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Paired Schools
Work Together to
Solve Problems,
Boost Achievement

Principals usually work in isolation, with few opportunities to share ideas. But since the Newport News Public Schools started pairing up elementary schools, more principals are sharing ideas, resources, talents, and strategies to make all schools successful. Included: Examples of how two elementary-school principals work together.

Being a principal can be a lonely, stressful job. Too often administrators labor away on their own, preferring to compete rather than collaborate with other principals who might be dealing with the same issues. This leads to more isolation, not to mention duplication of efforts and services -- and sometimes mistakes.

To promote teamwork, cooperation, and capitalize on effective strategies, the Newport News (Virginia) Public Schools began pairing up schools about three years ago. The idea was that administrators could share ideas, resources, and strengths and even commiserate as they worked to improve student performance.

The program has built strong bonds between paired schools, and it has also encouraged administrators to reach out to other principals, creating a personal and professional support network. I have at least ten principals I can call for advice, said one elementary school principal, Dr. Christine Hill. Its gone beyond collaboration on curriculum and instruction -- I can call if I have other issues -- and if someone is having difficulty, we all pick up the phone to see what we can do. It has opened doors and fostered conversation and support.


Principals from one school pairing, Hill of Hidenwood Elementary School and Vikki Wismer of Lee Hall Elementary School, told educators at the 2008 Association of School Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference how their relationship has made almost every aspect of their jobs easier.

This [relationship] helps me in that were able to be very candid in our concerns and the type of concerns we have, Wismer told Education World. We have a very open, honest, trusting relationship, and that helps offset the pressure and stress. We know we can speak very candidly, but we also can problem-solve.

It really helped us to get to know one another, our strengths, and the resources available to us, Hill added. The two talk on the phone often -- sometimes daily. They may be working together once a week during the summer and usually meet after conferences. The fact is that now we have two people looking for the answers, noted Wismer.

In the past, principals were their own little islands

The two principals now view their schools as a single unit. If one school has more money for professional development or a consultant, we share it, Hill said.

Pooling resources helped improve literacy at Wismers school. Lee Hall was able to move out of the school in need of improvement category while Hidenwood is close to making adequate yearly progress (AYP). We went from a failing school because of state scores to [exceeding] AYP, and now we are a VIP school, moving toward excellence, Wismer told Education World.

District administrators started the program as a means to share best practices and meet state standards, said Michael Williams-Hickman, the districts executive director of elementary education. In the first year, lower-performing schools were paired with more successful schools. After that first year, we decided all elementary schools needed a partner, Williams-Hickman told Education World.

In the first year of the school pairing program, the central office choose the pairings and Wismer was matched with the principal of a higher-performing school. She did not find that relationship as beneficial as working with Hill. As a change agent, I needed to work with someone with the same mindset, Wismer told Education World. We have the same issues.


The schools relationship began with walkthroughs at each school and observation of best practices. Then the schools began sharing consultants; when Wismer had a grant to hire a reading specialist, she invited some of Hills teachers to sit in on the presentation. Each school participated in the others instructional audits.

The two faculties moved on to collaborative planning. Initially teachers from the two schools met two or three times a month -- but now to save time and gas, they rely more on teleconferencing. All of the fifth grade teachers from both schools planned together during common time on Wednesdays most of the school year.

Last year Hill asked her teachers what they wanted most as part of the school pairing, and the majority wanted to work with other teachers, plan together, and observe classes. Both schools faculties are benefiting from the partnership. Christys teachers would plan with our teachers -- and that helped get her teachers on board [to try new approaches], Wismer said. My teachers got to be role models and coaches for other teachers.

The two also consult on logistical issues. Hill wanted a better schedule for lunch and recess at her school. Classes had designated lunch times, but could take recess whenever they wanted. Hill wanted to ensure every class was scheduling recess and allotting the required amount of time for teaching the subject areas.

A school may have been successful, but no one knew what they did so they could replicate it. Now a bunch of us can go out to lunch and talk about an issue and make suggestions to resolve it.

Looking for ideas, she talked with Wismer, and then Hill sent one of her fifth-grade teachers to observe how Wismers school scheduled lunch and recess. When the teacher returned, she talked with Hill, who asked the teacher to form a committee that included other teachers. The committee drafted a schedule, presented it to the rest of the faculty, and solicited feedback. The committees work led to the school adopting a master schedule, which made sure all subjects were covered. New teachers also found the consistency helpful. At some point, everyone had input, Hill noted. I think it was more successful because it was teacher-led, rather than principal-led.


The success Wismer and Hill have had in their collaboration prompted them to reach out to other elementary principals in the school system. Newport News has 26 elementary schools.

In the past, principals were their own little islands -- this [program] makes it safe to reach out for help, said Hill. There is a cadre of about ten whove gotten really close. In the past we all were re-inventing the wheel.

For example, Hill said, she sent a team of teachers to a school with particularly good third-grade math teachers. If we need some assistance, we call on another school. If we have a science consultant, we invite other schools over.

In another case of collaboration, Hill sent her back-to-school letter to some of the other principals to see if anyone wanted to use part or all of it.

Its great to have a group that is trusting and non-competitive, added Wismer. If one school has a workshop, we all attend.

Teachers also benefit from seeing administrators consult with one another. They see leaders sharing and discussing and trying to figure out things together, Wismer said. When we allow grade level [staff members] and teachers to learn from each other, were role-modeling that collaboration. Were creating very effective professional learning communities on many different levels.

Principals now build on each others strengths, rather than trying to keep effective strategies to themselves. A school may have been successful, but no one knew what they did so they could replicate it, Hill noted. Now a bunch of us can go out to lunch and talk about an issue and make suggestions to resolve it.


Education World Leadership Archive

Article by Ellen Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 08/04/2008
Last updated 07/23/2009