Everyone expects crying on the first day of kindergarten — from the parents, mainly. But I saw not a single tear during opening day at Fairmount Park Elementary on Wednesday. Despite the dirge of bad-news stories about American education, the feeling inside this bright, airy, refurbished and reopened West Seattle school was, overwhelmingly, hope.
The place is so shiny-new that an American flag hanging in the library still had its fresh-from-the-box creases. The math workbooks were yet to arrive.
But a new school does not mean newbie staff. Seattle Public Schools made the savvy decision to install veteran principal Julie Breidenbach at the helm — evidence of the increasing recognition around the role of school leaders in student success — and she, in turn, led a trail of former colleagues to Fairmount Park.
“The job of the principal has changed. Nowadays, it’s about being an instructional leader, not just handing out donuts at football games,” Susan Enfield, superintendent of the Highline School District, said when Education Lab began last year.
Indeed. Research shows that an inspiring principal can increase student test scores up to 10 points in a year; effective teachers tend to follow school leaders who motivate them; and under a such leadership, ineffective teachers generally depart.
What makes a principal effective? According to education writer Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession:
An effective principal begins her job by clearly articulating a school’s mission, whether it is project-based learning, “no excuses”-style strict discipline, or a curriculum oriented around the arts. That vision provides intellectual coherence for teachers.”
I’ve seen this from Breidenbach consistently. During a series of parent meetings held over the past few months, the 30-year educator bluntly described her philosophy for young students. She puts explicit emphasis on the arts, particularly music, with no more than one hour of homework per night and — perhaps most controversially — a belief that “not everyone has to take algebra in the eighth grade.” (Nor the seventh grade, or sixth, she told her audience, full of parents who favor accelerated education.)
My son is among the 380 children starting at Fairmount Park this fall, as readers of this occasional column already know. (For previous installments, click here, here and here.) But opening day — in which Breidenbach insisted “smarts don’t really get you far in life. It’s about practice and progress” — left me pondering my own education and what school meant for me.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but school was about escape. A respite from home. And that is what it means for thousands of other kids, too. So while educators say they can’t reverse the effects of generational poverty or a less-than-ideal family life, my experience says otherwise. Often, they can.