• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., Joanelda De León, Ed.D., and Jesse Jay McNeil, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 2017 •

Leadership effectiveness is second only to instructional effectiveness in defining a school’s ability to increase student performance in culturally-diverse settings. In the pursuit of increasing leadership effectiveness in partnership with the San Antonio ISD, IDRA is implementing its School Turnaround and Reenergizing for Success (STAARS) Leaders project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Over a period of two years, this school transformational initiative has supported low performing campuses by providing differentiated and comprehensive professional development and technical assistance for a set of campuses in the district.

IDRA provided school leaders with coaches who are former principals and have demonstrated leadership skills and a record of success in turning around low performing campuses. And in collaboration with the McNeil Foundation, the project recruits and prepares motivated, self-reflective, and culturally-proficient aspiring principals from within the ranks in the district to acquire state certification to become effective school leaders.

This program for preparing aspiring principals is designed to achieve three major objectives:

  • Create and sustain a critical mass of high performing and aspiring campus leaders with strong potential for success, and prepare them through the McNeil Foundation alternative certification program for school leaders to successfully lead turnaround efforts;
  • Create and strengthen a system to recruit and select school leaders with the skills to turn around a SIG* or SIG-eligible school, with special emphasis on the principal and turnaround team leaders and advocates for English learners; and
  • Strategically place, support and retain these leaders through a high powered ongoing professional development supported by coaching tailored specifically to their individual and campus needs.

As a result of the project to date, 15 candidates have completed preparation in the McNeil Foundation’s program and are currently in the San Antonio ISD pool of applicants for placement in a campus leadership position.

Listen to our two-part Classnotes Podcast interview with a STAARS Leaders principal

A Principal on Leadership for a Turnaround School – Part 1 – Podcast Episode 168

A Principal on Leadership for a Turnaround School – Part 2 – Podcast Episode 169

Candidates for the program were selected through collaboration with school district administrators, IDRA and the McNeil Foundation. To be eligible, candidates had demonstrated teacher leadership experience, a master’s degree and a strong background in curriculum and instruction. The certification process itself, is completely field-based, intensive and accelerated (six months), and it combines job-embedded coursework experiences (Saturdays) with their daily field-based practicum requirements. This grow-your-own program fully prepares and credentials candidates to be ready to assume leadership positions in high-need schools within the district.

The primary recipients of the support provided by IDRA’s STAARS Leaders project are schools in the Highlands High School feeder pattern. These schools also participate as the second cohort of a school district initiative with the University of Virginia (UVa) Turnaround – Partnership for Leaders in Education program. Bringing together IDRA, the McNeil Foundation, UVa and San Antonio ISD as partners to collaborate in this effort has proven to be effective in strengthening leadership competencies of all stakeholders.

The UVa School Turnaround Program is dedicated to building transformative leadership capacity to establish school system conditions that set the stage for positive change. Collaboration with UVa has included professional development at the university as well as in New Mexico during its mid-winter conference.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, author of Leverage Leadership (2012), Driven by Data (2010) and Get Better Faster (2016), is one of the experts who has helped enhance instructional leadership competencies in the UVa program. Unlike traditional programs, UVa focuses on the practices and processes that build the internal capacity needed to create and sustain changes that lead to academic success in turnaround schools. This includes understanding organizational change, removing barriers, redefining relationships between the school system and school leaders, addressing root causes and developing action plans, implementing a school culture of high expectations, building collaborations and partnerships, continually using data to drive next actions, and supporting leaders to become instructional leaders rather than focusing on building management.

Together, as partners, we have been able to create structures and processes to enhance professional learning communities (PLCs) with a strong focus on establishing a data-driven culture. This encompasses assessments, data analysis, action and culture.

Through formative assessments and data analysis to inform instruction, leaders have responded with a sense of urgency to create systemic change for sustainability efforts. Leadership team members have taken ownership in embracing the district’s vision (to provide a quality education driven by an unrelenting determination to graduate all students, preparing them for success in higher education) and mission (to transform San Antonio ISD into a national model of an urban school district where every child graduates and is educated and prepared to be a contributing member of the community) to align their work at the campus level.

By providing cognitive coaching seminars led by Dr. Michele De Bellis, IDRA has strengthened leadership teams composed of self-reflective, self-directing, self-monitoring, self-managing and self-modifying individuals. The project also has provided job-embedded coaching of leadership teams and aspiring leaders through the principal certification program.

Leaders then connect with teachers and provide professional development to ensure the rigor of curriculum and the levels of language proficiency of English learners are addressed. Leaders have been able to mediate their thinking by using planning, reflection and problem-solving conversation maps in ways that foster positive outcomes impacting instruction and academic achievement.

San Antonio ISD participants in the STAARS Leaders project intentionally work to develop a cohesive workforce with high morale while building trusting relationships with open and transparent conversations. This promotes holding each other accountable so that teachers and students achieve the state academic performance goals.

STAARS Leaders coaches visit the five schools regularly to foster opportunities for principals and leadership teams to share experiences and provide insights to address promising practices using reflective questioning. Additionally, the coaches support the campus leadership teams with analysis of the schools’ state assessment data to align curriculum with assessment and to customize professional development.

Based on the analysis of data, IDRA developed two customized professional development series for Years 2 and 3 of the project to strengthen: (1) inferencing and reasoning, and (2) numeracy and number-sense. The series emphasized teaching through metacognition, focusing on leading students by modeling mental thinking processes as a habit of the mind. Elements are embedded that stress the importance of developing a growth mindset to increase teacher and student efficacy and resiliency. (For information on IDRA’s training on instructional strategies for building inferencing skills, see https://budurl.me/2-IDRAinfer17.)

Consistent with the innovative partnerships (IDRA, McNeil Foundation, UVa and San Antonio ISD) designed to increase capacity, partners have focused on strengthening curriculum and instructional leadership at each of the campuses. The partnership supports principals’ efforts in analyzing their campus data to identify root causes for student underperformance. They develop action steps to remove barriers that impede teacher and student success. They also share common goals that include working to turn around schools, develop leadership capacity, and capitalize teaching and learning to increase academic achievement of all students. Just two years into the project, the school board officially recognized IDRA and the achievements of the participating principals. One principal in particular had dramatic student progress schoolwide in a single year.

*SIG schools are those that have received school improvement grants from the U.S. Department of Education through state education agencies.


Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2012). Leverage Leadership: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass).

Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2010). Driven by Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass).

Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2016). Get Better Faster: A 90-day Plan for Coaching New Teachers (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass).

Thinking Collaborative. (2017). Cognitive Coaching Seminars, website (Highlands Ranch, Colo.: Thinking Collaborative).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and directs the IDRA STAARS Leaders project. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at nilka.aviles@idra.org. Joanelda De León, Ed.D., is the assistant superintendent for turnaround schools for San Antonio ISD. Jesse Jay McNeil, Ed.D., is President & CEO of the McNeil Foundation.

[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2017 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.]