When it comes to professional development, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) educators find strength in numbers, especially for principals who often work alone with little time for reflection.
Since 1996, they have sent hundreds of principals to Harvard Graduate School of Education's Programs in Professional Education (PPE). Last week's Leadership: An Evolving Vision (LEV) institute -- an eight-day program that builds upon reflection and connection by providing school leaders with new skills, technologies, and techniques to develop effective teaching and learning -- attracted 135 educators from 19 states, Washington, D.C., and nine countries. Among them, 14 HISD principals found the much needed time to reflect, make plans, and build an alliance, all of which benefits their practice.
As a large district with 250,000 students and more than 400 principals, HISD has traditionally sent second-year principals to PPE institutes as a group in order to create a network within the district. "It's very easy for principals to get lost," says Olga Aleman, administrator for HISD Professional Development Services. "It not only helps them individually, but [also helps] the district as a whole to have a strong force of leaders who are creative thinkers, problem-solvers, and [an overall] support system for our district."
Some of the HISD principals came to LEV facing challenges ranging from changing the perception of their school in the community to recruiting new students to how to make their big ideas a reality. Although each HISD principal's challenges vary, at LEV they find the tools to tackle the broad issues they face as leaders. Through case discussions interactive activities, teambuilding exercises, and small group work, the institute facilitates thinking about the mission of education in the context of the participants' schools.
HGSE Professor Richard Elmore's session, "Improving the Technical Core," encouraged Hafedh Aiez, principal at Paul Revere Middle School, to reflect on his everyday practice. "Sometimes those small details are the things you don't pay attention to," he says, sharing that he plans to spend more time discussing the best ways to accomplish tasks rather than expecting staff to handle things on their own. "I personally know that when I go back to school, I'm going to pay more attention to those little things -- not that I was ignoring them before -- but I was not really taking care of it either. I know this training will make me a better leader."
Aleman says that, in her 15 years working for the district, the majority of HISD principals who attend PPE institutes go on to lead successful and exemplary schools. She attributes their success in part to both individual plans of action and the work they do as a group.
Senior Lecturer Kay Merseth, faculty leader of LEV, explains that there can be many advantages to attending institutes as a team of practitioners, including working together on district challenges, planning strategies to address problems, and making plans to carry out actions at home -- all with colleagues who can hold them accountable. The latter, Merseth says, is crucial to successful reform efforts.
By LEV's end, Robin Lowe, principal of Pershing Middle School , had plans to take what she learned from institute faculty including Elmore, Professor Chris Dede, and New Leaders for New Schools consultant Kim Marshall, Ed.M.'01, back to her school. As she works to "reformulate the organization" and define a school vision, she already knows that the 13 other HISD principals who attended LEV with her will be there to help. "As a principal, you work in such isolation," she says, "and it helps to have a network of people to bounce ideas off of, who I can call and will help keep the faith."