How HS principals and business leaders are coming together for WA students

The leadership demands of running a company and running a high school are more similar than one might expect. From personnel management and budgeting to healthy culture and handling crises, CEOs and high school principals share much in common.

This is one theme principals and business leaders have explored through the Chief Education Officer Network, a two-year program that provides professional and leadership development for a cohort of high school principals from across Washington state. A partnership between the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP), Partnership for Learning, Washington Roundtable, and Challenge Seattle, the CEO Network brings principals together for a series of two-day workshops and offers access to online curriculum developed by AWSP. It also individually matches each of the principals with a senior executive from Washington’s private sector for one-on-one discussions and support.

“We all benefit, and we all grow from coaching. And the lessons that have been learned in the business environment in relationship to leadership certainly apply to schools in general,” said Scott Friedman, associate director for AWSP. “That connection is one we are hopeful will reduce churn and create more sustainable leadership in the schools.”

Why is principal leadership so important in schools? A strong principal is the single most important factor in whether a school can attract and keep high-quality teachers, according to research from the Education Policy Center. Those teachers make a big difference in outcomes for Washington’s more than 1.1 million public school students.

While the final meeting of the first cohort was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, participants said a great deal of learning came out of the experience of meeting with their fellow principals and private sector CEOs.

Discussions of topics such as communications strategies, culture building and management, data analysis, equity, and the importance of showing up gave principals ideas to use in their buildings.

“I found the ‘universality’ of leadership to be extremely helpful and validating,” one principal noted in an exit survey. “Don’t be afraid, learning is messy and you will make mistakes no matter how hard you plan,” another principal noted of a lesson learned.

Learning about workforce needs was another valuable lesson. “The opportunity to learn about what’s happening in the workforce now…and being able to share that with my teachers and students and think about what we need to do differently in public schools to prepare students” was critical for Brian Vance, principal at West Seattle High School.

The principal/business leader match portion of the program offered the pairs insights into each other’s daily worlds. Several of the business leaders visited principals’ schools. Victor Anderson, principal at Bellevue High School, was paired with Barbara Hulit, senior vice president at Fortive Corporation and a member of the Washington Roundtable.

“Ms. Hulit is a strong advocate for public education,” Anderson said. “I enjoyed the opportunity to share my work and reflect with her on ways we each work with teams to address goals and challenges.”

If strong leaders create strong schools and strong students, a tenet on which the Association of Washington School Principals is based, it pays to invest in developing strong leaders.

“The heart of a school is the principal,” said Brian Jeffries, policy director for Partnership for Learning. “Our strongest schools have the strongest principals. So there’s a direct connection to preparing students for future jobs, and the strength of their principals.”

The 40 principals who participated in the first cohort of the CEO Network initiative also benefitted from time spent with their peers.

“I really like and appreciate the CEO Network because I get to meet with other high school principals, and that’s a rare occurrence,” said Jill Hudson, principal of Nathan Hale High School in Seattle. “It’s very helpful to our practice to be able to share ideas and do some problem solving and building on each other’s successes and areas for growth.”