Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2016 •

Turning around challenged schools requires exceptional, effective leadership and practical guidance on what works for successful student outcomes (Theoharis, 2009; de la Torre, et al., 2013). Transformational leaders are agents of change directly responsible for leading, encouraging, empowering and overseeing the school-turnaround efforts regardless of their students’ circumstances. They are directly responsible for the preparation of students for college and career. It was this kind of transformational leadership that made a concrete difference for students at one middle school in San Antonio.

Critical Transformation Principles

The literature supports the need for equity-driven transformational leaders particularly for schools with English learners and with a majority of ethnically diverse students. These leaders embody the following six critical transformation principles:

  • Creating transformative educational experiences for students and their families;
  • Refocusing day-to-day leadership through a lens of educational equity and academic excellence;
  • Strategically solving campus educational problems and concerns that block academic success for all;
  • Fostering collaborative problem-solving, ongoing evaluations that inform decision-making, and continuous improvement and accountability for equity and excellence for all students;
  • Engaging parents and community as partners in the educational process and decision-making; and
  • Fostering quality leadership, teaching, learning and engagement for all stakeholders to build student school success and a college-going culture.

Strong leaders not only promote but require targeted and differentiated instruction for a diverse student population. They communicate a clear and strong shared vision and mission of success that permeates the whole school organization and the community it serves. The vision and mission call for bringing out the best in others, and documenting responsibility and commitment to ensure all students are successful and are prepared academically, socially and emotionally.

The vision must persist in the face of adversity, rooted in asset-based principles and an achievement-oriented culture committed to student learning. College requirements must be understood through stakeholder interaction and advocacy. Building a college-going culture involves the school, parents and community defining support systems.

Concurrent with nurturing the intra-school commitment to college preparation, the transformational leader builds relationships with personnel at post-secondary institutions to create linkages between the university, the high school, parents, and students with college knowledge, activities and experiences that bridge the post-secondary transition.

Transformation of a Middle School

As an example, the campus leadership team at a middle school in west San Antonio exuded confidence among the faculty and staff by demonstrating solutions to challenges for the academic success of all learners. They established non-negotiables, such as “failure is not an option.” The administration fostered a high level of respect, trust and collaboration. The school’s vision was transformed into reality through rigorous attention to school data resulting in environments conducive to learning.

All students were determined to reach excellence: faculty and parents expected it. The leadership team took a clear and public stand to ensure high quality teaching and effective learning by establishing accountability measures consistent with continuous improvement.

The team set up a powerful campus improvement and evaluation plan to track their progress. Leaders monitored, assessed, analyzed and took action holding all stakeholders accountable.

They developed a professional development plan with teacher input. All staff collaborated on the data analysis and reflected on instructional practices and strategies necessary to teach, reteach and improve teaching and accelerate learning. Intelligent and pervasive use of data informed teacher practice, improved student performance and ultimately increased teacher job satisfaction.

The school principal applied the SMART process (Haughey, 2014): Goals are Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Relevant and Time-framed to manage the campus. All faculty and staff became advocates in the pursuit of equity and excellence, designed lessons with a purpose, and articulated an urgency to address critical issues that lead to the successful outcomes outlined in the campus improvement plan.

Critical issues included: addressing benchmark results, having the leadership team visible in all classrooms, researching and initiating appropriate interventions, supporting teachers through coaching, and providing resources and removing barriers to learning.

Teachers provided a syllabus to every student each six-week period, wrote the agenda on the board including the lesson objective, class activities and assessment of the lesson. Students who needed additional enrichment were required to attend afterschool activities for meeting learning needs.

Gifted and talented and ESL strategies embedded in lessons addressed varied learning needs. Extra materials and resources needed by the teachers were acquired through fundraising and appeals to central administration.

A study hall for students provided extra time to complete work or receive tutoring. Afterschool detention was transformed from punishment to positive instructional time. Students were provided targeted assignments for reading, writing and math. The goal for success was set at 80 percent mastery, and students were allowed to leave after attaining the goal as an incentive.

Every student received positive messages at school. Administrators and teachers readily shook students’ hands while issuing a positive message that also was encouraged among all adults in the school.

A family-oriented approach created the climate and culture. Teaching teams met daily during the planning period and mostly addressed curriculum and academic practices that were proven to be successful. The school increased sections offering Pre-AP courses and instituted the AVID program in which eventually all grades were enrolled. The 21st Century after-school program provided outside school activities, which included cosmetology, art and karate among others.

The school supported self-efficacy, persistence, social and cultural capital through family and peer support, critical elements to the success of all students, especially the underserved.

A balance between curricular and non-curricular activities bonded the school, the students and the broader community. Faculty and staff constantly reflected, and researched the literature to carry out innovative practices leading to academic improvement. Student achievement drove all the decisions and operational practices of the school.

Outcomes of this work included high student achievement and an increase in the number of students prepared for high school and the college track. The school also saw improved teacher morale and retention, an increase in family engagement, an increase in student and teacher attendance, an increase in teacher and student efficacy, and a sense of pride and commitment to reaching excellence. The school received a rating of recognized by the state, missing the exemplary rating by just 0.04 percent.

Transformational leaders engender equity-focused practices using all available assets to turn around low performing schools ensuring all students become college ready.


Conley, D.T., L. Darling-Hammond. Creating Systems of Assessment for Deeper Learning (Stanford, Calif.: Sanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, 2013).

de la Torre, M., & E. Allensworth, S. Jagesic, J. Sebastian, M. Salmonowicz, C. Meyers, R.D. Gerdeman. Turning Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, February 2013).

Haughey, D. “A Brief History of Smart Goals” (United Kingdom: Project Smart, December 13, 2014).

Theoharis, G., & J.S. Brooks. What Every Principal Needs to Know to Create Equitable and Excellent Schools, first edition (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, 2009).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is a senior education associate. Comments and questions  can be directed to her via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 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.]