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Middle School 223 in South Bronx: No Corner Office
by Leslie Wilson
Ramon Gonzalez has been principal and CEO of Middle School 223 (MS 223) in South Bronx since 2003. His is one of former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s first ‘reformed’ schools. It is not a charter school – but a real, regular ‘public’ school. The only requirement to get in to MS 223 is to walk through the door. Klein’s strategy was to use ‘disruptive means’ to design and transform city schools. His efforts focused on schools being consumer-driven instead of provider-driven.
Part of the strategy Klein implemented was to give these individual schools complete control over their budgets, hiring/firing, resources, programs and curriculum. Accountability measures set the expectation that those schools must show results-receive high ratings from the city-or risk closure.
It’s early to assess the efficacy of Klein’s efforts. But the story at MS 223 brings to light a lot of what we know from years of education research and best practices AND effects of top quality and the right leadership. The notion is to choose a principal with excellent skills and make him/her the CEO of the school enterprise. Principals go through a training academy and are chosen through that process. Looking at Gonzalez’s practice and passion, it is clear that the leader must demonstrate unbridled commitment, energy and focus on students’ progress – utilizing any and all resources available within and throughout the surrounding community and its services.
When Gonzalez first took over MS 223, 13% of the students were at grade level in math and 10% in English. In 2009, seven years under Gonzalez’s leadership, 60% of students were at grade level or above in math and 30% in English-making MS 223 one of the top performing middle schools in South Bronx. It is the 10th best performing middle school in the entire city!
Gonzalez’s strategies are many. He greets students each morning as they come into the school. He expects teachers to be in close proximity to students in the halls and throughout the school to avert behavioral issues. He visits classrooms three times a week and provides a lot of support to novice teachers. He wants teachers to ‘stay’ at his school and to feel and act on the passion he exhibits. He’s not a fan of ‘pilot’ programs or people who come into the school for ‘volunteerism’ or to help out for a while.
He sets high expectations and provides personal and professional support to staff. He engages community services to provide vision and health care opportunities for students in need. He has changed the culture by demanding students to dress in uniforms. He has found creative ways to extend the school day given the constraints of the teaching contract. Students are mandated to participate in core area tutoring before being able to participate in extra-curricular activities. All of these attempts, Gonzalez calls ‘touches’-a chance for the adults in their world to personally intersect with individual learners to make a difference in their lives.
This is yet another example of how significant an impact leadership makes in schools. It is my experience that most education leadership research and writings fall short in capturing the essence of skill development, internal locus of control and ability required of leaders for school reform. Adam Bryant, a NY Times columnist, published a book, ‘The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed’. The book is a compilation of acumen extracted from more than 70 CEOs. The distillation shows that there are essential qualities that the CEOs not only shared – but sought in their hires. It is also the same take Gonzalez displays in his behaviors and expectations at MS 223. I think this is an essential read for educational leaders and policy-makers.
Bryant’s five qualities are passionate curiosity, battle-hardened confidence, team smarts, a simple mind and fearlessness. Gonzalez could be a poster-child for the book. His 7 years of leadership qualities can be found here.
Passionate curiosity: an unbridled need to learn, to grow, to find opportunities, ask questions; they wonder why things work they way they do, they are relentless questioners who learn from everyone around them. This is about studying human nature, what makes people tick, teams work together, etc. The curiosity expands across and beyond the discipline and seeks intersections that can inform work models – there is a sense of fascination with what is discovered. It is a visible energy.
Battle-hardened confidence: the ability to handle adversity – most often shown through past behaviors – only when one experiences real potential failure can this confidence be seen; being able to take a tough situation and run with it; they approach adversity with a strength and desire to take it on with expertise; they own the issues and challenge and can persevere.
Team smarts: not so much being able to function as part of a team – but really understanding what ‘team work’ means and how to get the most out of a working group; a reliability factor – knowing the person will be there no matter what; always being ‘in the game’ – having a sixth sense or a peripheral vision for figuring out how people react to one another; knowing what skills a person or team needs and bringing in all about.
Simple Mind-Set: the ability to be on point-cutting through the extraneous and nailing the message in simple, concise and direct terms- getting to the bottom line and being able to fill in the gaps if required.
Fearlessness: risk-taking – being able to enjoy being uncomfortable – not knowing exactly the next step or map of the road – discomfort becomes a comfort zone; not being happy with the status quo – always looking down the road – scanning the landscape and being willing to make an informed leap for the sake of growth – personal and business-wise-seeing opportunity even when things are not broken.
Imagine an education reform system in the US where those running the shop embrace those 5 qualities. It would be a very good thing. Just ask MS 223 community members and Gonzalez.
Leslie Wilson is CEO of One-to-One Institute (OTO), a national not-for-profit serving schools, districts, states and countries in their implementation of 21st century teaching and learning. She is co-authoring the national research initiative, Project Red (www.projectred.org). Ms. Wilson’s consultancy, Wilson Public Sector Consulting, LLC, serves the education industry. She holds a BS Ed and completed Ed Leadership doctoral work from the University of Michigan, Sp Ed Administration endorsement from Eastern Michigan University and M. Ed in Instructional Technology from Wayne State University. firstname.lastname@example.org