How One Charter School Is Stepping Up Its Leadership Game

Successions are often tough times for schools of all kinds. When one principal leaves and another takes over, everything changes—for good or bad. Making the right leadership change can be especially tricky for charter schools. Charters often have a special focus with which a new principal may or may not have prior experience. When I was looking for an elementary school for my child, one of the top things on my list was to find a good school where I could count on strong, stable leadership. From  research and years of being in schools as a teacher and reporter, I knew that principals create the environment in which great teaching either flourishes or dies. I could see a school meeting my leadership expectations in one of two ways: either the leader would be in place with no plans to leave, or if the leadership were changing, the school would have created a thoughtful transition strategy to manage the change. Namaste Charter School had a transition strategy in place. When we arrived, little over a year ago, the founding principal was just transitioning out of day-to-day leadership and into a board role; her successor had already spent a year working alongside her in the building before taking over the reins. Because the strategy was so thorough, I thought the transition would be pretty seamless. Unfortunately, I was wrong. While changing leaders, our school’s focus got a little blurry, not just in academics but also in our unique commitment to health and wellness. But the part I got right was that our school’s board leadership remained committed to a thoughtful transition, even if it didn’t work out as expected on the first try. In January, Namaste started 2016 by welcoming a new, interim head of school. She’s with us for the next six months, looking deeply at instruction, health education, school culture and more. She’s working closely with Namaste’s founder to revive important elements of our school that have gotten slack—like making sure kids have opportunities to do yoga for a few minutes at scheduled times during the day to help them refocus. Our teachers are also working together to strengthen their instruction and to improve the quality of our dual-language program. Our founder is on site two to three days a week to help, too. Teachers are telling me they like the structure and support they are getting from the current leadership team. I like the renewed push for healthy eating. When my first-grader came home the other day, she told me all about how whole grains are better than white flour and white pasta, and made me throw out the bleached, enriched cake flour I had on hand for birthdays. I didn’t mind having to throw out that flour and switch to whole-wheat pastry flour. It’s better for my kid. Nor do I mind that our family’s school was able to recognize pretty quickly that their choice of a new school leader wasn’t a fit, and changed it. In fact, I credit the Namaste board for paying close attention to how the succession was actually working, and for making a needed change quickly, so our children would benefit. If we were in a traditional, district-run school, it seems likely the situation would have dragged out far longer and held back student learning. Or worse, someone from the district’s central office would have parachuted in an interim leader of their choosing, without any input from the people closest to the situation. Instead, our founder and board stepped in and stepped up the leadership game at our school. As a parent, I’m profoundly grateful.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

Join the Movement