Professional Education

Programs in Professional Education

Revolutionizing the Approach to School Leadership with Real Results

An Interview with Dwan Jordan

In a Wall Street Journal editorial piece marking the end of their time as Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor and Mayor, Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty discuss their revolutionary approach to changing education and the work that still needs to be done. One of the pivotal leaders they highlight within this movement is Dwan Jordan, principal at Sousa Middle School in Washington D.C. and a member of the advisory board for The Principals’ Center.

Jordan is known for his determined leadership style and stunning transformation of Sousa Middle School, raising reading scores by 17 percentage points and math scores by 25 in his first year on the job. He is also an alumnus of The Principals’ Center’s National Institute for Urban School Leaders, attending in the summer of 2010. Described as fiercely driven and dedicated to enabling the students in his school to succeed, Jordan has blazed a path many are aiming to follow. He sat down with us to explain some of the strategies behind his work, how his experience at The Principals’ Center has impacted his practice and where he sees the school and education sector going in the future.

As a principal, how do you balance the many responsibilities of engaging parents, collaborating with teachers and cultivating an environment where students can excel?

The mission of Sousa Middle School embodies the belief that all children can learn and will benefit from a safe and orderly learning environment. Therefore, I base all of my decisions on the best interest of the students. All planning is designed around what is best for students because they are our number one priority.

Although as a principal it seems easy to dive right in, it is imperative that you take every initiative for improvement one step at a time. Setting small goals and realizing success from these goals is what is needed to make sure that the long-term goals of student achievement, parent participation, a safe and orderly environment and quality teaching and learning a reality.

Articles written about your work at Sousa Middle School have discussed many of the changes you’ve made from school renovations to hiring new staff. What were some of the first things you thought about changing when you were appointed and how have those changes translated into the results you see today?

Looking back at the state of Sousa less than three years ago, every aspect of the school would seem like a challenge. The student-filled hallways during instructional time, a less than friendly front office staff, classrooms with no instructional focus, frustrated parents in the front office, and an overall presence of an instructional community with no mission and vision.

In 2008, when walking through the doors of the new establishment, I had a new outlook and vision for Sousa. In order for quality teaching and learning to take place the entire culture of the school needed to shift. I had to develop a vision, build consensus and shift the practices of the students, parents, teachers and the community. I set a few goals for my leadership team and myself.

First I wanted to make sure that everyone spoke the same language. Then, I wanted to ensure that ALL students had the opportunity to learn in a safe and orderly environment. My major goal was to transform the school culture within the first 90 days of the school year. It took us 30 days. Then, we focused on moving forward and developing an effective instructional plan, with less than effective teachers.

The adults were more concerned about their level of comfort rather than implementing and facilitating learning. Something had to be done for the best interest of the students. The teachers were bombarded with constant observation cycles, instructional feedback, action plans for improvement, an abundance of student data, instructional coaching and in-house professional development.

These were professional elements that they were not accustomed to nor were they were not appreciative of them. Instead of taking these tools as opportunities of growth, the adults took to the feedback negatively. This hostility fostered a negative professional culture that the leadership team had to work hard manage. The leadership team was directed to facilitate and monitor elements in the community that would be considered “negative” in hopes of keeping them from tainting the functioning community. With constant communication and documentation, the community was maintained for the school year and student achievement was a direct result.

While pushing the teachers hard, confronting them with the all-telling instructional data, and making sure that the students were receiving appropriate instruction, I was confronted with the unexpected, teacher union battles. These small battles could have deterred me from my vision of student achievement. However, I was ready for the fight and stood firm in making sure that I made decisions that were in the best interest of the students.

I knew that to make the school one of excellence, I had to remove the teachers who did not believe that all students could learn. Although the process was trying and time consuming, I was successful and moved forward to make sure that pending vacancies were filled with energetic, and student focused adults. 

After establishing and maintaining an effective culture and instructional program, I had to move beyond the walls of Sousa and confront the elements that had a tremendous impact on student growth, parents and community. Changing most aspects of the school was a shock to the community and the families of the students. They either loved the change or hated it.

The trust factor was the obstacle that stifled the bond between the new Sousa and the community. We had to work hard to build and rebuild relationships that would ultimately help with the overall growth of the school and community. This year, we have developed parent organizations and developed some partnerships that will support the school in our efforts. We are making major progress, with much work still to be done.

How has your involvement with The Principals’ Center, whether it’s serving on the advisory board or attending the National Institute for Urban School Leaders impacted your work?

The opportunity has allowed me to facilitate constant professional development for all members of the setting, including me as the leader. I was able to gain knowledge that allowed me to continue to transform my own school by capitalizing on the areas of weakness that exist within my setting.

Realizing these elements and then seeking out professional development through participation and research has helped me bring back valuable tools to my setting and community. By working with other principals from similar and different settings, I was able to adopt ideas and instructional themes that will afford my school the chance to build capacity around the core focus of excellence.

Collaboration with colleagues is one of the most important methods that can be used to allow leaders to expand their ideas. Working with colleagues has allowed me to experience and learn from different points of view.

My participation has allowed me to propel Sousa toward significant student achievement by allowing me the opportunity to gain new ideas, approaches, and strategies that will assist me in educating the whole child through intensive instruction based on our student data; academic intervention programs before, during and after school; extra-curricular activities; and through our Performing Arts Program.

The institute experience gave me the opportunity to consider the overall quality and retention of the teaching staff at Sousa. I believe that good teachers establish high expectations for academics and behavior. They are well organized and have a clear plan for what students should be learning on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. They know their subject matter, and they use multiple teaching strategies to reach students who come to school with varying skills and interests. They give regular feedback to students and challenge them to achieve their personal best. At the same time, they go to great lengths to care for and support students personally. They communicate openly and clearly with parents and work well with their colleagues. Upon completion of the program, I was able to examine my own leadership challenges in the context of instructional improvement.

Through the program, I was also able to gain valuable professional insight in the following areas: Extracurricular Activities, Parent and Community Involvement, Safety and Discipline, and Retaining and Recruiting Quality Teachers. All of the information has been valuable tools that I utilized for school improvement throughout this school year.

What skills have enabled you to succeed in this position and what resources have you drawn on to develop your practice?

The skills that I have acquired as an educator and leader are abundant. My experiences and job responsibilities have allowed me to grow and develop in ways that are directly aligned with the development of a successful school that has a laser like focus on student achievement. Many of the skills are as follows:

•  Developing, implementing and monitoring academic intervention programming exclusive to the setting that supports the development of students outside of the classroom setting.

•  Providing academic supports for all students through systematic academic intervention and enrichment.

•  Creating a shared vision of student learning and building a culture of inclusiveness and collaboration by investing in students, teachers, parents and community members.

•  Developing systems that ensure smooth daily operations and result in efficient and effective school management.

•  Establishing a highly visible physical presence throughout the school day highlighted by positive and productive interactions with students, teachers and community members.

•  Improving staff member effectiveness through formal and informal feedback.

•  Building a culture of continuous and effective professional development focused on teaching, learning and student achievement.

•  Analyzing and using data to align administrative and instructional practices to support teaching and learning.

•  Implementing and overseeing discipline policies and procedures based on student discipline data that are equitably and consistently enforced.

•  Facilitating positive relationships and conflict resolutions between adults, between students, and between adults and students.

•  Maintaining a school building that is a safe, clean and positive place for learning.

•  Developing and leading school-wide activities and programs that fully engage parents and community members.

•  Communicating regularly and systematically with parents about student progress, school events and other important information pertaining to their child's success.

At Sousa, I have had additional educational efforts, which have allowed me to utilize the following skills:

•  Building capacity within the setting by training and developing teacher leaders and administrators who are able to hold each other accountable.

•  Appropriately delegating authority within the setting in order to make decisions that are in the best interest of the students and aligned to the district’s mission and vision.

•  Leading the implementation of the Full Service Model for the appropriate development of the school culture.

•  Fostering a conducive testing environment that promotes student performance on benchmark and summative assessments that results in accurate achievement data.

•  Demonstrating support for respectful actions within the community by understanding the norms and values and speaking up against negative action.

Beyond test scores, what other measures can be used to track the impact of educators?

Knowing how to apply the grade level standards and concepts that students are tested on is of great importance to the Sousa instructional community. It is not sufficient to just know the standard. We strive for students to use the higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy to extend their thinking and understanding using their mastery of the grade level standards through arts integration, performance based activities and projects within the core content classes. This is almost a daily occurrence in the Sousa community and students take pride in being able to use application in demonstrating mastery. Beyond the tested standards, teachers focus on providing students with an educational foundation that grants them the freedom to learn without barriers and limitations.

At Sousa, we also focus on the development of character in our students. Our goal is to develop young people as masterful thinkers and productive citizens. Through positive relationships, the reinforcement of school-wide core values and character traits, and exposure to character lessons, Sousa fosters a nurturing learning environment where all students strive for excellence not only academically but also in the development of good character.

We focus on and reinforce the development of the WHOLE CHILD. We challenge the educators to challenge the student’s intellect and empower their spirits so that they can develop outstanding character and strive for high expectations in all facets in order to be well rounded, life long, global learners.

How can Sousa continue to do better? What are your short and long-term goals for the school?

In the 2008–2009 academic year Sousa Middle School made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in reading and math for the first time in its history. Sousa boasted the highest secondary test gains on the 2009 DC CAS exams. Moving forward, we will continue in our pursuit of academic excellence for all, by assuring that at least 80 percent of our students are at or above grade level in reading and mathematics.

In reinforcing the importance of the arts, another goal is to help talented students harness their dedication to become artists, instilled with the passion and understanding to reach within themselves to affect and move audiences. Engaging students and their imaginations through the arts and exposing them to new cultures is what we inspire to do through the catalyst project.

Although Sousa has been successful in the past year and a half, there is still more work to be done. Going from 16% to 41% proficiency in math and 22% to 39% percent in reading within one year is only a small part of the journey that we must take to reach significant student achievement.

The school community is going through the beginning phases of change and in order to reach our fullest potential, it is going to take 3 to 5 more years of focused and effective planning and development. Also, we work toward continuous development of the entire educational community to allow the staff and students to experience activities that are outside of their normal realm and comfort level by offering them current and meaningful learning.

My staff and I are still working toward our ultimate goal of meeting the AYP academic target and have developed systems in the present school year that will help us to reach this goal. We are expecting double digits gains this year as well.

Where do you think the education sector as a whole needs to improve the most?

I believe that the education sector needs to move toward the focus of development of teacher capacity. Proficient educators create proficient students. Therefore, if student achievement is our goal in education, it is imperative that teacher development is a core area of focus. The United States must focus on development of a Universal Professional Development Program for educators, so that continuous improvement in the profession is reinforced and available for all. The field of education must be cultivated as a premier profession so that proficient educational candidates can be developed and available to serve the ever-growing student population.

The quality of teaching is critical to how well and how many students achieve academically. If we want to narrow the achievement gap within our setting and in the district we must develop a comprehensive education reform strategy that focuses heavily on teacher quality. Quality teaching is what supports significant student achievement. Like the students, it is important to understand the needs of the teachers in the setting and develop professional programs that will support their growth. I am hopeful that the institute will provide information on effective methods to differentiate professional development for the teachers to foster a culture of oneness so that teachers feel that they are stakeholders in the community. Developing teacher leaders and stakeholders is essential in sustaining a strong instructional community.