Strong leaders create strong schools and strong students.

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A strong principal is the single most important factor in whether a school can attract and keep high-quality teachers, according to research cited by the Education Policy Center.  And those teachers are who we count on for good outcomes for Washington’s more than 1.1 million public school students.

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.

“Principals tend to the learning needs of everyone else in the system, but often neglect their own learning,” says Dr. Scott Seaman, executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals. “They need to be able to shift from wiping tears to mopping the floor to investigating issues generated from social media to parent-teacher meetings to somehow observing classroom instruction … all within 10 minutes. These are skills they learn through trial and error and over time.”

Amidst all the daily tasks, they are supporting and leading their teaching corps, engaging with administrators, building and managing budgets, and driving strategic direction inside their buildings.

“The sheer magnitude of what principals take on is impressive. Supporting these individuals is fundamental to supporting our students,” says Brian Jeffries, policy director of Partnership for Learning, the Washington Roundtable’s education foundation.

That’s why the Chief Education Officer Network was created. A partnership between the AWSP, Washington Roundtable and Challenge Seattle, the CEO Network is a two-year program that provides professional and leadership development for a cohort of high school principals from across Washington state. 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.

Jeffries says, “We know that Washington has rich leadership within the private sector, not to mention individuals who care deeply about and benefit from the state’s public-school system. The principal-executive match program is an opportunity to strengthen personal bonds between our schools and business leaders and give principals access to the leadership experiences and management tool kits of Washington’s senior executives.”

KeyBank’s Pacific Region Executive and Seattle Market President Carol Nelson meets monthly with Lynnwood High School Principal Mike Piper.
KeyBank’s Pacific Region Executive and Seattle Market President Carol Nelson meets monthly with Lynnwood High School Principal Mike Piper.

Lynnwood High School Principal Mike Piper and KeyBank’s Pacific Region Executive & Seattle Market President Carol K. Nelson meet every month. When they were first matched through the CEO Network in January, they spent half a day at Lynnwood High and half a day at the bank, learning about each other’s operations, goals and challenges – which, for Piper, include budget season, staffing reductions, supporting staff morale and rebooting the new school improvement plan.

Piper is in his second year as principal, serving about 1,300 students and 130 staff members at one of the most economically and ethnically diverse high schools in the state. Nelson is responsible for a $3 billion wealth management/private banking business and middle market sales teams with $3 billion in loans across Washington, Oregon and Alaska. They have “way more in common than we might have expected going into it,” says Piper. “The challenges of leadership in the private and public sector are similar.” Together, they find the overlapping areas and address common issues, such as personnel management, budgeting, culture change and crisis management.

To help Piper with his school improvement plan, Nelson introduced him to a framework she uses in her business, outlined in “The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving your Wildly Important Goals” by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling. “Often, leaders know the strategic plan, but struggle to execute it,” says Nelson. “Execution typically fails due to a lack of clarity, commitment and accountability. But most importantly, it fails because we get so caught up in the whirlwind of urgent daily work that we’re distracted from our most vital goals.”

The partnership benefits Piper. “Education is notorious for status quo and being challenged by change. Being able to partner with someone in the business community improves our thinking about how to create change and movement.”

It benefits private sector executives involved in the program, too. Nelson was among the first executives to enroll in the program, not just because she’s a board member of the Washington Roundtable, but because, “Using the language of our framework, improving high school graduation rates is our Wildly Important Goal.  There is no better way to accomplish this than to invest in the leadership of our schools. Working to improve the effectiveness of our high school principals leverages their impact and has a ripple effect throughout the school and district – and improves the quality of the workforce in our community.”

The CEO Network prioritizes supporting principals in schools with historically low levels of students who go on to attain post-high school credentials as well as systemically underserved student populations. Helping build and support school leadership in those schools is an important step toward reaching the Washington Roundtable and Partnership for Learning’s goal that 70 percent of Washington students earn a post-high school credential by age 26.  It is estimated that just 40 percent of Washington students hit that benchmark today.

So far, 40 high school principal/executive pairs are participating in the two-year program. Program leaders said they plan to recruit additional participants for the second year, which launches this fall. The program is funded by Partnership for Learning and offered to participants at no cost.

Seaman says, “If our state truly wants to achieve the lofty benchmarks and dreams we have for each and every student in the system, then we should be bringing more attention to the needs of our building leaders. Our CEO Network is aiming to increase both the sustainability and effectiveness of these amazing human beings.”

Partnership for Learning, the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable, brings together business leaders and education partners to improve our state’s education system, so Washington students are ready to pursue the career pathways of their choice. Learn more at credentialessential.com.