What Strong Leadership in Schools Can Accomplish

Mayor L. Douglas Wilder may have little nice to say about the Richmond School Board or educational bureaucracy, but he is fulsome in his praise of individual educators. In his recent newsletter he lauds Dr. Irene L. Williams, principal of the Fairfield Court Elementary School, located in one of Richmond’s most notorious, poverty- and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The Mayor dropped in unexpectedly on the school one day recently. Writes Wilder:

The school was clean, students well-dressed, well-behaved, orderly, and well-mannered. There was excitement in their eyes and they were marvelous to behold. I subsequently discovered some of the reasons: the academic standards are strong with daily data reports on the walls aligning the corridors. The expectation for student success was equally strong. …

[Williams] draws nor seeks no additional pay for all of her “extra” time and refers to her students as “my children.” They reciprocate individually by greeting or leaving her by calling her “Dr. Irene” or “Mamma Irene.”

This highly-motivated and selfless devotion to cause and to duty impressed me beyond measure. Here is a school in the shadow of public housing units portraying to all who would care that yes, these young people can learn. They can show that it doesn’t matter where you were born or your economic status – you can achieve and overcome and become outstanding contributing citizens.

While I regard the entire K-12 school model, both public and private, as an industrial-era relic in desperate need of reform, it clearly is possible to improve the performance of the existing system. Leadership at the level of individual schools is critical. Former Gov. Mark R. Warner recognized that when he spearheaded the creation of a special program for school principals at the University of Virginia back in 2004 (profiled in “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks.”) I wonder if Williams is an alumna of that program. I wonder if the program even survived Warner’s tenure.
(Click on the image of Mayor Wilder to view his video commentary.)

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


7 responses to “What Strong Leadership in Schools Can Accomplish”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    …”academic standards are strong with daily data reports on the walls aligning the corridors.”

    this is one of several ways that you capture the hearts and minds of the students – especially those in poor economic/parental circumstances.

    You set high standards for them and you make sure they know when they succeed and you make them believe in themselves….

    As I’ve said before.. many of our schools have been hijacked by the more well off parents and co-opted into College Entrance Academies .. to the moral and economic detriment of kids who do not enjoy such favorable circumstances – and to our own detriment when they grow up and cannot function as tax-paying citizens.

    Kudos to Mr. Wilder for showing that he can be a positive force even while he is fighting, sometimes negatively, other gators in the swamp.

  2. Good for Wilder. And, even more, good for Dr. Williams.

    I had a teacher like that back at good old Groveton High School. Isabel Seftas. A good teacher makes a big difference.

    Jim Bacon is completely right about our educational system being an industrial era relic. I had lunch this afternoon with a friend of mine who moved back to India after working in the US for 15 years. He started a content distribution company in India and I’m an investor. At first he thought he’d make his money distributing movies into apartment buildings (kind of a next generation cable company). The movies sold pretty well for the forst month but then tailed off. What keeps selling? Educational content tied to the kids’ school curriculum. And why does this sell?

    1. Indian parents really care about their kids’ education and…

    2. India has a national curriculum so internet based educational content (synchronized with the kids’ curriculum at school) can be sold at sufficient scale to justify the cost of creating and distributing that content.

    Larry –

    I could not disagree with you more about the “College Entrance Academies”. I take your “favorable circumstances” to mean level of wealth. Your implication (by my reading of your post) is that poor kids should not get their hopes up for college since they probably won’t get in or couldn’t afford to go. Only the rich people want to create college entrance academies because only their kids are getting into college.

    Maybe that’s not what you meant but that’s what it sounds like.

    If true, Kaine should drop his higher ed funding proposal immediately. Since only the children of “well off” parents are going to college they can just pay higher tuitions.

    I am on the board of a charity that helps children from Anacostia (the most economically challenged part of DC). All of the kids are really, really poor. We are dedicated to sending every kid in the program to college if he / she wants to go to college and has gotten good enough grades to go to college – any college. We have young men and women in Stanford, UVA, community colleges, etc. To date, we have always been able to find a way for the kids who want to go to college (and have worked hard enough to get in somewhere) to go. As for “do not enjoy favorable circumstances” – these kids have it tough. In the time I have been on the board – two have been murdered by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both were killed in gang shootouts. Police confirmed that neither was armed and neither was in any gang.

    Poor kids can be smart and ambitious just like rich kids.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “should not get their hopes up for college since they probably won’t get in or couldn’t afford to go. “

    yup. it’s pretty much what I meant.

    I base this on the fact that I see schools that fund AP, and baccalaureate programs, and Governors school but then they say that Head Start and pre-K are “too expensive”.

    Fairfax is not that way.. from what I can tell they do a stand-up job for all kids.

    But the SOL scores and NCLB and the NEAP clearly show the divide – the subsidized lunch kids – with equivalent IQs score lower – in most areas – but not all.

    Kids from disadvantaged circumstances (at risk) need special treatment because they often lack a home life that encourages them to succeed.

    They do not get that help at many schools because of the “lack of resources” problem or to put it another way.. the same schools that fund the Governors School but not Head Start say that the State needs to “step up to the plate and fully fund the schools”.

    So.. it’s clearly a question of priorities – and some schools DO tend to them effectively – like the one that Wilder visited – and my point is that if it works at that school – it should work at schools that are not in neighborhoods that are not “crime-ridden” IF they had the commitment to do it.

    This directly relates to the “industrial age relic” comment BECAUSE schools for the well off have ALWAYS provided for their ascent usually to College but others who typically work blue collar – need technical training for world economy jobs – but if those kids cannot read or write proficiently, they cannot deal with technology which is strongly reliant on understanding complex concepts… and again – go check the NAEP scores and see who is NOT rated proficient on a demographic basis.

    Kaine has it right with Pre-K.

    Kids who fall behind in grade school – don’t make it through high school unless serious (expensive) intervention happens.

    And kids who come into grade school behind – are so seriously at risk that if they don’t catch up by the 3rd grade … they’re in trouble.

    Kids at that age don’t know that they are in poor circumstances. They’re totally innocent and not responsible for their circumstance but if we spend our time .. blaming those kids for their parents sins.. well we should be thinking longer term as to the outcome…

    We, as a country, cannot afford to attempt to compete worldwide with some of our population not only unable to compete but in fact, will need taxpayer welfare – from the kids that do make it to college.

    In other words – the kids who go to college – ALSO fail.

    Some kids won’t make it – there is just too much stacked against them. If they’re robbing from the other kids in 4th grade.., they’re headed for prison..in many cases.

    so yes.. I meant what I said.

    The PROOF is:

    1. – what programs does a school offer or not offer

    2. – what do the scores look like demographically

    do that check on that Richmond school … their kids succeed NOT by happenstance.., I can assure.

    if I offended.. I apologize.

    If I need to find a more polite way to say it.. I can take the feedback.

    but I don’t think I’m too far off on the core of the issue but if you think I am.. we can agree to disagree and/or show me the error of my ways…

  4. Larry:

    I am not offended.

    More like stunned.

    I grew up with a bunch of poor kids – trailer parks, etc. Dave G. is a neuro surgeon, Mike R. is a doctor, Russ S, runs an investment fund, Eugene S. is a general in the US Army.

    I guess it’s good that nobody told them that they were poor and, therefore, not going to college.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    some poor kids to make it despite all odds but the SOL and NCLB statistics do not lie.

    It would be nice if every at-risk kid could make it on their own dint but the reality is right out in front of us.

    We want to think of the ones we know that did make it and pretend to not know about the 10 for ever 1 that did not.

    I’ve said before that I think there are two dimensions to this. One is moral and the other is purely “in-your-own-best-interest” economic.

    So.. let’s toss the moral aspect and just look at how this affects all of us in our pocketbooks.

    On that issue.. it makes it harder to just think about the guys that you know that did make it…


  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry, what does it mean for a kid to “make it”? I don’t disagree with all of your argument. But is it realistic to expect that all or most all school kids in Virginia will be college material? Is this Lake Wobegon?

    I would agree that there are certainly at-risk children (whatever that really means) who, with proper assistance, could be doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. But that does not answer the question as to how many resources society should be expected to devote to “saving the at-risk kids.” Do we also save them if we help many of them get technical training, through community college or even just a very good high school education?

    Even with more resources, would the ten who don’t it make it today, really make it tomorrow? I really don’t know what the answer is. I’m somewhere between: it makes sense to try to give each child the best possible education; and we shouldn’t throw good money after bad.

    There needs to be resources targeted at both the top and the bottom. But aren’t public schools really about the large mass of children in the middle? White, black, Hispanic, Asian — most kids are in the middle. If we overcompensate for those who start with little, are we cheating those who start with the average?

    Again, I don’t have answers to my own questions. I do think, however, that they are important questions.


  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think in terms of every kid with a standard or better IQ having ACCESS to a minimum standard education .. and this part is important – where he/she as a result of that education can and will score “proficient” on reading and writing assessments.

    I don’t think every kid is college material but they do have to have the ability to be able to read and write the content associated with gaining employment in a worldwide economy.

    No more but no less than their counterparts in our Industrialized Nations.

    We don’t need to be #1 in the world but we certainly should not be #10 or worse.

    As we get demographically older and as jobs with defined contribution pensions become the norm – our workforce becomes smaller relative to the folks who are retired.

    We simply cannot afford to have a workforce that is no employable in a worldwide economy AND they ALSO need public assistance to pay for their health care AND their kids (increasing the numbers of kids on subsidized lunches – repeating/acceleration the percentage of kids in poor economic/parental circumstances.

    I think we have both a moral and an economic imperative to recognize that those that don’t go to college need the education to get a good enough job so that they can take care of themselves and pay taxes.

    The short version of this is what kind of work do blue collar workers do when the factory/mill shuts down?

    If we don’t deal with this issue – effectively – we’re going to end up with one of the biggest welfare systems in the world.

Leave a Reply