This in-depth qualitative case study explores one novice school leader’s enactment of transformative leadership in an elementary school located in a racially homogeneous neighborhood. Analysis of interviews and observations revealed how this leader adapted his leadership to prioritize the needs of students, teachers, and community members.
US urban schools face a wide range of challenges that are well documented in the educational research literature. Persistently low-academic achievement, insufficient resources, inadequate funding and high rates of teacher and principal turnover are just a few of the obstacles that these schools face. Of central concern, as it relates to this study, is the rate of attrition of school principals and the increase in novice principals leading urban schools. When long-standing principals leave their post for whatever reason, there is a heightened chance that their successor is an individual who is inexperienced in leading a complex organization such as an urban school. Therefore, each year urban schools – schools serving a high concentration of low-income, Black and/or Latino students—open their doors under new school leadership. Principals’ role is diverse and span between and across multiple realms (e.g. political, instructional, and financial). Even tenured principals face challenges dealing with the dynamic contexts of leading urban schools. For a novice principal, these challenges are compounded by feelings of isolation and loneliness (Tahir, Thakib, Hamzah, Said, & Musah, 2017), confusion, and self-doubt. In some sense, new principals might deal with “imposter syndrome” ( ).
In addition to challenges occurring within the school-building, principals also face issues that are external to the school. Navigating districts policies and political contexts and collaborating with community partners, to name a few. Regardless if the issues originate from in- or out-side of schools, they will likely negatively impact students. Scholars argue that building strong collaborations between the school and community can begin to redress the effects of a host of challenges. A substantial body of literature has documented the import of school-community partnerships especially for schools serving low-income Students of Color (Blank, Melaville, & Shah, 2003; Dryfoos, 1994, 2002; Epstein, 1995; Epstein & Sheldon, 2002; Epstein, Sanders, Simon, Salinas, Janson, & Voorhis, 2002; Furman, 2002; Gonsalves & Leonard, 2007; Hands, 2005; Mawhinney, 2002). For instance, Sheldon & Epstein (2002) examined the efforts of school officials to draw on family and community partners to reduce the number of disciplinary actions and to improve school climate. Their longitudinal data analysis indicates that more family and community involvement was correlated with few student disciplinary problems.
A related body of literature links school leadership to building and maintain successful school and community partnerships (Auerbach, 2010; Epstein, 1995, 2001; Ferguson, 2005; Gooden, 2005; Johnson, 2007; Khalifa, 2012; Lomotey, 1989; Marzano, 2003; Sanders, 2002; Sanders & Harvey, 2002; Santamaria & Santamaria, 2012; Tillman, 2004; Voisin, 2003; Voorhis and Sheldon, 2004; Wang & Boyd, 2000). This research overwhelmingly confirms the important role that school leaders play in developing and sustaining meaningful partnerships with parents and community members. However, despite the abundance of research, cultivating community involvement remains a challenge for school principals generally and novice principals particularly.
Little scholarly attention has been focused on examining the approaches of novice principals to establish partnerships with local communities. This study takes one step in addressing that gap. Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine the leadership actions of a novice principal to build partnerships with the surrounding community members and parents at an urban elementary school. Accordingly, this study examines the following research question:
Research Question: What leadership actions support the development of school and community partnerships for a novice elementary school principal?
The transformative leadership framework guides this study. Scholars interested in approaches to leading urban schools reflecting a social-justice commitment have turned to transformative leadership as a framework to inform the practices of school leaders. Drawing from Freirean concepts, this framework contends that educators must do what they can to challenge inequitable practices that promote inequity and create conditions where all students can be successful. Shields (2013) posits that transformative leadership is grounded in critical theory and requires a critical perspective to determine who is advantaged and privileged, but also to consider who is marginalized and excluded. While considerable scholarship has explored transformative leadership in educational contexts in the United States, research that employs this framework for novice school leaders is needed to further develop theory and practical applications. This study explores one school leader’s transformative leadership orientations and actions to establish and strengthen school and community partnerships with the surrounding neighborhood. Few empirical studies explore the actions of novice principals in developing and sustaining school and community partnerships for authentic engagement oriented toward school improvement and community participation.
This significance of this study is supported by at least two overlapping bodies of literature. First, the research that suggests that principals play a central role in establishing connections with the local community. Second, the research that centers school and community collaboration in the school improvement process. In what follows, I begin with a discussion of the literature on school and community partnerships, principals and community partnerships and novice principals. Then, I explain this study’s conceptual framework and describe the findings of this case study. Finally, I conclude with implications for practice and future research.
To situate this study, I review the literature on (a) school-community partnerships; (b) principals and community partnerships; and (c) novice principals. Within each strand of literature, I discuss findings and limitations as it relates to this study.
The vast and growing scholarship on this topic spans several significant cornerstones of partnerships by focusing on the process of developing school-community partnerships (Epstein, 1995; Sanders and Harvey, 2002; Viosin, 2003), types of school-community partnerships (Melaville, 1998; Valli, Stefanski & Jacobson, 2016; Warren, 2005), and the benefits and challenges sustaining them (Anderson, 1998; Blank, Melaville & Shah, 2003; Gonsalves & Leonard, 2007; Schutz, 2006). Largely, the research has argued for an increase of school-community partnerships to improve the outcomes of students. Scholars like Green (2017) have linked school and community partnerships to community development to improve neighborhood conditions. Epstein and colleagues (2002) argue that communities, families, and schools are key spheres that influence student development and achievement. They offer a model of three overlapping circles to illustrate the interactions of family, school, and community on the healthy development of children (Epstein et al., 2002). In the model, they argue that the relationship between the school, family, and community is cultivated around shared interests in promoting the child’s wellbeing.
Epstein’s model presents only one example of schools and communities working collaboratively to advance student achievement. It is important to note that schools and communities have collaborated in a variety of forms that are context and goal specific. Recognizing the diverse approaches, Valli and colleagues (2006) developed a typology for school-community partnerships to advance a framework for analysis and action. In their meta-analysis, they indicate four main types of partnerships: Family and Interagency Approach (Epstein, Galindo, & Sheldon, 2011; Henrich, Sayfi, & Malikina, 2007; Kirkner & O’Donell 2007, 2008; Krenichyn, Clark, & Benitez, 2008; Leonard, 2011; Sanders and Harvey, 2002; Walker and Hackmann, 1999; Weiss & Siddall, 2012), Full-Service Approach (Adelman, 1996; Comer, 1984, 1988; Cook, Murphy, & Hunt, 2000; Dryfoos, 1994, 1995, 2002, 2005; Einspruch, Grover, Hahnm & Guy, 2004; 2005; McMahon, Ward, Pruett, Davidson & Griffith, 2000), Full-Service Community Schools (Abrams & Gibbs, 2000; Adams, 2010, Castrechini, 2011; Castrechini and London, 2012; Keith, 1999; Melaville, 2004; Whalen, 2002), and Community Development Approach (Dobbi and Fryer, 2011; Green, 2015, 2017; Gold, Simon, Mundell, and Brown, 2004; Oppenheim, 1999; see Valli et al. for a full description).
The overall range and scope of research literature on school and community partnerships highlight different approaches that can support student achievement and community development. Federal policies have also emphasized the need for schools to develop and sustain collaborative relationships with parents and community members. Policies such as No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Race to the Top and Every Student Succeeds Act of 2009 all advocate for school-community partnerships that promote student achievement and development (Robinson 2017).
Principals and Community Partnerships
For decades, scholars have investigated the linkages between school leadership and community involvement and its impacts on students’ academic and development outcomes (Bauch, 2001; Epstein, Sanders, & Clark, 1998; Leithwood, Janzi, & Stienbach, 1999; Sanders & Harvey, 2002; Voisin, 2003; Voorhis and Sheldon, 2004). This body of research overwhelmingly suggests that principals’ role are significant due especially to their position to influence decision-making and set the priorities for the school. For instance, Hands’ (2005) contends that principals play an important role for school-community partnerships by influencing culture and capacity building. In addition, principals often have the social and political capital to influence key components of school-community partnership programs. In a longitudinal study of three hundred and twenty schools, Voorhis and Sheldon (2004) examined the role of principals who supported school and community partnerships. Their study identified the role of principals in mobilizing school personnel and allocating financial resources to specific initiatives. They argue that schools and schools districts that aim to improve school and community partnerships should be proactive in their efforts to engage a new principal in supporting the partnership program.
Despite the voluminous research linking school leadership and community involvement, there remains a gap in scholarship that explicitly focuses on novice principals. Given the high rate of principal turnover, especially in urban schools, much is to be learned about how to engage, support, and develop new principals in building and sustaining partnerships with the community. Voorhis and Sheldon (2004) contend that principal turnover affects the effectiveness of a principal’s role in developing school and community partnerships.
Research on Novice Principals
A vast majority of the research on novice principals examines key challenges with the transition into the occupation. While the trajectory to principalship is neither monolithic nor linear, few alternatives exist. For the most part, individuals become principals after serving as a classroom teacher or other teacher-leader/administrative positions (Gates et al., 2004; Papa, Lankford, & Wycoff, 2002; Ringel, Gates, Ghosh-Dastidar, Brown, & Chung, 2004). As a result, most principals come to the occupation having observed, to some degree, a previous principal which in some ways shapes their leadership identity. This preparation has been described as “apprenticeship of observation” (Lortie, 1975 as quoted in Spillane and Lee, 2014). Despite, transitioning from the classroom to the principal’s office represents a significant shift for most new principals.
One challenge documented in the literature highlights difficulties managing the multifaceted nature of required tasks (Bolam et al., 2000; Cuban, 1988; Nelson, de la Colina & Boone, 2008). Principals are expected to manage the technical, instructional, political, social, financial, structural, and cultural dynamics revolving a school community as well as the micro-political milieus of schools. In one study, Spillane and Lee (2014) investigated the experiences of novice school principals in Chicago Public Schools within the first three months of transitioning into their new role. Their mix-methods, longitudinal study focuses specifically on the problems and practices that novice principals experience, the causes of these problems, and the social conditions that exacerbate or mitigate them. They find that even though novice principal brought certain skills, knowledge, and experiences to the position, they often realized the experiences that had previously shaped their expectations were inadequate for the principal position or were being challenged and changed with the reality of the position (Spillane & Lee, 2014). Spillane and Lee (2014) described a “reality shock” for novice principal when they recognized the “ultimate responsibility” they now faced.
Further, in urban districts, novice principals face the added challenges of poverty, spatial and social inequity, and persistent low academic outcomes (Anyon, 1997; Cuban 2001; Noguera, 1996). According to Ball (1987), the role of the principal is constrained by the contextual factors of the school such as experience, teachers, policies, parents, students and the community. Without adequate training, such contextual factors impact the effectiveness of a school leader to adequately oversee the academic, political, and structural needs of a school. In addition to working with large numbers of low-performing students, principals must also navigate a dynamic and high-stakes accountability system that defines their success or failure as a school leader (Spillane & Lee, 2014).
This literature review notes that research that centers on principals in school-community relations has given less attention to the work of novice principals. While at the same time, school and community partnerships have resurged as an approach to urban school reform. This study aims to bring empirically link novice principals with community partnerships and offers implications for practice and future research.
This study is grounded in a transformative leadership framework. However, before discussing transformative leadership in more detail, I want to pause to provide a rationale as to why this framework best suites this study. There are several theories of leadership in which a researcher might investigate the novice principals’ work with community partners. Theories such as servant leadership, transactional leadership, transformational leadership and distributive leadership hold much more empirical weight as there are voluminous and extensive studies utilizing these frameworks. When considering a leadership theory to deploy for this study, I had to take into account the social, cultural, and spatial contexts of the leadership. Thus, transformative leadership is best suited to grapple with the intersections of these dynamics.
The literature on transformative leadership focuses on equity of opportunity for all students and establishing an environment where all students have the opportunity to be successful. Weiner (2003) defines transformative leadership as the engagement of power and authority that is initiated by questions of justice and democracy, and a reliance on dialogue between individual accountability and social responsibility. Taking this conceptualization further, Dantley and Tillman (2006) advance the framework by emphasizing its activist orientation. Shields (2010) adds that transformative leadership critiques inequity and attempts to increase both individual achievements and shared social well-being. She contends that transformative leadership links education with the broader social and cultural contexts.
To advance scholarly understanding of transformative leadership by grounding it in empirical work, Shields (2010) analyzed the practices and discourses of two selected principals for elements of transformative leadership. She operationalized seven themes: balancing critique and promise; effecting deep and equitable change; creating new knowledge frameworks; acknowledging power and privilege; emphasizing both private and public good; focusing on liberation, democracy, equity, and justice; and demonstrating moral courage and activism. In what follows, I prove a brief description of each theme to orient readers around a shared understanding.
- Balance Critique and Promise – A transformative leader is one who critiques established practices or ideologies (e.g. deficit thinking or elitist practices).
- Effect Deep and Equitable Change – A transformative leader is one who seeks to develop new approaches to achieving success with all students by instituting sustainable systems that focused on student advancement.
- Deconstruction and reconstruction of social/cultural knowledge frameworks that generate inequity – A transformative consistently and carefully deconstructs old knowledge frameworks that perpetuate deficit thinking and inequality and replace them with new frameworks of inclusion and equity.
- Acknowledging Power and Privilege –A transformative leader recognizes the power and privilege in themselves and others and uses it to promote equity and inclusiveness for others.
- Emphasize Both Private and Public Good – A transformative leader seeks to unite rather than divide by bringing stakeholders together to promote both the private and public good.
- Focus on Liberation, Democracy, Equity, and Justice – A transformative leader promotes an environment which all students are included and their needs can be met.
- Demonstrate Moral Courage and Activism – A transformative leader stands up for kids and acts to ensure inclusive learning environments.
In sum, the transformative leadership literature provides a useful lens to examine the leadership of novice principals working with community partners. Ensuring that opportunities are equitably distributed across all students is inherently a matter of social justice. Thus, this framework provides insights into how school leaders collaborate with community partners to ensure that all students have opportunities to learn and succeed at high levels.
The purpose of this study was to examine the actions a novice principal took to develop school and community partnerships through the transformative leadership framework. This in-depth qualitative case study draws on interviews, observations, document analysis, and field notes (Yin 2009). Concentrating on a single case established a depth of data collection to capture the intricacies of transformative leadership, community engagement, and school improvement. Pseudonyms were used for all names and places. In this section, I discuss how the site was selected, data collection procedures, data analysis, and trustworthiness.
Interviews. From October through April, I conducted fourteen semi-structured interviews with the principal approximately 2 weeks apart. Some (approximately 30%) of the interviews occurred at the school site, while the bulk of the interviews took place at a local coffee shop on the weekends. Given the demanding schedule of the principal, he preferred to meet at the coffee shop where he spent time reviewing lesson plans and preparing for the upcoming week. Each of the interviews lasted between 45 to 90 minutes. The interviews focused on the following topics (a) how were community partnerships being developed and nurtured; (b) what were challenges and successes with community partnerships; (c) what issues were faced as a new principal; and (d) his approaches/actions to working with the community. All interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed. The transcriptions were shared with the principal.
In addition to principal interviews, I identified other participants at the school to be interviewed in order to triangulate the data. I interviewed other school administrators, teachers, counselors, parents, community partners, and organizations. I selected these individuals to gather multiple perspectives on the principal’s actions and their relationship to building partnerships with the community. These interviews captured differing perspectives on Principal Austin’s leadership and the nature of school and community partnerships.
Observations and documents. I conducted sixteen observations for this study that lasted between 60 and 240 minutes each and were used to confirm, disconfirm or provide another perspective about the principal’s actions and research contexts. I conducted observations in various settings such as individual and group meetings with community partners, faculty meetings, assemblies, and one-on-one meetings with teachers, parents, or community members. I also observed school activities where the focus was on community (back-to-school night, fine arts performance). Finally, I attended 3 meetings between the principal and teachers. I examined documents such as meetings notes, agendas and informational pamphlets provided to parents about the school. I also reviewed the school and network’s websites.
Data Analysis and Trustworthiness
Data were coded and analyzed on an ongoing basis throughout the study. First, after transcribing all interviews, I reviewed transcripts several times making margin notes on the data type, source, and initial reflections from the data. Then, I began with an initial coding phase that involved low-inference codes. These codes derived directly from the transformative leadership framework and were used to associate Principal Austin’s actions and beliefs to different tenets of the framework. These codes were reviewed and analytic memos were drafted to capture reflections from the data as well as generate new insights. Next, I reviewed the codes from the initial phase to develop a set of higher inference codes related to transformative leadership and school-community partnerships. This was done primarily by drawing comparisons within and across different leadership actions. Where there seemed to be an unclear alignment with a tenet of transformative leadership, additional codes were developed inductively.
To ensure that the data represented what actually occurred at the research site, I used several methodological approaches to increase the trustworthiness of the study. First, member checking was applied to validate the findings of the study. Principal Austin, reviewed interview transcripts and a summary of the findings. Before the submission of the manuscript, Principal Austin was provided a draft and an opportunity to provide feedback. Reflective journal entries were written to chart underlying assumptions, interpretations, concerns and unanswered questions.
In this section, I identify and discuss elements of Principal Austin’s practices that are consistent with the tenets of transformative leadership and that support building and sustaining school and community partnerships. Findings suggest that Principal Austin..
Balance Critique and Promise
In the first few months of school, Principal Austin transformed the structure of traditional staff meetings at Langston High. Traditionally, Langston staff convened together to received “announcements” or, even worse, a “verbal beating” from the previous principal about things mistakes, inadequacies, incapacities, and limitations. Staff viewed those meetings as unproductive for the work they were doing with students. Upon hearing this feedback from a group of teachers. Principal Austin restructured the scope, purpose, and goals of the weekly staff meetings. Instead of bringing the teachers together to deliver announcement or carp about their shortcomings, he turned them into collaborative and reflective spaces.
First, he renamed the meetings altogether. He referred to them as “Thursday Collaborative” and insisted the teachers sit either in content teams or grade level teams depending on the activity of the day. Second, he requested that teachers bring student achievement data from their weekly assessments as well as a copy of the assessment. Next, Principal Austin used these meetings to discuss the students; highlighting successes, and rally around disappointing data to collaborative uncover strategies for intervention. Principal Austin stressed to staff “students’ failures are a product of our misconceptions”. He led the staff through reflective activities where their teaching became the object of the reflection and teachers asked themselves “how could I teach this differently for my students”.
This collaborative and reflective approach was useful in helping teachers analyze student data as well as working with parents. For example, in a Thursday collaborative meeting, Principal Austin had each grade level team share their list of challenges in working with parents. Teachers across the room reported on challenges ranging from unresponsive parents to “they don’t care”. After listing all teachers concerns on chart paper for teachers to see, he asked each teacher to answer “what could you do differently to engage these parents”. With the onus now back on the teachers, they began to work in teams to develop innovative approaches to contacting and engaging with parents.
In sum, Principal Austin transformed a space that teachers had grown to regard as unproductive into a collaborative and reflective space that used data to critique problematic ideologies and challenged teachers to take ultimate responsibility for the success of the students and parents.
Effect Deep and Equitable Change
Principal Austin was extremely intentional in knowing the contexts that shaped the lives of his students and their parents. Upon becoming aware that there were several students in out-of-home circumstances, he sought out to identify businesses in the community who could donate uniforms to these students. This business not only provided school uniforms for homeless or otherwise displaced students, but the organization also provided school supplies for families who were unable to purchase them. During a meeting with a parent of one of the beneficiaries of the supplied uniforms, Principal Austin told the parent,
We can’t do this alone. We all, here at Langston, and in the community want to see [your child] do the very best he can in school. So we must work together to provide you the support you need to make sure he is successful. [Your child] is a rockstar, and we won’t let something like a uniform stand in our way. He’s a good kid and we want to help him in any way we can.
His words reflect a profound understanding of out-of-school circumstances, community, inclusiveness, increasing opportunities for students and families, partnering with parents and community, and transformative leadership.
Principal Austin worked very closely with the Parent-Teaching Organization (PTO) president to pursue a shared vision around engaging with parent partners. The PTO president, Momma Sue, shared with the principal some of the challenges troubling the families at the school. Among those challenges were issues of poverty, un- and under-employment, violence, and incarceration. Together, they strategized on how to collaborate with the parent community in ways that are beneficial for both parents and students. In the end, they decided to offer financial literacy workshops to parents and community members. Information about the workshops was shared to parents via the email list-serve and word-of-mouth. Additionally, Principal Austin used the school’s automated telephone calling service to provide reminders to parents. The two-part series was held in the evenings in the school’s library. Overall, Principal Austin’s dedication to changing the lives of his students and their families extends beyond content and includes the context of students lived realities.
Creating New Knowledge Frameworks
Principal Austin was intentional about transforming his teachers’ thinking by deconstructing deficit and problematic ideologies and replacing them with new frameworks focused on equity and inclusion. During the summer months, before teachers arrived at the school, Principal Austin, filled with optimism, envisioned a school where his primarily Black student population would be motivated to reach their maximum potential by teachers who held extremely high expectations. However, two months after the start of the school year, he began to realize that several of his teachers were holding extremely low –and problematic – expectations of students and their families. Thus, Principal Austin identified Ladson-Billings’s (1994) Dreamkeepers as a staff required reading.
Throughout the first semester, Principal Austin designed activities for staff focusing on elements of the book. For instance, during a Thursday Collaborative Meeting, he assigned groups of teachers to present on different chapters of the book. Each presentation was followed by a think-pair-share, where teachers discussed approaches for applying concepts to their classrooms. In speaking with teachers after the meeting, they reported that the activity was “eye-opening” and “exciting”. Through collective engagement with the principles in the text, teachers began creating new structures and opportunities that were more inclusive of students and their families. In particular, teaching teams considered ways to cultivate a greater sense of community between students and across families. Overall, teachers became more intentional about collaborating with families to create a greater sense of community that was inclusive of all students.
Acknowledging Power and Privilege
Observational data documented Principal Austin’s acknowledgment of not only his own power and privilege but that of others. He was consistently observed using his positional authority to empower others to be decision-makers, thought-partners, and leaders. Principal Austin did not hide the fact that he was a new to the school and even admitted that “I’m nobody’s super principal.” In doing so, he often relied on the context knowledge and experience of the teachers and other staff members in making important decisions. In one meeting with a team of teachers who were concerned about increasing absenteeism, Principal Austin relinquished final decision to the team and confirmed that he would provide whatever resources and supports were needed for address the problem. In this instance, he explicitly understood his positional power as the decision-maker, however, leaned on the experiences of his teachers to own the decision and he, instead, utilized his power to provide resources to buttress the teachers’ decision.
During one of our interview session, he explained that one of his strengths as a leader is the ability to leverage the capacity of others around me so that one day they can become great leaders too. So it’s realizing my own limits if you will. So at the top, it’s important that I set a vision and a mission, and then empower people to do the work that needs to be done to achieve the vision and mission and then teaching them along the way so they can grow and can see their own efficacy to do the work that needs to be done. It’s 360 degrees of empowerment and support that translates into growth for students.
This statement explicitly illustrates his commitment to using his power to transform and was further demonstrated by his work with the PTO president, Momma Sue. Together, Principal Austin and Momma Sue developed a shared vision for engaging with parents and community members. Once the collective vision was established, Principal Austin gave full autonomy to Momma Sue to devise engagement activities, programs and other initiatives based on her experience in the school and community. Aside from providing necessary supplies for these events, Principal Austin collaborated with local businesses and other colleagues to assist. Using his access to professional networks, he enlisted support from community individuals to increase participation and engagement at PTO events.
I urge individuals to be cautions and not quickly cast these actions as characteristic of distributed leadership (cite). While it may appear that Principal Austin shared leadership responsibilities with others, what actually occurred was much more transformative. In both aforementioned examples, Principal Austin acknowledged his own power and privilege to encourage change for students, teachers, parents and community members and yet used his power to empower others in the school community.
Emphasizing Both Private and Public Good
In several of the previous examples, Principal Austin’s belief that trust is a key ingredient in building community within the school and in sustaining partnerships with parents and community members has been made overwhelmingly clear. In addition to the shared reading of Dreamkeepers, to build community within the school, Principal Austin held ongoing meetings – both formal and informal – with teachers, counselors, and support staff. I was able to observe a lunch meeting with the seventh-grade teaching team, counselor, and 2 seventh grade parents. The purpose of the meeting was to finalize plans for an upcoming field trip to a local museum as part of an instructional unit on American History. While enjoying deli sandwiches from a local restaurant, the group made decisions about what sections in the museum to visit and identified parents and community members as chaperones and speakers for days leading up to the field trip. Before the meeting adjourned, one of the parents thanks, Principal Austin saying “my son has been here since kindergarten and this is the first time I was invited to help plan a field trip with his teachers.” She continued, “I[ve] been wanting to see the museum since it open[ed] and I’m glad I get to go.”
To build community with parents and community members, Principal Austin held monthly parent meetings at the school. At these meeting, he was very transparent about what was happening at the school. In each of these meetings, among other pertinent topics, he was always sure to cover four topics: instruction, school culture, character development, financial status. Parents not only listened to receive information but were invited to participate in decision-making. For instance, in one meeting, Principal Austin solicited the parents’ perspectives on approaches to discipline to improve school climate. Both Principal Austin and the parents did not want to see students suspended from school, therefore that worked collaboratively to come up with alternative approaches that were age and culturally appropriate and that parents could support. Principal Austin welcomed suggestions from parents in exchange for their support in their implementation.
Focusing on Liberation, Democracy, Equity, and Justice
Principal Austin’s actions consistently focused on liberation, democracy, equity and justice for teachers, students and parents. Broadly, his leadership centered on critique and change and inclusiveness and equity. It is important to highlight that these strands are interrelated and vital to create a more socially just school community as well as establish more democratic partnerships with local community members. During an interview, I asked Principal Austin why he prioritized community partnerships during his first year as the school’s leader, he responded by saying:
I really want the community to embrace my school and my children because my children are special and they are often overlooked. So if the children and their parents feel as if they have a community behind them, supporting them like the teachers are, then together we can all continue to work for something greater. So it’s building those partnerships that will enhance the work during non-school hours. So that when I’m we school is not in session, children still have folks they look up to because we’ve built those partnerships and the ideas of the school can bleed into the community and vice versa.
His remarks not only reflect an ownership and commitment to his students but also highlighted the social injustices and marginalization that have impacted their lives. In addition, he nods at the notion of his students and their family’s liberation.
Demonstrating Moral Courage and Activism
From the data collected, it is apparent that Principal Austin exhibits moral courage when advocating for his students and parents. He has taken risks to implement structural changes in the fabric of the school to increase learning opportunities and to promote inclusiveness for all students. During an interview, he reflected on the reputation of the school prior to his arrival. He reported that because the school had been one of the lowest performing schools within the network of schools, it had developed a negative reputation among. He recalled an incident at a professional development session with other principals where they ridiculed his school and made jokes about his school that he took offense to.
Discussion and Implications
In the preceding pages, I have shifted the utility of the transformative leadership framework away from seasoned school leaders to those new to the profession in efforts to develop partnerships with local community members and parents. This study has detailed some of the individual actions Principal Austin took to increase the academic outcomes of the students attending his elementary school while simultaneously bringing into focus the significance of collaborating with parent partners and local community members. Transformative leadership was useful here for at least three reasons. First, across the country, in schools serving students with the highest academic, social, and developmental needs, it is not enough for the school community to only focus on outcome indicators like test scores. Instead, school staff must be willing to providing an academic climate that takes into consideration the realities of students’ backgrounds and the world in which they live. To do so, purposeful partnerships must be forged between the school and local community to bridge the gap for students. The contexts that students live cannot be divorced from the contexts in which they are educated. It is the duty of the school leader to nurture opportunities where parents can meaningfully engage with the school. This mindset is foundational for transformative leaders and drives them into action.
Second, the activist orientation of transformative leadership helps to explain the active risks taken by Principal Austin and others who are motivated to redress the unjust out-of-school factors that impede students learning. Too often, issues of poverty, joblessness, violence, and crime are fatally linked to inner-city neighborhoods and by relation, inner-city schools. Leaders in these schools should Principal Austin, upon hearing that students
Third, novice principals leading urban schools are in desperate need of a set of overarching principles to guide their work in schools. Overwhelming, the literature on novice principals discusses the unique and challenges in transitioning into the new role. What is often missing in these studies are practical solutions for novice principals. In this sense, transformative leadership can serve as a framework structure the actions of a novice principal experiencing a “reality shock.”
Additionally, this work has implications for practice and future research.
Research should continue
Tahir, L., Thakib, M. T. M., Hamzah, M. H., Said, M. N. H. M., & Musah, M. B. (2017). Novice head teachers’ isolation and loneliness experiences: A mixed-methods study. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45(1), 164-189.