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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Up Front: It's the Principal That Counts

A school leader's "above-and-beyond" philosophy inspires a can-do attitude.
By David Markus
Credit: iStockphoto

What is it about elementary school principals? They seem to possess a certain mythic quality that makes them a little larger than life, inspiring more awe or dread than your average grown-up.

That's the way it was with Mr. Allen, my first principal. He was a tall, broad-chested man, who always wore a gray suit and walked with a slight limp. (The fifth graders said that World War II had left him with four bullet holes in his leg.) A man of few words, Mr. Allen spoke only briefly in assemblies and had an air of benevolent aloofness as he strode the halls and occasionally patrolled the playground. The nervier kids called him Frankenstein, mostly because of his limp.

Our school was located at the foot of a small mountain in West Vancouver, British Columbia. One day during recess, a rather large and seemingly disoriented brown bear rumbled onto the playground. Pandemonium ensued, with half the student body fleeing back to their classrooms, while the rest, including me, stood and gaped.

In minutes, Mr. Allen and a phalanx of teachers arrived. Mr. Allen took up a position between us and the bear, who had begun to paw the ground and swing his head from side to side. As teachers pushed us back to our classrooms, the bear stood up on its hind legs. I was sure he was going to devour Mr. Allen.

Glancing back as I was entering the building, I saw Mr. Allen holding his ground, looking rather diminutive in front of the big bruin. According to reports from kids who peeked out the windows, Mr. Allen stood there until police officers came and shot the bear -- with a silencer. Teachers claimed it was a tranquilizer gun, though reports in the paper the next day suggested otherwise.

Mr. Allen made scant mention of the event other than to praise us in assembly the next day for our relatively cool response. I remained forever impressed by his show of bravery and leadership. And even the kids who'd called him Frankenstein began to call him Davy Crockett instead.

The woman whose image graces the cover of this issue is another brave elementary school principal, though her courage and bravery are of an entirely different order. Against truly daunting odds, she has stood with unshakable determination between her students and one of the most devastating natural, social, and economic disasters in recent U.S. history, the seemingly endless aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her name is Rene Lewis-Carter, principal of the Martin Behrman Charter Academy of Creative Arts & Sciences, in the Algiers section of New Orleans.

Writer Ann Banks caught up with Lewis-Carter last spring, three and a half years after she swung open the doors of the new school. This, just over three months after Katrina had damaged most of the city's schools and when more than half of the Behrman student body was homeless, housed in trailers, or squeezed in with friends or relatives.

Hug by hug, immunization by immunization, and test score by test score, Lewis-Carter and her staff of veteran New Orleans teachers have led their 628 students not only back to normalcy but also to the figurative higher ground of success, confidence, and genuine enthusiasm for the future. Along the way, they have transformed a community and set a startling example for their still-beleaguered city.

Most folks attribute the turnaround to Lewis-Carter's "above-and-beyond" philosophy, which means that school personnel put their students first in all decisions, and they are rewarded for doing so. In Edutopia parlance, the Behrman success has been a quiet triumph of social and emotional learning, integrated studies, and deft teacher management and development, none of which would have been possible without Lewis-Carter's transformative leadership.

To learn more about the Behrman staff and students and about how the New Orleans school district is becoming a hothouse of educational reform, be sure to check out our coverage.

Be sure, too, to spend some time with our Edutopia.org bloggers, including Betty Ray, our new community manager. In the not-too-distant future, she will be opening the doors to an exciting Edutopia social network of educators, where members like you will be able to connect and share information 24 hours a day in groups and discussions. We want to hear from you about which topics would trigger the best discussions. Visit Betty Ray and let her know your thoughts. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more on the brave new future of Edutopia and Edutopia.org.


David Markus
Editorial Director

Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Cherie Goins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a wonderful job you all have done on the article featuring our school and our beloved principal, Mrs. Rene Lewis-Carter. We are proud to have our story told in the pages of Edutopia magazine and on the web for the whole world to see. We have truly come a long way since that trying time in 2005! We attribute this progress to our advocating leader and to our dedicated teachers. After years of working with this dynamic leader, we have all adopted her policy of "whatever it takes" when it comes to meeting any and all of our childrens' needs. After Katrina, this was especially difficult, but we did it! Today, we continue that tradition of honoring the potential in each and every child and to developing their gifts. If every principal could lead and act with this premise in mind, all schools would experience success like Behrman!

Yolanda M. Lloyd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a proud parent of two students that attend Martin Behrman Charter School, and I also would like to express how elated I am with the direction that the school is continuing to go. Each year we improve on different things, and I've even had conversations with parents of students in private schools who notice these improvements at Martin Behrman Charter School. Mrs. Lewis-Carter, keep your vision, determination and the drive that you have that makes our school "Second to None!"

Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The principal is certainly the most important person in the school. Not because the principal can do anything by him/herself. But rather because the principal either encourages excellence within the educators in the building or alternatively discourages experimentation and enthusiasm. My first administrative supervisor told me to "step back" countless times. Principals need to step back and watch as excellence unfolds. But obviously they must start the engine.

Andrew Pass
www.pass-ed.com

Bonnie Nesbitt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Back in the 90s when I was getting my masters in education administration, I was introduced to the concept of transformational leadership as powerfully outlined by Thomas Sergiovanni. In 2005 he wrote a new book, "Strenghening the Heartbeat: Leading and Learning Together in Schools" which beautifully outlines how to find and build such leadership. Sadly, too many principals are judged effective by state and national mandated test scores not powerful, collaberative leadership.

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