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Creating Leaders in Miami-Dade

When Rudolph "Rudy" Crew took over as superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in 2004, he launched the most comprehensive large-scale school reform plan that the state--and arguably the nation--had ever seen. The plan's primary goal: ensuring that all students achieve high academic standards.

But the nation's fourth-largest district, with over 350,000 students and an annual budget of over $5 billion faced a number of big challenges, among them, a growing principal shortage, a rash of underperforming schools, and a wide achievement gap between Miami-Dade students and students in other Florida districts.

Crew, along with members of the district leadership team, knew it was necessary to develop a highly qualified cadre of school leaders who could serve as agents of change in their schools. So they turned to HGSE's Programs in Professional Education (PPE) for help. And, to support classroom teaching, they looked to WIDE World, developed at HGSE, to deliver online professional development.

"Professional development is critical to support administrators as they undertake the tasks of raising academic performance and managing day-to-day operations in urban schools," says Crew. "The programs offered by HGSE dovetail with our overarching mission to create a leadership development framework that prepares and encourages principals and assistant principals who will be ready to serve as CEO's and top executives in their schools."

Since the summer of 2005, more than 165 educators from Miami-Dade have participated in institutes at HGSE, through both The Principals' Center and other Pre-K-12 programs. To infuse research-based practices into more classrooms, 150 teachers and leaders in Small Learning Community schools in the district began taking courses this fall through WIDE World, capitalizing on the advantages of networked technologies to access HGSE research across distance.

The participation of so many educators in these HGSE programs has helped Miami-Dade prepare motivated and competent new school leaders to fill vacancies left by retiring administrators. "We are building leaders who are capable of meeting the challenges of our schools and the students they represent," says Crew. "This is quite apparent as we look at the increases in the academic achievement of students within the past two years."

Miami-Dade students achieved significant academic gains in reading and math in nearly every grade, according to results from the 2006 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). These gains reflect, in part, the strong link between effective leadership and school success, a link which, according to Mary Grassa O'Neill, director of The Principals' Center, has been clearly demonstrated by research.

During their time at The Principals' Center institutes, educators learn about research findings and best practices from the field's top leaders. Participants then engage in meaningful discourse with peers from all over the world and reflect on how to make these ideas relevant to their own work.

"Everything we do is about helping people in schools take the best research and theory and put it into practice," says Grassa O'Neill. "With the tremendous support of our faculty, we're able to address a number of the district's priorities and respond to their leading challenges." Miami-Dade school leaders have taken part in all four institutes regularly offered by The Principals' Center, as well as The Harvard Institute for School Leadership, a Pre-K-12 program.

In addition to their participation in these summer institutes, the Miami-Dade educators arranged for their leadership to attend a custom institute at HGSE last spring. "A custom program like the one we developed and delivered for Miami-Dade enables us to work with their leaders as a team, to tailor the content to their unique needs, and to make a greater impact on their work in the district," O'Neill says. "This is a powerful model that has greatly enhanced our relationship."

Colleen Del Terzo, a former middle school principal, said the programs she attended at HGSE helped her build on an already broad experience base. "There was a lot of synergy," she says. "The combination of what we learned during the institute and the experience we already had made it easy to take our work to the next level."

Now in her new role, she is managing efforts to break down 26 of the district's large high schools--some with more than 4,500 students--into smaller "academies" of 400 students or fewer. According to the goals outlined by the district's multi-million dollar Secondary Schools Reform plan, the academies will offer more personalized instruction to students and will give students more chances to apply academic concepts to the real world.

"Shortly after I took on my new position, I realized that professional development would be critical [to achieving our goals]," recalls Del Terzo. She felt daunted, however, by the challenge of providing high-quality professional development to large numbers of educators spread across the farthest reaches of the 1,946 square-mile county.

Then, she learned of WIDE World's online courses. WIDE World courses introduce teachers and school leaders to concepts gleaned from thirty years of classroom-based research at HGSE and help educators apply these findings right away. Because they are offered on-line, large numbers of educators from all over Miami Dade can take courses simultaneously and can even collaborate with colleagues at schools across the district. At the same time, WIDE World courses model instructional strategies that encourage learners to apply new knowledge flexibly in the world, which fits with the goals of the district's secondary school reform initiative.

Twenty-eight school-based teams began taking WIDE World's Teaching for Understanding and Leading for Understanding courses this October. Del Terzo, who is coordinating the course, says it's too early to gauge the impact of WIDE World courses on classroom instruction or the learning culture in schools, but she reports high teacher enthusiasm. "Some teams have even made team T-shirts," she says with a laugh.

While WIDE World's program is in an early phase in Miami-Dade, David Zarowin, executive director of WIDE World, says that establishing a long-term relationship with districts is a reliable road to making a sustained impact. Ideally, teachers take subsequent WIDE Worlds courses and even train as teacher-coaches. Then those teachers-coaches can support other teams from their schools. Meanwhile, school leaders can cultivate leadership strategies by taking WIDE World's new Leading for Understanding course for principals and administrators. In addition, Del Terzo and her colleagues are taking part in a WIDE World-sponsored action research seminar. Through the online seminar, a team of educational leaders led by Del Terzo are planning and piloting ways of evaluating the impact of their HGSE professional development activities on classroom instructional practice and student learning.

"This combination of activities is designed to build internal capacity in Miami-Dade and will, we hope, lead to improved instruction school-wide, and ultimately district-wide," Zarowin says.

"These integrated relationships are important to us," notes Keith Collar, executive director of Research, Innovation, and Outreach at HGSE. "By bringing together the capabilities of both PPE and WIDE World and working collaboratively with the district leaders, we are able to create the conditions to provide sustained support and to help them reach their teaching and learning goals."