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School leadership – challenges and new opportunities

Marilyn Dryden (left), director of teaching and learning for the Bulloch County Board of Education, leans into a conversation at a GLISI leadership training program. Credit: glisi.org Director of Teaching and Learning Bulloch County Board of Education

By Guest Columnist DANA RICKMAN, PhD, directs policy and research at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education

Successful schools and school systems need strong leaders. Research has shown that leadership influences student learning, and among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school, leadership is second only to classroom instruction. In schools and systems that have more challenges, leadership is even more impactful. Turning around troubled schools demands the intervention of a powerful leader.

Dana Rickman, Nov. 2017

Dana Rickman

Leadership efforts need time to succeed. For multiple reasons, school system leaders in Georgia have shown a high rate of turnover the past few years. However, the systems that have shown the greatest and most positive effects from successful superintendent leadership have done so with the investment of time. Leaders need support from their districts, their school boards, and the state to give them the flexibility and commitment to steer their systems through the challenges that they face. When superintendents have this support, they can institute effective change incrementally over time.

Georgia leaders are more empowered than ever with the flexibility and authority to lead their districts. Over the past 10 years, Georgia has moved toward giving district leaders the ability to respond to the needs of their districts in the way that is best for them. Between Charter System and Strategic Waivers School System models, school systems have considerable autonomy by freeing them from many of the state’s education regulations. For example, school systems that operate under one of these models can waive class size maximums, number of school days, and where and how state money must be spent.

With this explicit responsibility and authority, it is important that district and school personnel have opportunities to develop and grow as leaders to gain the skills and confidence necessary in their roles. In Georgia, there are a few efforts underway to develop and prepare district leaders.

finalist national principal

Tommy Welch, one of three finalists for National Principal of the Year

One of the initiatives in progress to help school and district leaders hone their leadership skills and gain new ones is the Educational Leadership Certificate (ELC) program offered by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. The ELC program serves the needs of future leaders still in the classroom who want to become school-level leaders. It is also for current leaders looking to tie performance to accountability.

Another successful initiative in Georgia is the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement (GLISI). GLISI is a non-partisan non-profit organization that works with district and school leaders to build leadership capacity, improve organizational effectiveness, and create conditions that improve student achievement. GLISI works under a theory of change that, through leadership development, consulting, and research, GLISI builds leader and organizational capacity, which leads to improved student-learning outcomes over time.

Other efforts in Georgia to develop leaders are more local, and one of the best examples is the Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Quality-Plus Leader Academy (QPLA). This program’s goal is to increase student achievement by identifying, recruiting, and preparing introspective school leaders; and selecting, developing, training, and supporting them to become highly effective instructional leaders in today’s schools. There are different leadership development tracks to choose from, and each corresponds to a different level of leadership and professional development need. This leadership program directly supports the Gwinnett County School District’s vision of building internal capacity.

superintendent of the year

Jody Barrow, Georgia’s 2017 Superintendent of the Year

As the state confronts new opportunities to change the education system through legislation or through regulations, Georgia must seize the chance to support and expand successful models for leadership development. Encouragingly, Gov. Deal recently appointed Gwinnett County Public Schools’ Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks to chair a committee to evaluate a proposed statewide leadership academy. This committee can propose stronger support for GLISI and scaling statewide the success of Gwinnett’s Leadership Academy, which are moves we believe would greatly enhance the leadership pipeline in Georgia.

Investments in local programs such as the Gwinnett Quality-Plus Leadership Academy and state non-profit leadership development efforts like GLISI can increase our state’s leadership quality and capacity. To maintain strong leadership, as stakeholders choose school and district leaders, they must try to find individuals who can and will put in the time to succeed. Districts must give leaders autonomy in decision-making, and they must compensate leaders adequately and creatively to foster an environment where leaders and the systems they lead flourish.

State leaders including the governor and state Superintendent Richard Woods have prioritized fixing failing schools. This is a time when leadership is more important than ever in Georgia school systems. The right leader will be a force for creating a culture of success that is backed by data and research, while aligning expectations throughout the system and the school. This is what it will take to meet the challenges that Georgia schools face.

Note to readers: The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education offers an array of leadership programs that aim to help educators improve student achievement


Marilyn Dryden (left), director of teaching and learning for the Bulloch County Board of Education, leans into a conversation at a GLISI leadership training program. Credit: glisi.org


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