by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 2016 •

The school principal is central to providing an equitable learning experience for all students. Research identifies an empirical correlation between the quality of school leadership and greater student achievement (Bryk, et al., 2010; Fullan, 2016). Facing challenges to improve teaching and learning in the current context of high-stakes testing and accountability and as they contend with discrimination, inequities and injustices in the status quo, effective school leaders approach their work through a social justice lens. They build a culture dedicated to equity and excellence for all students. Howard (2016) states that school leaders must strive to fight the inequities of implicit and explicit biases and oppressive practices that impact student achievement and support the success of all students.

Educational leaders are most effective when they operate from an asset-based approach of the social, emotional, economic and cognitive conditions of their students (Theoharis & Brooks, 2012). In doing so, they lead their staff to carry out instruction that builds on students’ unique strengths and is responsive to students’ needs. Educators can then work to ensure the educational and psychological support is provided with efficacious cognitive strategies, robust content knowledge, positive relationships and meaningful support.

Starting with the social justice point of view facilitates building social and cultural capital and provides students with enhanced and deepened learning experiences that counteract the challenges of injustices. Successful leaders support educators to reflect on current practices and urgently improve those that do not work.

Leaders with a social justice lens support inclusive practices that meet a wide array of needs. Fullan (2016) asserts that these leaders seek to restructure staff allocation and assess student progress through the disaggregation and analysis of data, striving to create an environment with equal access and equitable support for all students. They recognize the importance of valuing students’ race, language, ethnicity, family income, ability, gender and sexual orientation as assets in supporting student success in school (Gorski, 2013).

By constantly monitoring students’ progress (in ways other than standardized tests), principals uncover constructs that create differences in student learning. They develop intentional infrastructures to improve learning outcomes, equipping staff to build their own capacity to serve all students. These leaders also understand the critical roles that families and community organizations play, welcoming them to the school as partners and as equals to ensuring all students receive a quality education.

Through IDRA’s School TurnAround and Reenergizing for Success (STAARS) Leaders project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, we have been working in the San Antonio ISD SIG (School Improvement Grant) eligible schools to help build capacity for strengthening the leadership pipeline and transforming schools with significant numbers of English learners (ELs). We began our work last year by partnering with the district to assist principals and leadership teams with comprehensive professional development designed to serve their culturally diverse student population.

In addition, IDRA is providing differentiated professional development to five principals and their leadership teams in the form of coaching and mentoring. We have provided the district’s central office staff and leaders from other schools comprehensive professional development based on their needs and a set of core competencies. These competencies empower leaders to reflect on their behaviors, build on their strengths and work on their individual challenges so that they can impact student success during their transformation.

One of these exemplary leaders is Greg Rivers, M.A., principal of Ball Academy. He spoke with us recently in a new Classnotes podcast interview about his experience with the seven competencies that the district selected to focus on during their participation in the project. The full podcast interview is available via iTunes or on the IDRA website.

Greg Rivers, M.A., principal, Ball Academy, and Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., IDRA senior education associate.

Competency 1: Driving for Results

Effective leaders focus on intentional teaching and learning results. They have a strong desire for achieving successful outcomes through task-oriented actions. These include focus, achievement, initiative, persistence, monitoring with practical and intentional reasoning that direct one to actions, and accountability.

Mr. Rivers explained: “I put a lot of thought into placing staff members in the right positions so they are successful in their work. You have to hire good people to influence students in a powerful way and to make the changes you envision. You have to evaluate what is going on and make tweaks to make sure the school is functioning properly. So, talent management matters to me.

“Then, we structure where all stakeholders are involved and have a voice in how the school runs, knowing that their voices matter. For example, I listen a lot to parents and what they are telling me. We administered surveys at the beginning of the year to find out what they need and what they think their child needs in order to be successful. Structures for stakeholder voices have to be operating at a peak performance and, if not, we take a look at the structures, and we bring all the stakeholders in and change it as needed.”

Competency 2: Influencing for Results

An effective principal focuses on developing collective efficacy, motivating and influencing their thinking and behaviors to obtain productive results. This includes impact and influence, team leadership and building the capacity of others. Influential leaders seek opportunities that support academic learning reflecting on social justice objectives through professional growth that models, supports and provides feedback, which leads to the success of all students.

Mr. Rivers described: “One thing I do is to try to shrink the change that we want to have. You have to be very thoughtful of the things we do, not having just a lot of new programs and activities. Any time you bring in something new, you need to have professional learning and a very structured way to do things. I call these checkpoints. If I say, “Do x and y,” I really need to pull back and concentrate on x and provide learning time and feedback in that area. Teachers need support via coaching. I think that’s the missing piece for teachers. We want to see something happen because, if we’ve invested in it and if we think it’s important, then we are going to expect it – and then inspect it to make sure that it is functioning.”

Competency 3: Problem-Solving

This competency means simplifying and resolving complex challenges through job-embedded practices, reflection and logical analysis, data-informed decisions, identifying root causes of school barriers and the impact of accomplishing the organizational goals. Effective leaders ensure strong connections between school learning goals and classroom activity.

Mr. Rivers communicated how he used conceptual thinking to identify and address the problems that arise: “We do a root cause analysis. We started that in the summer. For example, if a teacher comes to me and says this person can’t read. First I ask, what does that mean? Let’s dig deeper. He doesn’t know any sight words? What is causing the student to not be where he or she should be? We are getting teachers to analyze the root causes by asking, “why, why, why?” Then we can come up with a plan to address the issues. We bring all stakeholders to the table.”

Competency 4: Showing Confidence to Lead

The leader accomplishes tasks with a strong sense of personal efficacy. This involves staying visibly focused and committed, displaying self-confidence and being self-assured.

“One of the things that we did is cognitive coaching,” said Mr. Rivers. Cognitive coaching, delivered through the IDRA STAARS Leaders project, encourages reflection on the thinking that underlies instructional decision making. “You have to be self-aware. There are days that everything seems to be chaos and on fire and you have to be aware, you can’t seem stressed. Teachers are watching. Do I believe in what I’m saying? Do I believe in the mission statement?

“There’s a saying that I read once, ‘A relationship is built by one conversation at a time.’ Since I first got here, I’ve had conversations schoolwide, one-on-one and in groups. We can see the walls crumble, and people begin to understand your intentions. Last year, 96 percent of  our students were economically disadvantaged, and this year it’s 99 percent. We’re one of the poorest areas in the city, and we feel that we have everything in place to make a difference and that what we are doing follows sound turn-around practices that are research-based.”

Competency 5: Connecting with Student and Family Diversity

A successful leader establishes effective partnerships for student engagement, building culturally responsive and linguistically supportive school-home partnerships to improve teaching and learning.

Mr. Rivers gave some examples: “I started to reflect on what I had done so far by the 11th week of school. How have I engaged parents in learning? Have I included them, and not just to coming to a carnival or other event? So that’s why now we’re training our teachers, and then we’ll start our sessions with parents. I’m doing what we call principal’s coffees and an open house. We’re planning a series of meetings with each grade level to show parents what SMART goals are (specific, measureable, actionable, results oriented, time based) and give them some activities they can do with their children at home to support our work. If a parent has two jobs, then we can work out a schedule to maybe just 10 minutes on a Saturday. Our goal is to make sure parents know they are partners with us. We want to engage with parents as authentic partners in student success.”

One of the challenges for schools nationwide is the low performance of English learners. Mr. Rivers talked about how he is addressing this with his teachers: “I looked at the data and noticed that the ELs were in the lower levels of achieving success, and the gap was growing in the upper grade levels. I think as a district we have not been successful in helping students strengthen their native language and then transferring that to English. Perhaps, educators expect them to transfer to English when they’re not ready because there has not been a systematic way to transfer to English.   I had to focus on that when I got here.

“I have had several conversations with teachers about their teaching so that instruction is at a very high cognitive level in the native language and they can then transfer that knowledge to English. We need to address systematic issues to provide excellent and equitable education for all students. We had experts evaluate our bilingual classrooms to see if they were teaching at the level of rigor in their native language so that they would have the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) needed to operate in both languages. We are moving to a dual language model to ensure that this occurs, and we’re beginning to see results. We are 13 percentage points away from closing the gap for ELs. I have a strong team of bilingual teachers, and we’re giving students and teachers more support so that they can do this transition well.”

Competency 6: Organizing Stakeholders for Collaborative Action

Visionary leaders achieve learning results through collaborative and strategic planning. This includes setting a shared vision that is articulated and embraced in the planning among campuses, parents and community leaders. The action planning results from effective communication, persistence and conflict resolution.

Mr. Rivers said: “Every time we meet as a professional learning community (PLC), we talk about our vision. When I got here, the vision statement was over 50 words, so we needed to shrink it and make it something we all can remember. The new statement is: As a Champion School of SAISD we, Ball Academy, will ensure collaboration to foster a positive culture of high expectations through quality instruction.

“I did a state-of-the-school address at the end of the first quarter and I asked teachers: How have you implemented the vision statement? and then they shared what they had done. It’s critical to have a clear vision. Why do we open our doors in the morning? What is our vision? What is our mission? School is very simple to me; it is about educating and having a laser-like focus on instruction, student achievement and student outcomes. So my key role becomes getting the results we need by ensuring high quality rigor and high quality instruction in the classrooms as well as providing the support that teachers need.”

Competency 7: Measuring, Reporting and Sustaining Success

A superb school leader transforms a school through skillful use of data to lead and inspire teachers to continuous improvement. Teachers reflect on their practices and focus high-quality and corrective instruction addressing individual needs. The academic successes come from collective leadership and efficacy. Measuring, reporting and sustaining success to continuously improve requires effective use of data.

Mr. Rivers explained how he works with teachers to use data: “Professional learning communities are a major rock of our campus improvement plan. During our 90-minute PLCs, we really dive deep into the data. We have a system in place to look at lesson plans and assessments with a focus on what students need. We have spent a lot of time this past nine weeks training teachers to look at the data. Data can be very daunting, so you have to shrink it down to small chunks. We focus on item analysis. We’re not just giving them numbers like ‘45 percent of your students are doing this.’ That’s too broad. We dig deep to find out the root causes of something and how can adjust instruction and monitor improvement. We call this ‘deep data digs.’ Teachers are now comfortable with this process and are working diligently to analyze data to guide instruction.”

Research links effective school leaders to improved student achievement. The school principal is vital to sustainable, innovative and transformational school reform. Principals build capacity by developing teachers’ knowledge and skills, their community of practice, engendering program unity and providing resources.

Mr. Rivers spoke about how IDRA’s partnership with him through the STAARS Leaders project accelerated change at his school: “As a principal it was very valuable because you sometimes need someone to talk to and coach you, especially when you are having some difficult issues. Having the one-on-one trusting relationship helped me to energize and refocus on my campus and see maybe something that I wasn’t doing well. Talking with someone to share ideas to come up with solutions through reflective thinking questions guided me to take the necessary steps that led to action. It is very positive when it its done by someone other than supervisors. This was very valuable.

“As far as working with teachers and students, we did a couple of core content STAAR camps – we called them “Comic-Cons”– with strategies that helped our eighth grade students move on to the next grade level. IDRA brought in a professional expert in the content areas who provided professional development and coached the teachers to address the skills students needed. The ideas that came out of the coaching sessions made a huge difference in how our school is working.

“One thing I’ve learned is that we do need a sounding board and to get feedback from a successful principal, because the university does not fully prepare you for all the challenges we have to face. As you know, in schools it all falls in the principal. When things go bad, it’s you. That’s the way it should be. You are the leader of the instructional campus. So having someone coach you through some processes that you may have some issues with is very valuable.

“Also in our work together this year I’ve seen a growth in our parent engagement skillset. We needed to deepen our commitment to work with parents. The experience I have had through IDRA’s STAARS Leaders project has been very beneficial and I have valued it.”

As Mr. Rivers has demonstrated, transformational principals lead with social justice principles in mind to cultivate a democratic and diverse space where all students are respected and flourish. These innovative leaders establish structures and a positive school culture that inspire teachers to collaborate in ways that build on their own leadership skills, using their voice, and engaging in schoolwide decisions that bring about the success of all students.

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and IDRA STAARS Leaders project director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at


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Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and IDRA STAARS Leaders project director. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]