THE BLOG
06/18/2014 05:19 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

The Principal and the Parents

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By Kate Sobel

This post was originally published on the TNTP Blog.

Jessica Ramos moves with purpose between classrooms at Stearne Elementary School in Philadelphia, her walkie-talkie on low and her laptop open. As a new school leader, she is focused on her primary goal: to ensure that there is high-quality instruction going on in every classroom in the building, so her students will achieve. But as a parent of four school-aged children herself, she knows that a school leader’s real responsibility extends to the community.

In fact, Jessica’s thoughtful approach to engaging with the local community is an important piece of her story. When she takes over as the principal of Stearne next fall, she’ll have the advocacy efforts of local parents to thank for it.

As a resident with PhillyPLUS, Philadelphia’s first alternative path to principal certification, Jessica joined Stearne at the beginning of the school year. Stearne, a K-7 school where nearly 96 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, has been struggling for years. Jessica was tasked with helping to change that, by working alongside the principal to learn the ropes of school leadership while managing the teachers in grade bands 3-4 and 6-7.

In the process, Jessica built such positive relationships with parents that when the principal announced that she was retiring at the end of this year, Stearne parents knew exactly who they wanted taking over: Jessica. The parent organization circulated a petition to enlist community support for Jessica’s principalship—and 500 people signed on, including parents in the school and those living in the surrounding neighborhood.

In a city where the news is full of stories about how frustrating it can be for parents to navigate the challenges of the school district, this is a remarkable vote of confidence. Local parents put a clear stake in the ground: They want to see Stearne improve, and they trust Jessica to lead the process.

From Jessica’s perspective, knowing the individual children in her school—with their unique strengths and challenges—is the foundation for these strong relationships with parents. “A big part of connecting with parents is knowing not just their children’s names, but knowing something about their children, about who they are,” Jessica explains. “Of 491 students, I can tell you something about probably 475 of them right now. And counting.” She prioritizes keeping a positive tone in conversations with parents, even when the news isn’t good, and being transparent about what she can and can’t do for them and for their children. “I’m proactive with parents—I reach out right away if I hear about a concern. I don’t want there to be a lag time where a negative feeling can spread. It’s important to our school culture that we keep it positive.”

Critically, Jessica approaches parents as partners. She shares student data proactively with parents, and when it comes to discussing negative behaviors that need to change, she starts by showing parents the link between behavior patterns and achievement. “I honestly believe their child can learn. So in every conversation, the data binder comes out,” Jessica says. “I’ll tell them, ‘This is your child’s data. This is what’s stopping your child from learning today. How can we change that together?”

Jessica’s proactive, positive approach to parent engagement isn’t rocket science, but it is something that school leaders, especially new school leaders who have so many responsibilities and new skills to build, can easily overlook. After all, principals have a tough job: They have to maintain a bird’s-eye view of the school, making sure the whole organism functions smoothly, but if they’re to be successful, they also have to focus on the individual students in every classroom. Parents, teachers and students alike need to recognize the school leader as the leader of instructional culture at the school—someone with a keen understanding of what great teaching and learning looks like, and who cares about the success of each teacher and student.

That’s what Jessica’s getting right. Part of her success—and the successes we’ve seen with other PLUS residents who have excelled in the program—is the emphasis she places on each individual child’s achievement, and what she can do to facilitate it. By communicating that sense of responsibility to parents, Jessica has established herself as a trustworthy school leader.

Her story demonstrates a pattern among highly successful school leaders in low-income communities. These leaders realize that true partnership means more than calling home about behavior or inviting parents in for conferences. Instead, they enlist the full support of families for their work. Jessica is driven by the belief that fundamentally, parents want what’s best for their children, and she recognizes the power of engaging them in the work of putting their children on the path toward ambitious academic goals. 

Kate Sobel is Partner, Talent Management at TNTP.

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