The Need for Professional Development

Principal and Union President Encourages District to Invest in Principals
Originally published in The Leader, Spring 2011 edition

Visitors to the principal’s office at Soldan International Studies High School seldom find Dr. Thomas Cason there.

The principal of the magnet high school in St. Louis is always at work, but he prefers the halls to his office. He sets his bags down outside his office door when he arrives in the morning, sometimes taking an hour before actually entering his office, stopping instead to inspect the building and to get “snapshots” of what’s happening in the halls and classrooms.

Cason thinks principals should be a presence and should know what’s going on in their buildings. He has been Soldan’s principal for 10 years and previously served as assistant principal at Sumner High School. He first came to work for St. Louis Public Schools in 1985 as an art teacher at an elementary school.

“I loved to draw and paint in high school and I selected fine arts as a major in college,” said Cason. “After a few years in college, I became convinced that I needed teacher certification as a backup if I didn’t make it as an artist.”

There have been many improvements at Soldan since Cason arrived a decade ago. The school’s attendance rate was around 80 percent and the graduation rate was at 74 percent when he took over as principal. Today, the attendance rate is at 93.5 percent and the graduation rate is around 87 percent.

State assessment scores have improved dramatically as well. Cason indicates there is a spirit of collaboration and credits his staff—and especially his classroom teachers—for the improvements. He stops short of saying the school is a success. According to Cason, “Success is an end or a goal; it implies that the work is done.” He indicates his work will not be completed until all subgroups at the school meet or exceed performance expectations.

Collective leadership has been promoted throughout the school. Cason thinks when everyone contributes to the decisions being made, everyone owns them. Several years ago, for example, it was determined that a revised discipline plan for classrooms was needed because the one then in force was obsolete. As a result, a survey was developed by the school’s Air Force Junior Reserve Training Corp (AFJROTC) department.

Teachers and students were told to list types of discipline infractions they were most concerned about in the classroom. The items then were rank-ordered according to frequency. Through consensus, some were eliminated to reduce the number. After much discussion, the final plan was presented to the staff at a faculty meeting. The plan was unveiled to students at a student/principal quarterly meeting and has proved to be very successful.

“This is exactly the sort of collaborative approach that should be the essence of education reforms,” said AFSA President Diann Woodard. “Programs that engage teachers and students in cooperative development, rather depending solely on data-driven approaches that inevitably label lower-level achievers as ‘failures.’ ”

The school district provides frequent professional development to principals, but none focuses on best practices and strategies such as the example of the discipline plan. Exceptional active or retired principals can provide these professional development sessions. There has been very little support for this in the past, but that’s changing—the superintendent now has directed a member of his cabinet to collaborate with members of The Administrators Association of the St. Louis Public Schools, AFSA Local 44, to design a plan to support principals.

The proposed implementation of this initiative is expected to provide a level of support that ultimately will provide better leaders. Included in the proposed plan are ways to assess what level of professional development principals are at so additional training can be aligned properly to their needs.

“Our school district has a number of schools undergoing the turnaround intervention,” said Cason, the president of Local 44. “Replacing principals and assigning new ones to ‘transformational’ or ‘turnaround’ schools is becoming more common as a means to salvage poor performing schools. However, I believe districts should be mindful that new principals are also prone to fail if they do not receive appropriate support.”

Recently, the St. Louis superintendent unveiled several new proposals for the district. Included is an emphasis on early childhood education programs, African-centered curriculum programs, district-sponsored charter schools, gender schools, school closures based on academic performance and allowing eighth-graders to make their own choices regarding what non-magnet school they will attend. These initiatives do not apply to Soldan.

Though new proposals are being introduced, professional development spending has been cut significantly in many school districts, including St. Louis.

“None of the initiatives and programs will work if districts do not provide quality-specific training for principals,” said Cason. “This training should include standard professional development as well as small group or one-on-one informal interaction between an experienced instructional leader and perhaps one that needs support. Discussions should center on strategies and practices that result in positive outcomes.”

Members of Local 44 and the superintendent’s designee have engaged in this form of interaction as a prelude to designing a quality-specific professional development plan for administrators.

“This form of collaboration is essential to improving the quality of principals and assures that they can continue to play a vital part of the school district’s school improvement plans,” said Cason. “Missouri does not honor collective bargaining rights for principals and administrators, which makes such collaboration that much more critical.”