Respectfully, to Superintendent Kim, Assistant Superintendent Fernandes, Dr. Falcone, and the members of the Stamford Board of Education –
We, the faculty of Westhill High School, are aware that the search for a principal for our school has begun. However, since Westhill staff will not be part of the vetting of initial applicants or determining which applicants will be granted interviews, and since only a small number of us will be included on the interview committees, we are opting to make our united voices heard here, to be considered as this most vital first step – the selection of interviewees – takes place. Specifically, we write to you to share – with all our combined years of experience and expertise – what we see as the issues and challenges facing our school, and arising from those, the qualities and characteristics that our principal will need to possess.
The issues we see and foresee, distilled to 5 central issues, are as follows:
1) Changing Population: The demographics of our students have radically altered in the past five years, and we still have a lot of work to do as a school to address the needs of our changing population. This school year alone we have seen a significant influx of students registering – coming from outside the U.S. – who do not possess the requisite schooling or skills to be successful in a high school environment. The district ELL training was helpful, our New Arrivals program is helpful, but “it’s not enough.” We have been forced to place some of these students into classes they are not ready for, because we have “nowhere else to place them.”
2) Class Compositions: Student success as a whole on district midterms and finals (amongst other indicators) would seem to highlight that we are currently missing any sort of true grouping. Grouping is not the same as tracking, in that the latter locks students to a path, and the former allows them to experience rigor while also having their academic needs met with proper placement. You will often hear the classroom teacher say that a “true AP” or “true Honors” or “true College Prep” class has somewhat ceased to exist, as the academic ability levels in any given class have become so vast and mixed that real differentiation has become almost impossible, and “teaching to the middle” is the rule and not the exception.
3) Discipline: In all environments, but especially high schools, rules and order are important. Without them, the work of the classroom cannot be accomplished. Given that Westhill is such a large school, it is easy for every issue that comes up to be handled by a different adult in a different manner. We need to have – and enforce – a strong, central Code of Conduct for our students, with the same expectations for all regardless of background or academic level, and the same consequences. And this Code needs to be thoroughly explained to families, so no expectations or consequences ever come as a “surprise.”
4) School Climate: In just the past decade, our staff morale has been impacted in a variety of ways. From “teach to the test” with CAPT to “there is no way to teach to this test” with SBAC, to a series of new district initiatives hastily put into place and just as hastily dropped, to 16 assistant principals entering and exiting our school. All of those changes put a strain on our staff as a whole. Whoever is tasked with becoming our next instructional leader would need to immediately address this morale issue, and the best way to do that would be to come up with a clear vision, mission, and set of expectations for our staff and school. Of course, we would hope that this is with the understanding that teacher input would be necessary and vital in creating and implementing the steps to a more positive school environment.
5) School Culture: We have raised concerns about the division between student populations, along lines of race and culture, but also those students who are more involved in sports and clubs and those that must head directly to their jobs and familial obligations afterschool. We need to do a better job engaging our students and their families, and showing them that the school is a resource and haven, not merely a place to “put in time” every day. We need to communicate better and more frequently, and invite the home into the school to create a bridge between the two. And arising from these 5 issues, the Qualities and Characteristics any applicant will need to possess are as follows:
1) Spanish-speaker and Culture Champion: Our largest student population is Hispanic/Latino, and current census projections tell us that will remain true. Ideally, any serious candidate would speak a second language, preferably Spanish (and would prioritize second language skills in crafting their leadership team, to address any and all of our ELLs). This would allow greater access for many of our students and families to air their concerns and issues, and have real contact with the school. Along those same lines, a candidate should possess an understanding of the cultures that make up our school, and the place of education in them. They should also lead us, as a school, to celebrate our diversity (while engaging our families and communities in that celebration).
2) Experience in supporting differentiation, and implementing rigor, with a diverse student population: A candidate should have experience brainstorming solutions that allow students to challenge themselves in the classroom, but also be supported when and where they need it. This would require that they understand what differentiation is, and have experience creating schedules that support students as well as staff (to deliver instruction to a true heterogeneous mix).
3) Empathetic and energetic: The candidate should be experienced in holding staff and students accountable to clear standards in a fair and equitable manner. They should be able to communicate those expectations simply and frequently to staff, students, and families. They should also possess the ability to look beyond the classroom, and recognize that teaching and learning occurs everywhere in the school – on the athletic fields, in the cafeteria, on the stage, etc. As instructional leader, they should strive to be a constant presence in all those places, serving as both a support system, and disciplinarian, as needed
4) Familiarity with urban and minority secondary education: Though not a quality or characteristic, interview candidates should come from a demographically similar school – large, urban, and diverse. Further, they should have secondary teaching experience, and secondary leadership experience.
5) Transparent, approachable, and open to new ideas: Our school is too big for any one person to lead alone. We need someone who has experience delegating, and not only to a leadership team. There are many among us who are seeking chances to be “teacher leaders” and make a difference that impacts more than our own office or classroom. A record of making thoughtful and transparent decisions is necessary. As is the ability to stick to those decisions, despite pressure from families or community, once thoughtfully and transparently made. It is our firm belief that Westhill teachers are the largest stakeholder group that directly impacts student learning. We know that with a change in leadership there will inevitably be changes made as far as the mission and vision of our school are concerned; we also recognize that thoughtful changes are necessary if Westhill is to move forward as one of Stamford’s most progressive and educationally inspiring schools. We hope that our thoughts and ideas will be given serious consideration and we look forward to working with all of you as the process to determine our new principal continues.
Westhill and Proud,
The Faculty of Westhill High School