How I Lead

A scooter, a reflection journal, and no surprises: One Denver principal’s approach to leadership

Scott Wolf, the principal of North High School in Denver.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here and pieces in our sister series “How I Teach” here.

Scott Wolf, principal of Denver’s North High School, expected pushback when he discussed a teacher’s poor showing on an evaluation. Instead, the teacher readily acknowledged the problems and vowed to do better.

The episode was an example of Wolf’s belief in a “no-surprises” approach to staff feedback.

Wolf talked to Chalkbeat about how that teacher later went on to excel, why North emphasizes restorative justice, and who he looks forward to chatting with in the hall each day.

In January, Wolf was honored by the Colorado Music Educators Association for encouraging arts programming at North High.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

While studying learning and organizational change at Northwestern University, I worked at the central office of the Chicago Public Schools. During my time there, I saw just how complex and challenging it was to improve educational outcomes, and felt called to this work. I saw education as the highest leverage opportunity to improve life outcomes for all people and wanted to do what I can to make a positive difference. My work at the central office inspired me to volunteer at a local elementary school where I worked with students on their reading skills and saw light bulbs go on every day. I knew that my career would focus on education from this point forward.

Fill in the blank. My day at school isn’t complete unless I __________. Why?
My day at school isn’t complete unless I have the opportunity to talk to Diego in the hallway and encourage him to get to class. Almost every day Diego struggles to get to class, but there is something about our conversations that makes me think he looks forward to our conversations just as much as I do.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

I love getting to know students. I would spend my entire day with students if I could. I get to know students by sharing my whole self and trying to embody the value of fun. I ride my Razor scooter around the hallways, I ask students about their lives, and I try to be present during lunch and after school activities to connect with kids. In addition, I have feedback groups so I can hear student voices and learn student stories.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?
Thankfully, most of my teacher evaluations have gone great because I have had ongoing conversations with teachers, so there were no surprises. There was one time years ago where I thought there would be lots of pushback from a teacher on the scores because they were not very good. The teacher did not push back at all though and instead said to me, “You have been telling me this all along, and now it is in my face. This is the motivation that I needed.” This teacher became one of the best teachers I have ever supported. I have found that evaluations are about honesty and humanity, and it has been great to work with so many people who just want to be the best they can for students.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?
I am proud that North High School has increased its enrollment from 769 students when I started at North five years ago to a projected 1,216 students this coming school year. I have spent significant time creating a great school culture where we are a model restorative practice site for the nation, improving our academic performance so we reached a “meets expectations” status last school year, and building relationships with our community as we value diversity.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
As a restorative practice school, it is all about working to build skills with students so that everyone involved makes different choices in the future. I don’t really believe in students getting in trouble, but see opportunities for students to learn. Restorative practice focuses on what happened, who is affected, what’s the ownership, and what needs to be resolved.

We work to bring individuals together to dialogue with each other, understand different perspectives, and work to improve the next time. We have even started a restorative practice class this year where students facilitate the restorative process for other students and staff members.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is keeping an even temperament regardless of the situation. My days are filled with extreme highs and extreme lows, and I have to go from one situation to the next. I might arrive at school to receive great achievement results back, only to find out that we did not get a grant we were hoping for, to going into a classroom where there is amazing instruction taking place, to find out that two students tried to resolve their issues by confronting each other. The days ebb and flow, and it is hard to stay calm and collected in all situations.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I love talking with families! My favorite place to have conversations is on a home visit where families can share with me their special place. On a home visit three years ago, a family shared with me that while they were not always able to attend every event, they wanted to be in the loop and asked to join things. This has helped me to make sure that everything is transparent and that we create a welcoming environment.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?
The biggest education policy having an impact is school funding. My school leader friends in New York get over twice as much money per student as we do in Colorado, where we are funded close to last in the country. To address it, I am trying to work with community organizations and businesses to provide additional resources at North since we cannot simply rely on state funding. I think we have to work on mutual partnerships so that the school can give back to the community and businesses can give back to schools.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I have ever received is from my first principal who told me to slow down and reflect. He told me that I was really good at my job as a teacher, but I needed to reflect more. As a gift, he gave me a mirror to remind me to reflect, and for the last ten years I have religiously journaled to help me reflect intentionally.

How I Lead

A Bronx principal explains secret behind $25,000 award: teachers learning along with students

Kristin Erat with students graduating from Grant Avenue Elementary.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

In a unanimous decision last week, principal Kristin Erat won the Teaching Matters Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize on behalf of her school, an annual award that bestows $25,000 on a public school in or around New York City to spend on advancing opportunities for students by helping to position their teachers, in the words of the prize criteria, to “lead, learn, and thrive.”

As the founding principal of Grant Avenue Elementary School, which opened in the Bronx in 2009, Erat knew she wanted to create a collaborative community for teachers, families and students. Although the school quickly developed a strong literature program, mathematics proved to be a heavier lift. That changed when Grant Avenue became part of the DOE-funded Learning Partners Program two years ago. The initiative, started by former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, seeks to improve schools through internal and external collaboration. Principal Erat and her assistant principal have used the funds from this program to support teachers sharing innovative ways to provide students with a stronger conceptual understanding of mathematics.

While reflecting on the changes she has seen within the past couple of years, Erat discussed and highlighted some of the reasons why she believes the school’s work attracted recognition.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Describe the work that you are doing. How will the prize money help you expand on that work?

In the past we had really flat and bad math data we were at 12 percent proficiency for a number of years. At the time, we were using a very procedural, highly scripted curriculum. Teachers would just go lesson by lesson, using the workshop model of ‘I do, you do, we do,’ and basically what we found was that our students were compliant, but there was limited transfer in terms of conceptual understanding of mathematics. Because the way the curriculum was set up, teachers also had a limited conceptual understanding of the material, because they were teaching lessons in isolation and going by a script. So, two years ago we decided to rip off the bandaid and move in a radically different direction and became part of the Learning Partners program in New York. Principals, assistant principals and teachers are a part of it. To start as a host school, you identify a problem of practice in our case, that was around mathematics  and you set up day-long visitations where other schools visit classes, take notes and then gather feedback for the school that should give [its teachers] a new direction to go in. For our host work, we would always use a professional text to study, which in our case was the 5 Practices For Orchestrating Mathematical Discussion. Whenever we were trying something new, we would have a core group of teachers trying it out to see if it’s working and based on the impact, we would decide where to go next. The funding from the DOE is set up to stop formally after three years, so the money from the prize will go to all of these initiatives that support teacher leadership in the community. The prize will work in two directions it will go towards the work we are doing around innovating how we taught mathematics and towards the visitations within the school (and the ones that support other city schools) to help them roll out practices.

Why do you think you won this award, and what about your work made it stand out?

I happen to have worked with every one of the other principals who were up for consideration in various roles. I know that they are all very strong leaders. I have experienced their leadership and know they are doing tremendous work in their schools. So in a sense, it was difficult to win, because you know you’re standing in a room with other folks who are doing terrific work. I was really proud of winning, and I think the reason we won was because the work that we were doing fit so well with the the language of the award, which is given to highlight leadership and excellent work taking place in a school, always with a focus on teacher effectiveness. My assistant principal and I believe that the more invested we are in supporting teachers in professional growth, the more students will be taken care of. We also demonstrated a huge impact in advancing opportunities for students and by positioning teachers to “lead, learn and thrive.”

Kristin is presented with the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize by Teaching Matters.

How do you train your teachers to become leaders? What are the specific strategies you use?

In our professional development blocks, we have dedicated time set up for mini-courses, where teachers will be leading six to eight different colleagues and will work on a particular area of practice, like using backwards design to prepare for math units. At the end of each year, teachers can either nominate themselves or their colleagues for a particular area of strength that folks think others can benefit from, and on Mondays, colleagues can sign up for one of the mini-courses and work alongside those colleagues to learn. Teachers are broken up into teams, and each of the teams have a mathematics representative and a literary representative who meet with me monthly. We have model teachers and peer-collaborative teachers. The model teachers are the teachers who use their classrooms as places to get together with administration and to demonstrate teaching techniques, and they visit each other to give each other feedback. Peer-collaboration teachers teach during half of their schedule and coach during half of their schedule. They receive a stipend on top of their salary, and it’s a great way to ensure that your strongest teachers are growing in their practices and are incentivized to stay. Their coaching is one-on-one throughout the year.

How have the new teaching methods transformed your community? What are some of the major changes you have seen?

We are known as a school to visit around literacy practices, but unfortunately math was neglected. It was not an area of emphasis. From a teacher and student standpoint, attitudes about math were low, but now we see something completely different. One of the elements that has been really powerful is work that we have drawn from 5 Practices For Orchestrating Mathematical Discussion. A specific practice we do is that students in a class are given a grade-level task and virtually no teaching before taking the test. We call the problems they’re given ‘persevere problems’ and say that they have to use all they know about math to unpack the problem. While students are independently working, the teacher is circling and seeing what students are using models, previous lessons, common misconceptions. The teacher then selects three to four students to present their work in front of class, but in a way where each example links to a connection or math understanding that will lead to the answer. It used to be that kids would get a test, and you would see slumped shoulders and upset students. But these instructions happen two to three times per week, and you see kids energized and encouraging each other during them with questions and feedback. Since starting, we have had huge gains from 12 percent proficiency to 31 percent proficiency, and I know that when our results come back this year, we will see more gains.

Can you describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that you have seen?

One of the exciting aspects of this work is that sometimes people hear “model teacher” or “teacher leader” and perceive that to mean that that person knows it all, but in fact some of our most beautiful and challenging moments came from model teachers being learners. One of our teachers in particular, when we had to talk about changes to make, would be tearful and ask why she was teaching if she didn’t know what she was doing. She is very competent, and it was uncomfortable to have to learn to teach a different way and to then have to teach that to someone else. She’s someone whom we talk about all the time though, because she teaches the third grade special education class that outperformed the city on the math test. There were lots of tears in the beginning, but we come to work every day because we want our students to succeed.

How do you ensure parents grow with the community as well?

Every Friday we have ‘Family Fridays’ in the early afternoon, and parents are welcome in the classroom to engage in learning with their child. We have a strong parent leadership team that works on crafting goals as well. It’s mainly the little things, like we get 100 percent engagement with parent conferences. It’s just the expectations we have for our parents. These conversations we’re having are important, and meetings have to be a two-way dialogue. On parents’ night, we also have a scavenger hunt where parents have to meet with at least seven educators who work with their child. The more informal opportunities parents have to get to know teachers, the easier the serious conversations will be because there is already a relationship built.

How I Lead

Meditation and mindfulness: How a Harlem principal solves conflict in her community

Dawn DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Dawn DeCosta, Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s principal of seven years, never pictured herself leading a school.

Originally a fine arts major and art teacher, she was inspired to be a community leader when she took a summer leadership course at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The program helped her widen her impact to outside the classroom by teaching her how to find personal self awareness and mindfulness.

For the past four years she has taught the students, teachers, and parents in her school’s community how to solve conflict constructively through the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program — a social-emotional learning program that brings together many of the tools that she learned at Columbia. While describing these new practices and techniques, DeCosta reflected on the specific impact they have had on her community.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What is the Yale RULER program?

It’s more of a process, not a script or curriculum. An approach that has these four anchors: the mood meter, the charter, the meta-moment, and the blueprint. We use the mood meter to describe feelings, because a lot of times we’ll just hear “I feel happy” or “I feel sad.” You want them to be able to better pinpoint how they feel, and the mood meter is a square with these quadrants that are different colors and show how much energy a student has at a given moment and how pleasant they’re feeling. The charter is an agreement to the class. It replaces “don’t hit, don’t kick” with “how do we want to feel, what are we going to do to feel that way, what will we do if we have a conflict.” The meta-moment are six steps on how to deal with a stressful situation, and the blueprint is a plan to serve a longer-term conflict between two people- to solve an ongoing conflict that we need a plan for, that’s not just in the moment. We integrate all four components throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year.

What changes did you make to it to make it work for your community, and what are the specific strategies you use?

We do it with teachers, students, staff, and supplement it with a culturally relevant approach. We have 100 percent black and brown children, so this means using culturally relevant texts, since we want students learning about leaders and artists who look like them. We want them to see models of excellence in themselves and see success too in themselves in order to combat some of the negative images they see in the media or even in their neighborhoods. This is a beautiful place but there’s also a lot going on in terms of poverty and violence, which have an impact on their lives, how they feel, how they live, how they see things. We’ve incorporated meditation, mindfulness, brain breaks, yoga, and arts into our curriculum. We’ve put all the different pieces together to tap into what makes kids want to go to school and makes them love to be here. We want to use these in every grade, so that we give students a common language and kids can move from one grade to the next easily. Student ownership is a big piece, because what happens when the teachers aren’t there? Do you know how to use this in less structured environments, at home with your siblings at home?

How do you make sure vulnerable students are getting emotional support and give time for that reflection and self growth but also provide a rigorous education that meets your school’s standards?

The work that we are doing is ensuring that the kids have academic improvement and success. Because they feel cared for and comfortable, ultimately students feel successful, and when you feel successful you will apply yourself more. Right now, learning is rigorous. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. So we ask kids to think very deeply to be critical thinkers. The text that they have to read is more rigorous, ones that require problem solving [and] for kids to think for themselves. And so that by itself is taxing. And that kind of work can be really stressful. A lot of the work we’ve done is around test anxiety. We want kids to know that this is just a piece of information, you need to know where you’re doing well, where you’re struggling so that they can address areas of challenge with a little more positivity. But we see the effects of it in our academic performance.

How have you measured the success of the program?

When I first became principal it wasn’t like we were having emergencies necessarily, but we were putting out a lot of fires. Kids were just coming in with issues, getting into fights, things like that. We also wanted to bring in more of the parents, because there were some that we wanted to be more engaged. We have seen an increase in test scores, but I use personal growth stories as my data–that’s how I know that this works. When I have those success stories, when I see students that really needed it, use it and feel a change, that is the data. We didn’t actually see real, big changes until last year, when we were three years into using this new style of learning. There’s always work to be done, it’s an ongoing thing.

In your own words, what is emotional intelligence and why is it important to have?

To me, it means that you are aware of what you may be feeling at a certain moment and of how your feelings impact interactions with others. It’s about how self aware you are, how are you thinking about what you’re going to say or do before you do it, and about how you show compassion for others who are also thinking and feeling just like you. It’s about how you listen to others, how you see and recognize what others are giving you, and how you support others. We’ve been told that all we can do is control ourselves, and that we’re not responsible for other people. But I think through emotional intelligence, we are responsible for how we make people feel.

In what ways do you help take this learning outside of the classroom?

We send home activities for students to do with their families, for over vacation. It will be like, “check in with your family members on their moods for the week and on how everybody is feeling this week,” or “what was one time when you and your parents had a conflict and what did you do well or not do well.” We keep finding the means to engage the parents at home with it by having them come in and do stress relief workshops. I have students ask, “Can I have a mood meter for my mom? I think it will help her because she feels really stressed.” So that home/school piece is a really important part of what makes everything successful. We’re all supporting the kids, we’re raising them together.

In what other ways do you help the parents learn as well, and what does that look like?

We trained a group of parent leaders in RULER, who helped us train other parents. Parents like hearing from other parents, so we wanted to make sure that it was presented to them as something they could relate to. I think that sometimes as educators we are guilty of using a lot of acronyms and indigestible words when we’re talking to families, and what we’ve decided to do is breaking it down to talking about how do they deal with stress. Kind of how we brought it to the parents is that we brought to the kids strategies on how to deal with stress. We did some yoga with them, breathing techniques, and then we just started talking to them about what kinds of emotion they go through in a day. They talk about getting kids ready, making trains, dealing with family members, and really getting out what they were dealing with as parents–all that stuff that nobody really asked them about before. Honestly, they were the most receptive group. I think talking to each other, in a place where we’re all supporting each other, creates that space that we need.

Describe a specific instance or an anecdote that you think is reflective of the changes that have happened since you have implemented these new practices. How did you see the impact?

A boy came to us in the second grade, and he had been on a safety transfer, which means that he had been in a situation that may not be safe for a child. They’re either in violent conflict with others, or they’re being bullied, or something’s happening where they need to be removed from where they are. At first we had a lot of emotional difficulties and poor relationships with his teachers, and even though he was only six or seven he had been suspended several times. His family had also shut down from the school connection because since they were constantly hearing negative information. The principal basically said “Look, there’s nothing you can do with him. It’s just too much, he’s violent, he bites, it’s just too much.” But he came to the school, and just through engaging him through some of the new practices he was able to self regulate. It impacted his focus and changed his ability to relate to others. The changes didn’t make him perfect or change who he is, but it gave him some tools to be successful and work with others. Once he had love and compassion and felt accepted in our community, all of those behaviors just disappeared. His family became more supportive and trusting and he graduated last year.