for principals to be vulnerable and ask for help to best support students.

As a district leader, you can develop a healthy professional learning culture by:

  • Starting with a focus on students — Begin by acknowledging that we are all here to develop best practices that promote positive student outcomes. We can feel safe asking questions and learning from one another because we’re all here with a common mission to serve students.
  • Defining norms for an inclusive culture — Consider what ground rules you should set before professional development sessions to respect all participants’ experiences and backgrounds. You may ask staff to actively listen to whomever is speaking before forming a response, refrain from interrupting others, and invite dissenting and diverse opinions.
  • Planning collaborative professional learning activities — Ensure that your professional development program for principals promotes collaboration between principals and district leaders, and between principals within your district. Principals should share their experiences with one another, identify common problems among their schools, collectively plan solutions, and voice their current needs from district leaders.

Remember that developing a healthy culture requires consistent effort over an extended period of time. Reiterate your district’s vision, values, and norms regularly to keep them top-of-mind for your entire team. Also, practice collaborative activities with principals frequently so that everyone can get in the habit of working together for district improvement.

  1. Plan district-sponsored learning opportunities that directly address schools’ challenges.

District leaders should plan targeted professional learning that is focused on the most pressing challenges principals face at their schools. For example, as we approach the 2021-2022 school year, principals may need support:

  • Planning for a full-scale reopening of their schools
  • Combatting COVID-related learning loss
  • Addressing the achievement gap for students of color and students with special needs

Evidence suggests that professional development is most effective when leaders focus on improvement in only a few areas, instead of spreading themselves too thin by trying to solve all of their schools’ problems at once. Work with your principals to identify the most crucial issues that your team can work collaboratively to address. From there, you can map out a strategic plan to provide adequate professional learning opportunities that confront these critical areas of need.

  1. Address obstacles that prevent principals from engaging in professional learning.

The Learning Policy Institute reports that about 80% of principals face barriers to participating in professional learning. Usually, these obstacles include:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of money
  • Insufficient coverage to leave their regular duties and attend professional learning

It’s not enough to simply plan professional development opportunities for principals; districts must also plan ahead to remove barriers principals face to engage in professional learning.

Consider how your district can cover the costs that are usually incurred by principals through professional learning. Also, think about how you can provide on-site support at schools, while principals are away for training and conferences.

  1. Create structures that provide ongoing support and resources for principals.

One of the best ways you can empower principals is by planning principal conferences and meetings. However, principals also need ongoing support in between these district-wide professional development sessions. Principals may need:

  • One-on-one coaching for continual improvement — The Minnesota Department of Education explains that district leaders and superintendents can act as coaches to help principals set individual goals, develop the skills needed to meet their goals, and provide feedback to improve their practice.
  • Help developing professional learning communities (PLCs) — Principals may appreciate your support, facilitating PLC meetings at their schools, especially during the transition of reopening schools following the pandemic. District leaders should model shared leadership to help principals understand how members of their own staff can share leadership responsibilities. You may offer to co-lead PLC meetings alongside principals for the first few months of the new school year to ease the transition back to school.
  • Assistance accessing additional resources — Many school leaders grapple with unmet needs that they simply don’t have the capacity to address on their own. One huge need is often funding; you can champion principals by advocating for more funding with local and state legislators. Additionally, consider how you can facilitate connections with businesses and nonprofits in your area to provide wraparound services for underserved students.

Do you feel overwhelmed trying to develop a cohesive plan to support principals in the upcoming school year? Many districts work with professional education consultants who have experience working with other districts around the country to create and implement a strategic plan.

Education Consulting Services With the Center for Student Achievement Solutions

We work to understand the unique challenges your district is facing to match you with an educational consultant who has the expert knowledge and experience to meet your needs. Our consultants work with district leaders who are:

  • Planning for the return to school in the upcoming year
  • Developing strategic plans for district improvement over the next several years
  • Closing the achievement gap by promoting educational equity
  • Creating collaborative leadership systems with district and school leaders
  • Nurturing an inclusive culture for principals, teachers, and other staff
  • And working toward numerous other high-impact goals

Schedule a free call with one of our consultants now to start planning your district’s future, or read more about our approach to consulting.