A school ultimately will be no stronger than its principal. Results from the Barksdale Reading Institute have demonstrated that although the path to transforming a school’s culture may be daunting, a dynamic leader can change that ethos and the school can experience skyrocketing student performance.
In its 14th year, the Barksdale Reading Institute is applying its experience and educational research to demonstrate what can be accomplished when a strong principal enters an underperforming school.
Based in Oxford, the Barksdale Reading Institute works closely with the UM School of Education and the Mississippi Principal Corps, which the institute funds. Beginning in 2010, the institute has placed five principals, including two Principal Corps graduates, in four chronically underperforming elementary schools: Quitman County Elementary (preK-4) in Quitman County, Crenshaw Elementary (K-5) in North Panola, Williams-Sullivan (preK-8) in Holmes County, and Hazlehurst Middle School (preK-8) in Hazlehurst., reaching 2,300 students annually.
The principals have achieved outstanding results. All four schools have seen dramatic improvements in the percentage of students scoring at or above the 50th percentile of national averages for reading and math. From the beginning of the 2010 school year to the end of the 2012 school year, for example, the percentage of Quitman County students scoring at or above the 50th percentile for math rose from 30 percent to 83 percent. An assessment system comprehensively tracks school performance while also allowing teachers to determine students’ individual weaknesses and strengths.
“We’re seeing a significant effect with the principal project,” said Claiborne Barksdale, who has served as the institute’s chief executive officer since 2000. “In both reading and in math, every school has improved significantly. We’re trying to produce the proof points to tell anyone who will listen (that) this works. It’s not a question of whether you can teach poor children or children of color, it’s how. You have to let your data drive your decisions.”
Barksdale Reading Institute
The program’s results indicate that the most effective principals are those who are innovative and willing to take risks. “They need to be rule-breakers and be willing to take chances,” Barksdale said. “We still encounter a lot of challenges. It is hard. There’s no silver bullet. A culture of failure has persisted in these schools.”
Since its earliest days, the Barksdale Reading Institute’s work has been focused on developing new ways to teach reading, researching how well these methods work, and finding ways to apply its teaching philosophy as broadly as possible. Initially, the organization provided schools with individual reading experts who traveled among several different schools each week, and the next step was to begin placing those experts as teachers. The strategy allowed the institute to document the success of its reading model, but it also consumed too many resources to be scalable.
Program administrators determined that a broader approach could best benefit underperforming schools; by bringing in new principals, the institute could improve schools from the top down. A three-year Memorandum of Understanding with the school districts granted the BRI-placed principals autonomy over personnel, discipline, curriculum, professional development and other critical areas. Barksdale will retire from his role as CEO in 2014, and Michael Cormack, a Teach for America graduate, will assume the role of leading the Barksdale Reading Institute’s mission.
“If we’re really going to change reading, we’ve got to change the school,” Barksdale said. “In order to change the school, we’ve got to change the culture and the vitality of the school, and invariably that comes down to having the strongest possible principal running the school.”