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Summer Spotlight: Institute for Urban School Leaders

Deborah Jewell-ShermanDuring the summer many educators take the opportunity to develop their skills through professional development opportunities. More than 1500 educators come to the HGSE campus every summer to participate in a professional education experience. Programs in Professional Education offers a variety of leadership development opportunities tailored to K–12 and higher education leaders. The programs not only let you recharge and connect with like-minded individuals, but they also show you how to apply what you learn directly to your work for years to come. There are still a limited number of openings this summer. Learn more about how you can develop your skills through Programs in Professional Education.

One of PPE’s core leadership programs is the National Institute for Urban School Leaders (NIUSL) — being held on campus July 14–19. The overarching goal of the program is to help educators refine their leadership skills and broaden their understanding of effective teaching and learning. NIUSL brings together educators from urban contexts with Harvard faculty and top experts in the field to examine best practices and research-based techniques that support student achievement. The program is designed for principals, assistant principals, department heads, directors of curriculum and instruction, and other central office administrators that support urban schools.

As an urban school leader herself, Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman, has been the faculty chair of the program for the past five years. Jewell-Sherman served as superintendent of the Richmond schools from 2002 to 2008 and was named Virginia Superintendent of the Year in 2009 by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with her to learn more about program she designed and the issues facing urban educators today:

What are some of the challenges that urban school leaders are experiencing in their schools or districts? A major challenge for all urban school leaders is improving student learning – especially in the context of the achievement gap. I am an outcome-focused individual. There are lots of elements to leadership, but one of the most important results of effective school leadership is the difference it makes in enhancing student achievement. Every aspect of the work has to be focused on ensuring that school and district systems are able to deliver high-quality education that results in students knowing more, being able to think more clearly, and being able to do more.

Another challenge is that while urban school leaders focus on student achievement, they need to figure out how to share responsibility and accountability among their colleagues, families, the community and students. It is tough – but important – for urban school leaders to enlist the support of a wide network of stakeholders to work together to improve student outcomes. Knowledge about instructional content is critical, but so is the ability to politically navigate the complex landscape of education and build partnerships among stakeholders to work together to support student learning. Learning how to support the professional development of stakeholders is a piece of this puzzle and important in building a sustainable network.

At the district and school levels, it is helpful for urban school leaders to wisely use data to inform their work. Work in urban areas is complex and warrants using data in an intelligent way to inform policies and strategies focused on how to improve student learning. Using data to develop roadmaps that guide strategic plans and developing management systems to sequence the work helps everyone remain focused on goals and promotes transparency about results.

Ultimately, working with others to establish a strong, sustainable school culture of high expectations for everyone, while maintaining a climate of psychological safety and camaraderie is essential. Urban school leaders need to be agile thinkers skilled at adaptive leadership to address the many out-of-school factors students struggle with in these environments. Urban school leaders must demonstrate through word and deed that demographic data, such as economic status, primary language and ethnicity and where one lives does not determine one’s destiny.

Can you tell me what it’s like to be a participant in the National Institute for Urban School Leaders? Participants will join teams of other urban educational leaders – including principals, assistant principals, department heads, and central office administrators – to examine successful practices from urban settings, set high expectations for achievement in their schools and districts, and explore strategies that promote student and community engagement.

The institute includes a blend of theory and practice-based techniques for addressing student learning by strengthening instruction and better engaging communities, closing the achievement gap and establishing a positive, safe and goal-oriented school culture. Urban school leaders who join me at the program will learn more about their personal leadership style and how they can use it most effectively to improve teaching and learning in their schools and districts. The faculty presenters will help participants unpack beliefs, cultural changes and instructional models that influence high student achievement. We will consider the effects of race, class, and culture on learning communities and learn effective ways to include all students and meet their learning needs.

What would you say to someone who is considering a leadership development program at HGSE? We welcome you and are excited to support your professional growth and development! The work you do as an urban school leader has never been more critical. As I have said before, it is not for those who are afraid of risk, are unwilling to learn from their mistakes or cannot accept that students are the focus of our work. The challenges we confront and problems we must solve are legion. We want to help you successfully meet these demands and improve student learning in your schools and districts.

To learn more about the National Institute for Urban School Leaders, visit


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