Skip to main content

Arizona Daily Star:

Great Schools Need Great Leaders
Posted on November 09, 2020 • Category: Op-EdBy Sybil Francis, opinion contributor

Arizona Daily Star

Teachers are central to the success of our students and impact student learning and educational outcomes. But what helps teachers be successful?

Great schools need great leaders. School principals are the glue that hold schools together and drives them forward. Critically, they set the vision, strategy and environment in which teachers succeed and in which students thrive. Teachers know this; they cite leadership as a key reason for leaving or staying at a school.

In the era of COVID-19, school principals are under greater stress than ever. They have always had to think strategically for the long term. Now they have to think on their feet, be nimble and immediately react to quickly changing conditions.

Last spring, they had to lead the way to online learning in an instant, while finding ways to ensure families had access to technology. This fall, they’re balancing a continuation of online learning while making decisions about how to safely host students on campus.

Great Schools Need Great Leaders

Arizona has a fragmented system for developing principals. It needs to commit to building a statewide system of school leadership. (Canva)

Academic achievement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. An effective principal shepherds the community he or she serves through crisis, ensuring the overall well-being of students, families and staff. Only when basic needs are met can students focus on their studies.

Mimi Renteria and Rebekah Cabrera understand this and exemplify how strong school leadership makes a difference. Renteria is the principal at San Cayetano Elementary and Cabrera leads Coatimundi Middle School in the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District.

They check in on families through phone calls or home visits, maintain meal services, and make sure families are connected via at-home technology. They use FaceTime to help families with logging in and other technology issues. They set clear expectations there will be no compromising on students’ education, emotional well-being or motivation. Kindergarten and first-grade students get one-on-one time with teachers each week.

Arizona, despite making educational gains, continues to face academic and social inequities. African-American and Hispanic students’ third-grade reading and eighth-grade math scores trail White students’ scores by 25 to 30 points. Native American students fare even worse. Effective school leadership is critical to bridging this chasm, because great school leaders create a culture of excellence that drives academic performance.

Great leaders don’t just magically happen. They are developed. We need to expand training and support so school leaders are prepared to address urgent needs presented by a crisis like the pandemic and the ongoing work of raising student achievement for every Arizona child.

Arizona, however, has a fragmented system for developing principals. Once building leaders earn a master’s degree and their K-12 principal certificate, any additional support and training is up to the district that hires them. Resources and commitment vary widely.

My organization, the Center for the Future of Arizona, is expanding our Beat The Odds School Leadership Academy into Pima County. With Gov. Doug Ducey’s support through state CARES funding, the academy operates in five of the state’s 15 counties. It uses the National Institute for School Leadership curriculum that combines the best leadership development practices from education, business and the military. It equips school leaders with the essential knowledge and skills to lead for excellence and equity.

Other entities offer leadership training as well, but none of us have statewide reach. Programs vary in what they teach. Contrast this to Pennsylvania, where the state requires continuing education for principals and provides uniform training for this purpose. It is consistent. 

Arizona would benefit from this approach. State leaders -- elected, business and nonprofits -- need to recognize and support the importance of school leadership and commit to building of a statewide system of school leadership training. A systematic investment in school principals is important for teachers, for students and for communities.

Investing in school leaders can be highly leveraged; it pays dividends well beyond the benefits of increasing the abilities of just one individual. Great principals help teachers excel, which leads to greater academic student achievement and better outcomes for all.


Sybil Francis is president & CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brings Arizonans together to create a stronger and brighter future for our state.