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Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22
“All students can learn. We can teach them. No exceptions. No excuses.”
Reflections on 20 years of Principal of the Year Winners
Nick Davies, Ph.D.
Associate Principal, Eisenhower/Lake Shore Elementary
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Ensuring School Safety, Planning witih Data. Aligning Curriculum, Improving Instruction, Managing Resources, Engaging Families & Communities, Closing the Gap
Editor’s Note: Nick Davies is an associate principal in Vancouver Public Schools and an adjunct faculty member at Pacific University. He has his Ph.D. in Education and Leadership and is a former high school math teacher and head track & field coach. Connect with Nick on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nick-davies-education/
I have always been interested in looking at people who reach the pinnacle of their professions. With education, we do not necessarily have a pinnacle, but receiving a teacher or principal of the year award is pretty close. Earlier in the school year, AWSP sent out a reminder to send in nominations for the 2022 Principal and Assistant Principal of the Year, which got me thinking about previous winners. This article goes through the last 20 years of winners and identifies some common threads among the winners.
The quote in the title of this article was in the office of 2005 winner Dave Montague from Washington Elementary in the Kennewick School District. I like this quote because it is positive, inclusive, hope-filled, and puts the ownership on the school to figure out how to reach all of their students. Students do not have to change to meet the needs of the school, we need to change to meet the needs of our students. The men and women who have won this award have all gone above and beyond what is expected of them to give students authentic opportunities to succeed.
I obtained all of this information from the AWSP website. From 2000 to 2019 (the first year that data is posted online) AWSP has named a high school, middle school, and elementary principal of the year (AWSP now awards and Elementary and Secondary Principal of the Year). They have also named at least one assistant principal of the year. Since 2000, there are articles for 69 of the 87 winners listed. Using the information provided in the press releases for the 69 winners, I was able to come up with the information for this article.
Washington Principals of the Year The Principals of the Year came from all over the state, but a few districts showed up the most. Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma all had five winners; Franklin Pierce and Kennewick each had four. (See Table 1 at the end of the article for a list of all school districts.) On average, these principals had been in that role for nine years, while assistant principals had been in that role for an average of seven years. (See Table 2 for the average years as an administrator and the range of years for awardees.)
Every principal was valued by their school and their community, and some of what was said about them could only be classified as representative of their character. The principal’s character was referenced in nearly half of the press releases. Principals were labeled as “leading by example,” “walks the walk,” “intense work ethic,” “innovative,” “inspiring,” “follows through,” “passionate,” “highly organized,” “great motivator,” “respected,” “has high integrity,” and “someone who everyone can count on.” These qualities are built around trust and are not built up overnight. It is no surprise that it took almost a decade on average of being a principal before receiving this award; to build the kind of faith and trust in a school community that produces the results these men and women produced takes a long time.
The rest of the press release information fell into four categories or principal practices: relationships, results/data, vision/culture, and active leadership. Table 3 has a list of the number of times each of these practices showed up in different press releases. These practices are supported by recent literature. Grissom et al (2021) stated the four categories to produce positive school outcomes are: engaging in instructionally focused interactions with teachers, building a productive school climate, facilitating productive collaboration and professional learning communities, and managing personnel and resources strategically.
Searching the ERIC database, a respected database for educational research, for “Effective Principal Leadership” leads to 3,271 results. Being an effective principal is a heavily researched topic and for good reason. Leithwood et al (2004) memorably found that a principal’s impact on student outcomes is second to only the classroom teacher. Grissom et al (2021), in a similar yet updated study, argue that the principal’s impact is the same as a teacher’s impact but in a different capacity since the jobs are not the same. Let’s go into more detail about each of the principal practices that the Washington Principals of the Year demonstrated.
Relationships Principals are the face of a school, making relationships very important. Although this was the lowest category for the number of mentions, it came up enough to warrant mentioning. Washington principals focused on relationships with everyone involved in the school. One principal made sure they knew not just the names of each student but tried to learn what each student needed as well. Multiple principals would have lunch with students each week. Principals focused on building relationships and trust with their staff, and they used those relationships to push teachers out of their comfort zones. The press releases mentioned building relationships with families and the larger community the most. Principals used newsletters, blogs, monthly family nights, coffee with the principal, meetings in parents’ home languages, and partnering with local businesses to build strong ties.
Vision and Culture For this article, I am defining vision and culture as beliefs and ideas that the principal holds and works to fit into their school. We have all heard the saying that “culture is king,” and these principals lived that message. One school even called culture the “bedrock” of the school. The press releases referenced this category of vision/culture more than all of the others. The quote in the title of this article is focused on the culture of the schools. Many principals led schools where it was expected that the schools figure out whatever way possible for students to succeed. One principal stated the need to have everyone, including the custodians, engaged and expected to help students. In many schools, the students, staff, and principals all believe in a growth mindset. Many of the press releases mentioned how the principals had a clear vision that was centered on high expectations and creating a safe and positive environment for everyone.
Active Leadership Everything a principal does is a different aspect of leadership, so I am defining active leadership as concrete actions taken by the principal to better their school. Instructional leadership was at the heart of the active leadership of these principals. Many were stated as ensuring their calendars were clear for observations, and that every week they were in classrooms, PLC meetings, and meeting with teachers to improve instruction. In addition to this focus on instructional leadership, many principals were involved in starting or improving programs (PBIS, PLCs, AP, AVID, CTE, etc), taking community feedback to change schedules (altering the entire bell schedule or adding in advisory time), and taking on new initiatives (after school programs for struggling students, freshman academy, teacher induction, and helping teachers get board certified). These principals were focused on tangible things that would positively impact their schools, and then they ensured the tasks were completed.
Data, Results, and Awards One of my favorite quotes is from the 49er’s legendary coach, Bill Walsh. He stated simply, “The score takes care of itself.” The message is that if you take care of what is important, then the results will come. These principals took care of the important things mentioned above, and the academic results and awards followed. Many schools had data teams that focused on identifying struggling students and using data to guide decision-making at the school. These schools had some pretty incredible results. To give a few examples: One school went from 60 to over 400 students enrolled in AP classes. Another school lowered the dropout rate from 7.8% to less than 1%. Another school increased state math scores from 20% proficient to 84% proficient. Another school had suspensions drop by 71%, and another had tardies decrease by 74% with attendance hitting over 90%. 14 of the schools were mentioned as having received state or national awards for their achievements. These principals led schools that showed improvement at many different levels.
Conclusion Over the past two decades, the Washington State Principals of the Year have demonstrated how to be effective principals through their daily actions. Their focus on relationships, data, vision/culture, and overall leadership has helped their schools and, more importantly, their students reach a high level of success. I am inspired by these men and women, and I look forward to finding out which leaders will be recognized this year and learning about all of the great things they are doing. References Grissom, J. A., Egalite, A. J., & Lindsay, C. A. 2021. How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research. New York. The Wallace Foundation. http://www.wallacefoundation.org/principalsynthesis.
Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. 2004. Executive Summary How Leadership Influences Student Learning. New York. The Wallace Foundation. https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/how-leadership-influences-student-learning.aspx