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The Principal Story

THE PRINCIPAL STORY, is a national broadcast film and media outreach project, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. Its purpose is to raise the visibility of leadership as a lever for school improvement, especially in our most challenging schools. Leadership has been a vital yet frequently missing element in education reform. While what goes on in the classroom is of primary importance, leadership - or the lack of it - can determine whether or not good ideas or practices in a single classroom spread systemwide so that all children benefit. The documentary film project aims to raise awareness, educate and motivate key audiences, including opinion leaders in policy and education; provide resources; and spur collaboration and action.

THE PRINCIPAL STORY is a national broadcast film and media outreach project, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. Its purpose is to raise the visibility of leadership as a lever for school improvement, especially in our most challenging schools. THE PRINCIPAL STORY portrays the challenges principals face in turning around low-performing public schools and raising student achievement. This intimate, one-year journey is seen through the eyes of two dynamic principals: Dr. Tresa D. Dunbar, in only her second year in the Chicago Public School System; and Kerry Purcell, a seven-year veteran in Springfield, IL. The one-hour film shows how these leaders keep their focus on improving teaching and learning amid the competing demands of managing their staffs, as well as the social and emotional issues surrounding their students and communities.

Broadcast on PBS’ acclaimed P.O.V. series on September 15, 2009, THE PRINCIPAL STORY reveals the complex social and political connections among children, parents, teachers, principals and superintendents. The film’s principals motivate teachers and students by using data to make better decisions, by offering professional development and training for struggling teachers, and by allocating resources to build a learning community within and beyond the school. Poignantly, it shows the heart, commitment and skill that are required for leaders to improve public schools in which more than 85 percent of students come from families living below the poverty-line.

To view film clips and additional video and print resources that promote professional learning, advance policy, and build public understanding, please visit www.wallacefoundation.org/principalstory.

To obtain a copy of the film, contact Nomadic Pictures at www.nomadicpix.com.

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About the Filmmakers

Tod Lending: Executive Producer, Producer, Director, Cinematographer
Tod Lending is an Academy Award®–nominated and national Emmy–winning producer/ director/writer/cinematographer whose work has aired nationally on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and HBO; has been screened and awarded at national and international festivals; and has been televised internationally in Europe and Asia. He is the president and founder of Nomadic Pictures, a Chicago–based documentary film and television production company; and director of Ethno Pictures, a not–for–profit documentary film company.

David Mrazek: Producer, Director, Sound Recordist
David Mrazek is an award–winning producer/director/writer of numerous prime–time PBS history and science documentary series, as well as documentaries for The History Channel and Travel Channel. Mrazek’s work includes The Great War series, The Kingdom of David, The Duel and Woodrow Wilson, among many others.

About the Principals

Kerry Purcell, Principal
Harvard Park Elementary School, Springfield, IL

During her six years as principal of Harvard Park Elementary School (pre–K-5), During her six years as principal of Harvard Park Elementary School (pre-K-5), Kerry Purcell was instrumental in supporting the school’s successful move off the state watch list. The school made approximately a 45 percent gain in reading and a 50 percent gain in math scores. Most notable is Kerry’s work around data interpretation and analysis, building and sustaining professional learning communities, and creative use of fiscal, human and time resources to support school improvement.

Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., Principal
Henry H. Nash Elementary School, Chicago, IL

Two years ago – after five years of turmoil at Nash Elementary School (pre–K–8) under six different principals –– Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., took over as school leader. Tresa had been an assistant principal at Nash, leaving in 2001 to pursue principal training. She returned as a novice principal with a mission of change and a commitment to improving instruction and academic achievement. Already, many strides have been made: reading and math scores have risen, and Nash has been honored by Mayor Richard M. Daley for progress on the ISAT.

About the Schools

Harvard Park Elementary School, Springfield, IL
Kerry Purcell, Principal

Harvard Park Elementary is located in a working class community in the central Illinois state capital of Springfield. Today, nearly 387 students in grades pre-kindergarten through 5th grade attend Harvard Park. About 42.9 percent are African American, 46.3 percent are white and eight percent are multiracial. Eighty-seven percent of the students are from low income families, and the school is designated as Title I. The community has a high rate of multiple families living in inadequate housing and a 50 percent mobility rate. A “mobility bus” brings students who have moved out of the community to Harvard, to maintain continuity with their education. The school has made adequately yearly progress (AYP) in reading and mathematics and was taken off the AYP Watch list in fall 2007; the attendance rate was 92 percent.

Henry H. Nash Elementary School, Chicago, IL
Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., Principal

A Pre–K–8 school in the city’s blighted west side Austin neighborhood, the Henry H. NashElementary School has a student population that is 99.8 percent African American; 100 percent of the 800 students qualify for free and reduced price lunch according to federal guidelines. The school is part of the Chicago Public Schools, the third largest public school system in the country. In the film, Chicago Public Schools’ CEO Arne Duncan described Nash as “a low performing school historically that we could have closed.”

In 2001, the 24-year veteran principal of the school retired. During the five years that followed, Nash was led by no less than six principals – a time of upheaval that resulted in low morale and disorder. Many of these principals were at Nash for a very short time, either by their own choice or due to board removal. Since they had been without long term contracts and had various levels of commitment, establishing long-term plans and goals became paramount in order to improve conditions for teachers and students. In 2006, the Local School Council was granted permission to select its own principal. After an extensive search, Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D. was chosen to lead Nash. Two new assistant principals were hired, and many staff members were dismissed.

This project is part of THE PRINCIPAL STORY outreach campaign, which is made possible by a generous grant from The Wallace Foundation, a source of ideas for improving school leadership. Visit www.wallacefoundation.org/principalstory.

For more information and research about education leadership, visit the Wallace Knowledge Center at www.wallacefoundation.org.

The media outreach leader in the public television industry, Outreach Extensions is collaborating with producers Tod Lending and David Mrazek, The Wallace Foundation, advisors, and strategic partners in developing and implementing a national campaign for THE PRINCIPAL STORY. Designed to accompany the film's national PBS broadcast on P.O.V., the media outreach campaign serves as a launching pad to raise awareness about high-quality education leadership, build public will, and lead to solution-based action.

Campaign objectives are to:

  • Conduct a media awareness campaign to focus public attention on education leadership and the changing role of today’s school principal in an environment of increasing accountability.
  • Leverage individual stations' media assets (e.g., production/broadcast, Web, new media) and community engagement strategies to create customized local campaigns that extend inquiry, discussion, and action based on the national documentary.
  • Target key audiences including policymakers, educators, and the general public to deepen understanding of the critical importance of leadership to school improvement.
  • Develop media outreach resources that highlight diverse aspects of education leadership, present leaders in different parts of the country, connect key stakeholders to information, and provide motivation for action.
  • Forge relationships with key groups – education organizations, public television stations, and other community stakeholders – that can build and support the case for strengthening leadership to lift student achievement.

Key target audiences are principals and aspiring principals, superintendents and boards of education, opinion leaders in policy and research, schools of education and principal training organizations, media, education funding community, and general viewers.

Campaign Assets / Components

  1. Public Television Station Grants
    The PRINCIPAL STORY National Media Outreach Campaign offered grants to public television stations to increase opportunities for local/statewide engagement and secure a significant level of activity and impact. Designed and managed by Outreach Extensions, the station grants program increases awareness, promotes discussion and action, and incrementally helps to support changes in policies and practices.
    • Tier One – Multiplatform Media Outreach Grants / Ten $7,500 – $10,000 grants Stations use their broadcast (television, radio) programming and production capacities (e.g., broadcast town halls, local documentaries, news segments) as well as Web sites and new media to present local examples and perspectives that can deepen understanding, provide a springboard for discussion and action, and expand the campaign’s reach.
    • Tier Two – Community Engagement Grants / Ten $5,000 grants Stations work with local partners to determine the focus of their high-impact campaigns, including those documentary and outreach themes that are most relevant to school performance or policy issues in their communities. Stations may create forums and community events as well as integrate their campaigns into such local opportunities as education summits, school change/leadership initiatives, principal training programs or other professional learning opportunities.
  2. Campaign Readiness Materials
    The PRINCIPAL STORY Station Outreach Toolkit guided stations in preparing their grant applications as well as supported outcome-based campaign implementation. Content included: campaign overview, core school leadership issues, background information on the documentary, description of campaign media outreach resources, strategic partners, campaign strategies, suggested station activities, and sample discussion questions, among other resources.
  3. Video and Print Resources DVD
    The national campaign’s signature media asset is a Video and Print Resources DVD for policymakers, educators, and interested others to use in classrooms, workshops, and auditorium presentations. The DVD supports campaign participation – promoting discussion, analysis, and decision making related to school leadership policies and practices. All material contained on the DVD is also available on the project website: www.wallacefoundation.org/principalstory. All film and video, unless otherwise noted, were produced by Nomadic Pictures.

    THE PRINCIPAL STORY Promo introduces viewers to the full documentary film. (video) To order the film, please visit: www.nomadicpix.com.

    Leadership Matters: A Call to Action (video)
    Along with scenes from THE PRINCIPAL STORY, this executive video for policymakers and district leaders (12:38 minutes) captures expert commentary by policymakers, educators and other thought leaders, offering compelling testimony about why leadership matters and how states, districts and preparation programs can better prepare and support school leaders to be successful for all students. The speakers make it clear that strong leaders are essential to turning around low–performing, high–poverty schools and closing achievement gaps. In particular, they focus on improving leader preparation and on-the-job support, effective data use, and leader assessment to drive continuous improvement.

    Conversation Guide for Leadership Matters: A Call to Action
    The accompanying Leadership Matters: A Call to Action Conversation Guide for Policymakers and District Leaders describes key policy issues raised in the video and offers discussion questions and policy actions to consider. Intended for state, district and local policymakers, university preparation programs and others, the guide assists with investigating issues, strategies and potential actions to better prepare and support school leaders. It was written in collaboration with the Council of Chief State School Officers, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Governors Association and The Wallace Foundation.

    The guide has been organized around five central themes:

    • Leadership Matters – Research tells us that there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader. Not only is leadership the catalyst that makes it possible for teachers to do their best, but it is also the main reason that teachers are attracted to and remain in challenging schools. The question is no longer whether leadership really matters, but how to make training, placing and supporting effective leaders a priority for policymakers.
    • Preparing Principals Effectively – Districts rely on leadership training programs to produce effective principals able to improve instruction and learning. The traditional responsibilities of managing buildings and personnel now include instructional leadership, improving teaching practice and raising student achievement. Research tells us that effective training programs should emphasize careful and rigorous selection of candidates; coursework focused on instructional leadership; organizational improvement and change management; and rigorous internships
    • Providing Ongoing Support – New research has helped the field recognize that leadership training should not end when principals are hired. It should continue with high-quality mentoring for new principals and with professional development for all principals to promote career-long growth in line with the evolving needs of schools and districts. Through ongoing development, principals enhance their own learning by reflecting on new knowledge about effective teaching practices, data use, strategies to turn around low-performing schools and other issues.
    • Improving Leader Assessment – Leader assessments are an important part of the web of policies, practices and incentives that are necessary to support the nation’s principals. When used to enhance performance as well as to ensure accountability, reliable, validated assessments can be driving factors in helping leaders develop the behaviors and skills that improve teacher effectiveness and, as a result, learning for all students.
    • Using Data Effectively – As states and districts work to build a culture of accountability in education, principals are now expected to use data to guide decisions about instruction. They must bring concepts, criteria and interpretive frames of reference to the task of making sense of the data. Value–added analysis enables educators to measure the impact that schools make on students' rates of academic progress from year to year. In addition, an effective use of data allows leaders to make informed decisions about where to focus resources to help students make greater progress and perform at higher levels.

    Video Vignettes and Conversation Guides

    Four video vignettes look at innovations in leadership training and support in states and districts around the country. Through these examples, education leaders and university/training academy instructors can explore what others are doing, and test ideas and solutions for developing and supporting principals in their states and/or districts. These programs have been funded by The Wallace Foundation as part of its 10-year initiative devoted to strengthening education leadership to raise student achievement.

    Each vignette is accompanied by a Conversation Guide – available on the DVD and website www.wallacefoundation.org/principalstory – that frames relevant issues, provides background information and a set of questions to stimulate discussion, as well as suggests additional resources. The guides were developed in collaboration with the states and districts profiled.

    • SAM I AM: Making the Time for Effective Instructional Leadership (11:32 minutes) – This video vignette features the national School Administration Manager (SAM) Project, which helps principals better use their time to lead instructional improvement and gives them a staff person (the “SAM”) to take over operations responsibilities. It follows Kentucky principal Opal Dawson as she receives increasing support to visit classrooms, meet with teachers and get to know students and what they are learning. Dawson meets with her SAM, Tiffanie Schweinhart, on a daily basis, receives professional support from a coach and uses new tools and strategies to focus her time on improving teaching and learning. It was filmed at the John F. Kennedy Montessori Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky, in its second year of participation in the SAM Project, which is now in nine states. Mark Shellinger, National SAM Project Director, is also interviewed in the vignette.
    • Building a Better Pipeline to the Principalship: The SABLE Story (10:44 minutes) – The Superintendent’s Academy for Building Leaders in Education (SABLE), a two-year leadership development program, was created in 1999 by then newly hired Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Superintendent Beverly L. Hall to avert a crisis. Two-thirds of APS principals were eligible to retire, and neither they nor their successors were focusing on leading instructional improvement. To make matters worse, only a few qualified principals were in the pipeline. This video vignette looks at the SABLE program through the experiences of participants, district leaders and graduates. Dr. Hall, named 2009 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, talks about how the program works and the benefits it has brought to the district. We see SABLE instructor Dawn Wooten and SABLE participants Tommy Usher and Adam Danser explain how the program has filled the voids of traditional training programs and provided a better understanding of what the principalship entails. We also meet a SABLE graduate, principal Shirlene Carter, and hear how SABLE prepared her to lead Maynard Jackson High School.
    • NYC Leadership Academy (5:55 minutes) – The NYC Leadership Academy (NYCLA) is an independent, nonprofit organization that recruits, develops and supports effective school leaders, with a focus on preparing principals to lead New York City’s high-need schools. It was started in 2003 to face a shortage of effective principals capable of turning around their schools. Interviews with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and NYCLA CEO Sandra Stein introduce the full-time, 14-month Aspiring Principals Program. It features a summer intensive in which project teams work on a school scenario that reflects real-world challenges in the city’s schools. Following a one-year residency at a school with a trained mentor principal, participants are then expected to become principals. We meet Daysi Garcia, NYCLA graduate and third-year principal at P.S. 65, a low-performing school of Latino and immigrant students. Garcia explains how the NYCLA program helped her transform her school by focusing on in-depth data analysis, team building, identifying the strengths of her teachers and supporting parent involvement. This vignette was produced by Isaac Solotaroff & Endeavor Films.
    • Closing the Achievement Gap: Oregon’s Bold Plan (9:13 minutes) – Oregon is engaged in a statewide endeavor to train educators in effective leadership and teaching practices for a growing population of culturally diverse students, an effort to combat inequities in education. Rob Larson, project director of the Oregon Leadership Network, explains that principals and teachers are expected to be “culturally competent” to instruct students of all backgrounds and cultures. As just one example of this approach, at Vose Elementary School in the Beaverton School District (near Portland), principal Will Flores oversees dual language instruction. In first grade, students are mostly taught in Spanish; by fifth grade, the ratio has shifted to the majority of instruction in English. Testing data from Vose shows student scores rising. We also hear from Jerry Colonna, Beaverton superintendent, as well as Dr. Susan Castillo, state superintendent of public instruction. The state has new standards for both principal and superintendent leadership preparation programs that specifically focus on cultural competence; the University of Oregon has cultural competence integrated into its leadership training curriculum statewide.

    THE PRINCIPAL STORY Clip Reel
    The Clip Reel (23 minutes) compiles film clips from THE PRINCIPAL STORY that were selected to assist practitioners and their trainers and mentors in reflecting upon and improving leadership practice. The organization of scenes enhances the use of the two principals’ stories in academic and district settings. For example, the clips can be used by principal training programs and universities as a classroom discussion tool; by principal mentors or staff developers to generate discussion about strategies to improve teacher performance and student outcomes; and by superintendents to develop school improvement plans or to model effective practice as instructional leaders.

    The Clip Reel organizes scenes from the film according to four key themes related to the central role of the principal in improving teaching and learning:

    • Stewardship of a Vision – Creating a shared vision serves as a framework for setting school direction. In THE PRINCIPAL STORY, Kerry Purcell, principal of Harvard Park Elementary School in Springfield, Illinois, and Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., principal of Nash Elementary in Chicago, articulate and take action to implement their visions for their schools. Tresa, a second year principal, focuses on the challenges related to working with a staff with 12 new teachers and her commitment to helping them succeed. Kerry, in her sixth year at Harvard Park, highlights the progress she and her staff have made in relation to student learning.
    • Leading Instructional Improvement – Research tells us that leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school. Tresa tells viewers that “We’re expected to be instructional leaders.” She demonstrates her commitment to and expertise in this role in this clip. We see her visiting classrooms, observing teachers and questioning children to find out what they are learning and conducting a professional development session for her teachers. At Harvard Park Kerry has prioritized the development and empowerment of teacher leaders.
    • Creating the Instructional Environment – Leaders are responsible for maintaining order and safety and for involving parents and other members of the school community in creating an instructional environment conducive to teaching and learning that benefits all students. At both Harvard Park and Nash, children came to school with many social and emotional issues that challenged their ability to be successful learners. Kerry explains, “It’s not discipline that we’re dealing with; it’s meeting the needs of the whole child.” Kerry conducts home visits and builds parent support for her goals of student achievement.
    • Holding People Accountable – Good principals hold themselves and others accountable for the success of every student. One practice to evaluate schools in Chicago was the “walk*ndash;through” by area supervisory staff shown in the film clip. Tresa found value in the practice, but expressed concern that the needs of her school were so much greater than were evaluated in the process. Kerry used data to hold herself and her teachers accountable, to motivate the performance of teachers and students and to make decisions to improve instruction. The clip ends by reporting a rise in test scores at Tresa’s school.

    THE PRINCIPAL STORY Field Guide: Promoting Leadership for Learning
    Produced by the National Staff Development Council (NSDC), THE PRINCIPAL STORY Field Guide is a professional development guide accompanying both the hour–long documentary film and the 23–minute Clip Reel. The Field Guide offers guidance and resources to turn viewing into professional learning experiences that focus on effective leader performance to improve teaching and learning. The Field Guide is aimed at aspiring principals, practicing principals and principal trainers, supervisors and mentors. Viewing sessions can range from a classroom for aspiring principals to a professional development workshop for 50 principals, to an auditorium presentation for the entire school community.

    The Field Guide includes an overview of the themes described above (see Clip Reel), 
a description of the clips, sample agendas for viewing sessions and prompts for deeper discussion. Content, which draws from research supported by NSDC, The Wallace Foundation and other sources, includes:

    Discussion/study of THE PRINCIPAL STORY Clip Reel
    Discussion/study of the four thematic clips: Stewardship of a Vision, Leading Instructional Improvement, Creating the Instructional Environment and Holding People Accountable
    Discussion/study of THE PRINCIPAL STORY (full film)
    Additional resources include tips for facilitators and a reference guide

  4. Web site
    All video and print assets presented on the Video and Print Resources DVD (described above) are available on the project Web site: www.wallacefoundation.org/principalstory. Video resources are streamed; print resources may be downloaded. THE PRINCIPAL STORY film may be ordered from the producer at www.nomadicpix.com. Broadcast information is available on www.pbs.org/pov.
  5. National Outreach Partners
    Strategic national outreach partners are providing content expertise as well as assisting the campaign in engaging key audiences in order to achieve solution-based outcomes. Partners are: American Association of School Administrators, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Governors Association, and the National Staff Development Council.
  6. Screenings, Events, and Speaking Engagements
    Targeted campaign participants will use the national documentary and outreach media resources as tools to engage priority audiences. Outreach Extensions will develop opportunities and provide technical assistance to support these activities.
  7. Promotion
    An integrated promotional campaign will generate awareness about the project on national and local levels, as well as create a multiplatform dialogue surrounding the issue of education leadership in America. Local station campaigns will be spotlighted.

This project is part of THE PRINCIPAL STORY outreach campaign, which is made possible by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, a source of ideas for improving school leadership. Visit www.wallacefoundation.org/principalstory. For more information and research about education leadership, visit the Wallace Knowledge Center at www.wallacefoundation.org.