San Francisco Principals’ Collaborative

Principals exert enormous influence over the direction and quality of their schools’ early learning programs. Yet not all administrators possess the experience or training needed to integrate the earliest grades into their elementary school’s structure and then promote articulated instruction across each level.

For the past two and a half years, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has been addressing this common need through its monthly Principals’ Collaborative. Organized along the lines of a Professional Learning Community (PLC) for administrators, SFUSD’s Principals’ Collaborative stresses training, information sharing, and mutual problem solving for the district’s on-campus educational leaders.

Integrating Early Learning into the Big Picture

“Our Superintendent made it very clear that early education is a priority for our district,” said Carla Bryant, SFUSD’s Chief of Early Education. “He wants a fully-articulated preschool-through-12th grade educational experience that secures our commitment to poor kids and students of color. We’re determined to work early ed deeply into the system. Our Principals’ Collaborative is a key part of this strategy.”

Until three years ago, SFUSD had maintained an unwieldy decades-old tradition of parallel administration with Pre-K classrooms located at elementary schools operating under the direction of a separate supervisor. Today any elementary school with Pre-K on its grounds falls under the exclusive guidance of the principal – a helpful shift that nevertheless adds another layer of complexity to the job. With the advent of Transitional Kindergarten (TK), the elaboration of administrative training to handle the expanded campus and its attendant responsibilities has become even more urgent.

SFUSD’s monthly Principals’ Collaborative initially took shape as a series of trainings designed to introduce the differences in administering Pre-K. Recognizing that the principal can’t function as the school’s instructional leader without being thoroughly versed in the business side of the job, the session’s organizers focused on funding formulas, attendance tallies, compliance, and a host of subtly diverse procedures for routine events such as reporting injuries or releasing students to adults after school.

“The operational side is the biggest obstacle,” said one participant in the collaborative. “The small numbers of students in Pre-K and TK can make huge demands on an administrator’s time – especially at first when you’re just learning the ropes.”

Choosing the Right Topics

Although some principals initially expressed reluctance to add yet another meeting to their already busy schedules, there soon emerged within SFUSD a core of early adopters eager to expand their knowledge base. For the first few meetings only three or four principals attended. Then word circulated about the sessions’ value and the base steadily grew. Today an average of nine administrators attend every meeting, with the ceiling for participants set at twenty.

“These monthly meetings have been the primary source of my training in preschool education,” said Paul Jacobsen, Principal at Rosa Parks Elementary. “I didn’t have any coursework or background as a preschool director. The initial meetings served as a primer. A year later, we were looking deeply at topics such as dual language learners and Program Quality Enhancement. This year a major focus is on Pre-K through grade 5 alignment.”

Indeed, after handling the basics during its first year, the Principals’ Collaborative intentionally altered its focus. The group shifted from operating as a training workshop, with content delivered by outside experts to district staff, in favor of a true PLC in which the participants decided what they wanted to learn and how they would pursue their interests. The principals assumed leadership for designing the agenda, leading the sessions, identifying speakers and resources. They created forms and documents critical to daily operations and explored how campus resources, such as nursing and mental health, differed in application across the grades. Modest reading assignments complemented each discussion. A spirit of open inquiry pervaded the group, with members feeling increasingly free to air their questions, doubts, and concerns.

Building a Network of Support

“Participants heard about the differences between their schools,” said Bryant. “That helped displace burden of thinking that implementation would go according to a cookie-cutter plan. Reality was always the starting point for our discussions, with the experienced principals serving as our touchstones. We’re still talking about restructuring to make the group even more of a PLC. We want to bring people in who don’t have a preschool on their campus, but are interested in TK.”

Today the collaborative is focusing on the quality of classroom instruction. Participants can tap researchers at UC Berkeley and Stanford University to assist with their implementation of dual-language instruction and pilot math programs in TK and Pre-K. There’s growing interest in the data from children entering elementary grades from TK and private preschools – all used to advance articulation. As principals immerse themselves in the concepts and practices governing high-quality early education, they increasingly support directed play, small group activity, and differentiated instruction – while encouraging each to migrate from Pre-K and TK into their kindergartens.

While the Principals’ Collaborative has proven highly successful, organizers insist that it remains a work-in-progress.

“I wish I could say we’ve figured it all out,” said Bryant. “But there are real difficulties in changing the practice of experienced professionals, some with many decades on the job. You have to know a lot about the people involved and the schools they work in to make this kind of effort work.”

Planning for Success

For districts about to embark on their own collaborative, Bryant advises spending significantly more time, perhaps even months, studying school demographics and charting how long each teacher has spent on the job – as well as analyzing test scores, patterns of professional development, the role played by Chief Business Officers, and the percentage of students who live within their school’s community (as distinct from those who have been bused in).

“I’d talk deeply with each principal,” she said. “I’d ask, ‘What are your expectations, what do you know about Pre-K, how long have you been doing this job within the district, and what are your aspirations for your school?’ Then I’d step away and ask myself: ‘What does this principal need to know in order to succeed?’”

Bryant also urges districts to draft a clear statement of expectations outlining what the participants will be learning and how the PLC will operate. “I’m talking about a living document that we can all respond to – not a formality full of abstractions. I’d clarify what each individual is prepared to do in terms of attendance and work. And I’d point out that we should all leave our phones at home and be ready to join the conversation. I’d want every member to make an informed decision about what they’re signing on for.”

Finally, Bryant acknowledges that the success of a principals’ collaborative depends on district leadership. Not just the superintendent, but also the principals’ direct supervisors – be they assistant superintendents or other staff.

“Participants need to know that leadership has their backs. That’s the only way this kind of work will prosper and we can make systemic change that really helps our kids.”

At SFUSD, the effort clearly seems to be paying off.

“You only gradually come to understand the full dimensions of your role as an administrator,” said Christina Velasco, Principal at Bryant Elementary. “That kind of professional growth needs to be part our work structure, as it’s been with the collaborative. This experience has made me feel more and more like I can do my job well. It’s difficult, sure. But with the right kind of support, we can make it work.”

Story written by Fred Setterberg.