Principal in the classroom: Can New Orleans school make it work?

When Krystal Hardy took the helm at a struggling charter school, she aimed to follow a new model for a principal – one who has an intense focus on helping teachers improve. Halfway through the school year, she assesses how it's worked.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
New principal Krystal Hardy (in pink jacket) ends a meeting with teachers and staff called 'morning circle' with a pep-rally huddle at Sylvanie Williams College Prep elementary school, on Jan. 16, 2015, in New Orleans. Ms. Hardy spends much of her time in the classroom, mentoring teachers and staff and spending time with the students. She is the face of the new kind of principal. Significant numbers of children here started the year below grade level in reading and math. The goal is to help them catch up and keep making progress.

This story is the second 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 Christian Science 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.

When newly minted principal Krystal Hardy took over Sylvanie Williams College Prep elementary, a charter school in New Orleans, she had a vision. The children’s academic progress had faltered and disciplinary infractions were on the rise. A former classroom teacher turned instructional coach, Ms. Hardy was appointed principal so she could work closely with her relatively young, inexperienced teachers. Her vision was to help them be the best they could be.

Hardy, who just entered her 30s, had a strategy for implementing that vision, too. She had assigned daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals for her 35 teachers – 10 of whom are new to the school – written out and color-coded, clear and crisp. Every school day was planned around maximizing opportunities to provide guidance to her staff. She bobbed in and out of classrooms, observing the teachers, giving them oral and written feedback, checking and rechecking their lesson plans, and providing them with targeted professional development.

“I felt like I needed to exhibit leadership,” Hardy says. “I had my hands on everything.”

Improving teaching, Hardy told her staff again and again, would improve learning and raise scores on standardized tests. And the children at Sylvanie Williams, which has 417 students in pre-K through Grade 5, would be sitting through a lot of those – including tests matched to the new Common Core standards in March and May, separate state tests, and two sets of three-times-a-year benchmarking tests.

By Thanksgiving, student performance was improving. “The first results from our benchmark test show that children were on track to learn more,” she says – in fact, much more. Twenty-three percent of second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders were doing math at grade level in September, and by November, that rate had risen to 44 percent. Reading was up dramatically, too.

But all was not well. “Our results were good, but it felt wrong,” she says. “The health and strength of the school is bigger than test scores.”

Hardy’s new brand of leadership was motivating some of her teachers, but her relationship with other members of her staff was strained. Her forceful hands-on approach seemed to be reducing, not expanding, the confidence of some staff members. 

A course correction was in order. Historically, principals have operated behind closed doors: hiring staff, balancing the budget, and making sure the buses ran on time. Under that old model, teachers were isolated in their classroom – rarely evaluated, only loosely supervised, and seldom fired. In the new model, principals set the course for instruction – and spend the bulk of their time in the classroom, continually monitoring their teachers’ actions and helping them improve. It’s a new kind of relationship between principals and their staff.

Each school is a unique and fragile ecosystem, says William Murphy, Hardy’s supervisor. New models of management and training take some getting used to. “Figuring out what works best takes time,” he says.   

Hardy spent the Thanksgiving vacation in deep reflection, and when she returned after the break, she began to interview her staff members to ask what needed to change.

The teachers, while respectful, were frank: Most appreciated her energy, her focus, and her determination. But some felt that their input and experience was dwarfed by the size and vigor of her vision. The feedback from some teachers, says Hardy, was, “How much does my voice matter?” A small group of teachers felt that when they did speak up, “if they were a dissonant voice, they fell out of favor.”

Rather than inspiring her staff, her poise, high levels of organization, and rapid-fire intelligence made some of her teachers feel, at times, inadequate.

Hardy turned to Mr. Murphy, a former principal turned chief of schools for the College Prep’s network of three schools. “There was a whole area of technical stuff [about running a school] that Krystal mastered immediately,” he says. “I never had to worry about that. But there were other questions we had to work on like, ‘How do you manage adults in a way that both connects them to their work and motivates them?’ ” 

Murphy began coaching Hardy to let the teachers have more say in how the school was running. “They needed more of a sense of ownership,” he says.

In January, instead of using her 7:05 a.m. staff meeting for instructional coaching, Hardy handed out questionnaires to her teachers about the kind of instructional support they felt they required. Later, she handed them a calendar of professional development opportunities, and they could opt in, decline, or suggest alternatives. She also started to allow her school leaders to run more meetings and instructional sessions.

Hardy made an effort to show her vulnerability and, at times, the limits of her knowledge. She shared the story of her hardscrabble childhood – her mom worked as a bus driver and gas station clerk to support the family – more readily.

“My upbringing – growing up in the place I did and ending up at Notre Dame – makes it hard for me to make myself vulnerable in front of people who I perceive as more affluent, who are older, or who have had different life experience,” Hardy says. “I’ve been working on that, working on letting down my guard.”

As the school year wore on, Hardy became concerned that teachers were not demanding enough real learning from the students.

At Sylvanie Williams, like many schools that measure their outcomes almost entirely by test scores, the instruction is reverse-engineered. Hardy and the teachers look at specific standards – individual skills that state tests will measure. Then they figure out which lessons to teach so that every classroom minute is spent ensuring that students acquire those skills. For example, a second-grade teacher charged with instructing her kids how to count by tens to 100 will accomplish this by having students recite “10, 20, 30, 40 ...” in a familiar rhythm.

The best teachers, though, add another step: positioning that newly acquired skill – in this case, the ability to count by tens – as a steppingstone to the kind of complicated cognitive processes now required by the Common Core standards.

After listening to students count to 100 by tens in singsong unison, a highly accomplished teacher might ask the class, “Which is more, three sets of 10 cubes or 30 cubes?” And then, “What makes you think that?”

Part of the work ahead, says Hardy, “is figuring out how to ensure that it is our students, not our teachers, who are doing the heavy cognitive lift.”  

For her part, third-grade math and social studies teacher Leah Logan has noticed that Hardy has grown more flexible. When Ms. Logan wanted to step back from the planned lessons, figure out what fundamentals her students were missing, and backfill, she says, “Krystal was OK with that.”   

Although large swaths of children are still performing below grade level – statistics that are not uncommon among low-income children – and the Common Core and state tests are looming, Hardy remains steadfast: She wants her students to attain a 21-point increase in Louisiana’s grading system for schools, which reflects absolute test scores and test scores measured against schools with a similar population. That increase would move the school up from last year’s D to a C.  

Daniel Duplantier, head teacher of the special-education classroom, says his year, in part, has been about learning to have difficult conversations with his supervisors and his colleagues. Overall, he says, it’s helping the school function better and the kids learn more.  

“Hardy’s goals for this school are ambitious,” he says. “But I think we are going to make it.”

 This project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on 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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