Diane Cargile, NAESP President
Communicator, Vol. 33, No. 2, October 2009
We have all heard the story of the starfish. It tells of an old man walking along a beach throwing starfish back into the sea when there were thousands lying in the sand. He was performing a task that appeared to be impossible. But each time he threw a starfish into the sea, he made a difference for that one. Principals at the beginning of another school year may sometimes feel like the old man; they make a difference in their community by being a catalyst for change. And while the job may seem impossible, the optimistic nature of principals causes them to stick with it.
This persistence appears to pay off. The noted education research organization, Phi Delta Kappa, discovered in a recent survey that parents voice favorable comments regarding their children’s school. They know, as we do, that in many communities, the school is a central gathering place where families and community members are welcomed.

The start of a new school year reaffirms that our school communities are reflections of our greater communities. Schools serve as hubs of positive activity and constructive engagement for students and families, and they radiate a sense of good will, stability, and common purpose. Schools are integral elements of a thriving community; the greater community is an essential component of successful schools.

Principals are education leaders as well as civic leaders who engage community members in teaching and learning. This element of leadership has taken on such significance in recent years that NAESP included it as one of the six central standards that measure what principals should know and know how to do. (These standards are featured in NAESP’s 2008 book, Leading Learning Communities, available at the Association’s resource center) The “community standard”—to actively engage the community to create shared responsibility for student performance and development—is explored at length in the book, but I’m delighted to summarize a few of its key strategies.

  • Engage parents and the community to build relationships that support student performance, and make sure that all parents—regardless of the language they speak at home, or their income—can be involved in meaningful ways. Be sure to schedule home visits to reach out to parents who might be reluctant to come into the school.
  • Build connections and forge relationships with elected officials, members of service organizations such as Rotary International or the Lions Club, parent groups, business owners, and others to gauge their expectations, seek their support for student and family needs, and reinforce their roles as stakeholders in successful schools. Invite community members into the school for meetings and tours and to celebrate students’ accomplishments.
  • Represent your school at community events and meetings—both formal and informal—and take advantage of opportunities to meet with the news media to discuss school goals and achievements. By being a school’s “public face” and speaking in public forums, principals can effectively market their schools and make the case for greater levels of support.
  • Be an advocate for high-quality education for all children, and cultivate a cadre of parents and other supporters who are willing to speak with, or send an e-mail or write to policymakers and legislators—with a superintendent and school board’s approval, of course.

Remember that Nov. 16 is just around the corner. That is the day when many principals invite a mayor, council member, or civic leader into our schools to be the principal for a day, hoping that the experience will give these community leaders some insight into the challenges and rewards of the profession. That tried-and-true strategy still works, but in these days of escalating expectations, mounting pressures, and broader responsibilities, it’s even more important for principals to get out of their schools and into their neighborhoods.

All of us—principals, parents, members of the greater community—share the responsibility for student learning and development, and we all share the rewards when schools and students succeed. And it gives one more reason to celebrate the “Power of the Principal.”

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