Krystal Hardy, new kind of principal: Can she turn around New Orleans school?

Many school districts are looking for a new kind of principal – those with an intense focus on helping teachers improve. Krystal Hardy, one of these new leaders, took the helm this year at a struggling charter school in New Orleans. Here’s what she aims to accomplish.

Peg Tyre
Principal Krystal Hardy waves to students on a school bus at the end of the day at Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary charter school, in New Orleans, Oct. 9, 2014. Ms. Hardy is the new principal at the school, which is located in the Central City section of town. Unlike most "traditional" principals, she spends most of her days in the classroom.

This story is the first in a year-long series following Krystal Hardy, a first-year principal trying to bring order and improve test scores at a struggling New Orleans charter school. The project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that covers inequality and innovation in education and is affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

It’s 9 a.m. and Krystal Hardy, the new principal of Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary, a charter school in the Central City section of New Orleans, strides into a kindergarten class. The students are seated, pencils in hand, some tracing Z’s on a work sheet and others daydreaming while their teacher describes the steps required to form the letter.

Ms. Hardy observes the students, confers quietly with the teacher, and hands her some advice she’s jotted down on a Post-it. “Can you model it for me?” the teacher murmurs to Hardy. Hardy nods and steps in front of the class. She grows more erect, puffing up her slight frame.

“Eyes on the ceiling,” she commands the kindergartners in a bold voice. Energy courses through the room. “Eyes on me!” She uses broad gestures to break down the letter-writing instructions again as the kindergarten teacher looks on. Satisfied that the children are on task and the teacher has what she needs to deliver a more effective lesson, Hardy smiles, bobs her head, and heads off to another classroom.

“We know effective teachers are crucial to moving our students forward,” says Hardy, pausing for a few seconds before she enters a second-grade classroom. “We have good teachers. My challenge is this: How do I, as a school leader, grow their effectiveness and grow it more quickly?”

Five years ago, few principals would have considered it desirable or even appropriate to spend the bulk of their days in classrooms. Traditionally, principals led their schools from the main office and left instruction to their teachers. Even back then, though, their responsibilities were broad: hiring teachers and interpreting directives from the district and state, as well as handling inquiries and complaints from parents, meting out discipline to unruly students, writing grants, leading the fire drills, MC’ing schoolwide assemblies, overseeing the physical plant of the building, and figuring out what to do with the student who misses the bus home.

These days, with the federal Race to the Top program and state legislation loosening teacher tenure, many districts across the country are looking for a new kind of school leader – principals with an intense focus on evaluating teachers, helping them improve, rewarding those deemed “most effective,” and firing ones who are persistently substandard.

“Nationally, the conversation about principals is changing,” says Jason Grissom, assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., who has done research on principals. “In many ways, what we want from principals has grown more complex. We want them to run the school, but also to focus on helping teachers be the very best and to enforce accountability as well. There are high expectations for principals now.”

The new model of principal, experts say, comes with some yet-unanswered questions. Is it reasonable to expect a principal to improve classroom instruction – observing, critiquing, modeling instruction, and evaluating teachers – while running a school and meeting the needs of the district, staff, parents, and community? How do principals constantly push teachers to do better while ensuring the ones with the greatest potential remain? And what about stability at the top? Schools that serve high-need, low-income children already function as a steppingstone for principals on their way to higher-performing schools. How can administrators rethink the job so good principals stay?

In the coming months, those questions will be coming into sharper focus. On Oct. 15, the state supreme court in Louisiana upheld a controversial 2012 law to become the latest state to eliminate tenure in any schools where it remained. While this doesn’t directly affect Hardy, who already works in a school without tenure, the law elevates the role that principals play in improving teacher effectiveness – just what Hardy is trying to do. Now, she and many others are fulfilling the responsibilities of their job, not in the main office where they have traditionally conducted business, but in classrooms, as instructional coaches and teacher evaluators.

As Hardy navigates her first year, her setbacks, triumphs, and frustrations and fears are likely to resonate with hundreds of principals in Louisiana, as well as many others across the country interested in strengthening US education. Her experience offers a window into the day-to-day life of a new kind of principal who reform-minded administrators now believe is key to improving student achievement.

“I’m young. I am leading a diverse staff. I am seeking to build a trusting relationship with each and every one of them by sharing where I’m coming from – the difficulties I’ve had in life – and my goals for our school’s future,” says Hardy. “At the same time, I’m not going to back away from direct and difficult conversation, and when I need something done, I’m not going to accept margin compliance. I have a vision for this school – and I need my staff to share that vision, too.”

Hardy, a bright, confident woman who’s in her late 20s and has a penchant for multitasking, says leadership has come naturally to her. First in her family to go to college, she graduated from Notre Dame. After training for six weeks with the national group Teach for America, she did a two-year teaching stint in a fourth-grade classroom in Baton Rouge, La. In 2009, she became a TFA instructional coach serving eight K-12 schools in central Alabama.

In 2011, she became an assistant principal in another charter school in New Orleans, before arriving as “principal in residence” at Sylvanie Williams this past January. When the school year ended, five teachers were fired, four other staff members left of their own accord, and the sitting principal, who had led the school for five years, departed. Hardy took over.

That’s a fast track to a pivotal job. Traditionally, a principal serves a long apprenticeship, often in the same building – serving for years as a teacher and then becoming a master teacher, then learning specialist, and then assistant principal, before assuming leadership of a school. Under that system, would-be principals become intimately familiar with the school they will lead. They witness the long-term impact of a particular pedagogy and disciplinary practices, they note how relationships with parents and the community deepen or become strained, and they see how a school improves and sometimes falls apart – all before they become responsible for it.

In short order, Hardy hired replacements and staffed up to launch a pre-K. When Sylvanie Williams opened its doors this fall, 10 of the 35 members of the instructional staff – teachers and paraprofessionals – were new to the school, and two were new to teaching.

Hardy hired with some specific criteria in mind. “I wanted people who were open to improving their practice and didn’t see feedback as punitive,” she says. “I brought on people who I felt I could develop a relationship of respect and trust with.”

Hardy’s goals for the academic year are lofty: improve school culture, lower disciplinary infractions, and raise test scores. Nine weeks in, she has no time to waste.

Control of the school, which was named after an African-American educator and suffragist, was turned over to a charter operator after hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans in 2005. Currently, about 400 children attend K-5 classes in a low brick building that’s in a hardscrabble neighborhood (pre-K starts later this academic year). Fifty percent are below grade level in reading and math.

Great teaching, Hardy says, is the lever that will help her students catch up. “The statistics,” she says, “are stark.”

By 1 p.m., as the fourth- and fifth-graders head back into their classrooms from recess, Hardy checks in with her leadership team. Unlike the principals of yesteryear, who daily dealt with a bench full of shamefaced class cutups, Hardy has a dean of culture, Jimmie Brown, to help teachers keep order, refocus distracted or unruly children, counsel others, and meet with concerned parents. Another member of her leadership team, Erin LaBostrie, handles the nonacademic side of the school – buses, facility upkeep, office management, and procurement.

Satisfied that the day is running smoothly, Hardy examines the data charts that she keeps posted outside her unadorned office, tracking the performance of students by teacher. She then shuts the door to meet with one of her two academic deans, a sort of assistant principal, who works solely as an instructional coach. Together, they fill a whiteboard with interconnected professional development opportunities for their teachers over the next eight weeks: a morning meeting and daily classroom coaching sessions, weekly peer meetings, the filming of teachers for an all-faculty critique, monthly performance reviews, visits to higher-performing schools, potlucks, and happy hours.

“We recognize that there is an immense hunger on the part of our staff to learn and grow,” Hardy says. “And I know I can best serve them by being 100 percent focused on getting our teachers where they need to be.”

Her days are long ones: She begins at 6 a.m. and gets home many days after 7 p.m. On weekends, she critiques her teachers’ lesson plans. On Sunday afternoons, she writes a newsletter to her staff – singling out teachers for “glows” and “grows” and setting goals for the coming week. (In establishing and maintaining appropriate school culture, read a recent newsletter, 19 percent of teachers have been off-track, 81 percent of teachers have been on track, and none have been exceeding expectations.)

For Hardy, the weekly newsletter is part of building camaraderie. “I believe that if we are going to move forward, it is not because I am a visionary leader,” she says, “but because we are a team.”

With such a grueling schedule, burnout is a constant threat. In some low-performing urban districts, between 20 and 30 percent of principals leave each year, researchers estimate. Each time a principal leaves, it costs the district an estimated $75,000 and creates confusion and distrust among teachers and parents.

And while a new principal can improve school safety, rarely does he or she improve learning outcomes for children. According to research published last year in the Economics of Education Review, student achievement actually tends to drop for two years after a new principal takes the helm before rising back to the level it was under the former principal.

Ben Kleban, founder of the New Orleans charter network College Preparatory Academies, which operates Sylvanie Williams and two other schools, says his team is working hard to create stable leadership. “We want to make sure the needs of our students are met while at the same time, create a school environment where a person like Krystal could be a principal for 15 years and meet her own life’s goals. But honestly, we’re just not there yet.”

Hardy is hyper-focused on the challenges ahead this year. She’s gotten feedback from state evaluators that her school is more orderly than it was in the past. She’s determined to raise her school’s state-designated school performance letter grade – a volatile and, critics say, capricious measurement of achievement: It had risen from a D to a C under the old principal, but last year it fell back to a D again. She is intent on making sure every bit of instructional time is dedicated to helping children learn the material that will be covered on the statewide tests that will be administered this spring. She already has a good sense of her lowest-performing teachers – and she’s eager to help them improve so they can remain at the school.

In the installments of this series, we’ll look at Hardy’s efforts and whether they result in a stable, enriched school environment for the vulnerable learners who attend the school.

Come what may, Hardy says she’s in it for the long haul. “I believe it is possible to create a high-quality school in a low-income community,” she says. “Proving this will be my life’s work.”

This project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that covers inequality and innovation in education and is affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. © 2014 The Christian Science Monitor and The Hechinger Report.

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