By Mike Marsee
Dana Blankenship isn’t done with LEAD-Kentucky, but she has done enough to know it works.
Blankenship, the principal at Peaks Mill Elementary in Franklin County, still has several months to go in the program that is providing leadership training to school and district leaders, but she said what she has learned has already impacted her and her school.
She said she has been incorporating the principles she has learned in the program, and she said Peaks Mill has begun to change as a result.
“I have to stop and think about how I’m going to do a staff meeting now, because I think about the whole process involved in it,” Blankenship said. “It just seems to come naturally, and you don’t realize it’s happening. The strategic thinking and the systems thinking, all of that is a big part of how we move in this building now.”
Blankenship is one of about 100 educators participating in LEAD-Kentucky (Leadership for Education and Development in Kentucky), a yearlong program begun last summer in which the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) hopes to develop stronger leaders for schools and districts that need them most.
They gather in four cadres about once a month for two-day meetings in a professional development program created by the National Institute for School Leadership that is designed to give them the critical knowledge and skills they need to be instructional leaders and improve student achievement in their schools and districts.
Jason Radford, the District 180 manager in KDE’s Division of Student Success, said KDE turned to NISL in an effort to develop a pipeline of leadership for low-performing schools.
“When we identified Priority schools and we had to select new leaders, new principals for those buildings, we were in the same boat that many other states found themselves in: We did not have the pool of leaders that had the tools in their tool belt to lead those schools through that turnaround process,” Radford said.
Blankenship said she has already acquired some of those tools, even though she is only about two-thirds of the way through the program.
“I feel very fortunate to be part of the program,” Blankenship said. “At first I wasn’t sure what it was going to encompass, but since I’ve been in it I’ve learned a great deal. And I am able to bring a lot of the things back to my staff.”
Lincoln County High School principal Tim Godbey said he has implemented things he has learned as well, and he said he recently introduced a lesson study protocol in which teachers work in teams to plan lessons.
“One teaches and the other two observe, and once that’s complete the group gets back together to analyze data and revise the lesson,” he said. “They are creating a lesson, implementing, studying and making adjustments based on what they’re seeing.”
Radford said LEAD-Kentucky has gotten similarly good reviews from those participating in the cadres at Bowling Green, Louisville, Richmond and Shelbyville. The Shelbyville cadre is co-sponsored by the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development, which paid for half of the seats in that group for Focus schools in the Ohio Valley Education Cooperative, and the Louisville cadre is being conducted by Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS).
“The feedback that we’ve gotten has been extremely positive in that they see it has enriched their lives professionally,” he said. “They are able to take what they learn from each content unit back to their school or to their district to help improve student achievement.”
Godbey said that’s exactly what he has been doing. He said the principles of effective teaching, effective learning and effective curriculum that he has already learned in LEAD-Kentucky are being used frequently in his school.
“In emails, conferences, learning groups, we’re constantly referring back to those principles, and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from my staff about how that constant communication on those principles has helped them,” Godbey said. “With NISL, that’s probably one of its biggest strengths: The material that we’re learning, it’s not theoretical, it’s practical. It’s stuff that we can go back into our building and start implementing.”
An initial group of 26 people were trained by NISL master faculty members to create the base for LEAD-Kentucky, which uses the NISL curriculum but has adapted it for Kentucky educators. About half were members of KDE’s educational recovery staff, and the other half came from JCPS, UofL and the Council on Postsecondary Education, all of whom are collaborating with KDE.
“So we have some of our very best and brightest who are trained facilitators, who now deliver that content to Kentucky educators,” Radford said.
Those facilitators are sold on the NISL curriculum and what it can do for leaders in low-performing schools and districts.
“It really is a whole new way of thinking about leadership,” said Susan Greer, an educational recovery leader who heads the LEAD-Kentucky cadre in Richmond. “In 25 years in education, it’s the only real leadership initiative that I’ve been part of that truly frames what has to happen in educational programs.
“Not everybody in our group is in a PLA situation, but most are. NISL has lined up so well with the turnaround pieces we were already doing. All of us in turnaround have said we wish we had NISL about five years ago.”
Radford said the focus of LEAD-Kentucky has been on principals, assistant principals and aspiring leaders in Focus and Priority schools and districts, though it is not limited to leaders working in low-performing districts. Participants at the four cadres include everyone from teachers to superintendents, and Radford said the next set of cadres for the 2015-16 school year is open to anyone.
The program requires a significant time commitment, with 14 two-day meetings and about four to six hours of work between sessions.
“Leaders feel like they don’t have two days to give, but if they’re trying to improve instruction they can’t afford not to,” Radford said.
Godbey said he has come to understand that.
“Obviously you are sacrificing key work time to go there, and that work piles up and waits on you. That’s been the challenge of the program, but when you weigh the benefits, it outweighs what you give up,” he said. “We’ve been talking in our district about how this should be an experience for every administrator in Lincoln County. It’s that good. If I’d had this 18 years ago, I would’ve been a different principal.”
Debbie Powers, an educational recovery leader who heads the cadre in Shelbyville, said she is pleased that so many educators committed to LEAD-Kentucky in its first year, and she hopes they will look back on it as time well spent.
“I hope that they feel more confident in their abilities, I hope they realize they have additional tools for their tool kit, and I hope they are the type of leader that can motivate others at their school to make the changes we need to make for our kids,” she said.
Radford said there will probably be four to six LEAD-Kentucky cadres beginning this summer, and Godbey said he would tell any colleague who asks him that they are worthwhile.
“They need to drop what they’re doing and participate,” he said. “It will be one of the most valuable professional learning experiences that they’ve ever had in regards to being a true instructional leader.”
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