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Leadership: A California School Success Story

We are all interested in improving the quality of education that our children receive both in and outside of school. If there were a “magic pill,” to accomplish this task, I believe it would have been discovered. So far, no such luck.

As I read the education literature, I search for success stories. There are many such stories. But, is there a magic pill, or some ideas that can be easily replicated?

I recently read Theresa Harrington’s article, A Focus on Writing in Every Class Is Key to Success in this Rural California District (Harrington, 1/4/2018). This provides a marvelous example of a school-wide success story.

Four years ago, Jesse Sanchez, principal of Browley High School in Browley, California, observed that many of the seniors were very poor writers. After careful thought, he decided to require that writing along with critical thinking be taught in every class, including Physical Education. The implementation process included staff development for all teachers. There was a strong emphasis on team building and getting “buy in” from the teachers.

Quoting from the article:

Over the past three years, the school, which serves about 1,670 students, has seen its scores soar on these tests aligned to the Common Core standards, which high school juniors take each spring.

English language arts scores rose 30.6 percentage points to 64.6 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards on Smarter Balanced tests from 2014-15 to 2016-17, while math scores increased by nearly 17 percentage points to 29.9 percent achieving those benchmarks.

It’s a significant achievement for the Brawley high school, where 74 percent of students are low-income; 22 percent are learning English; and 10 percent are migrants, who change schools during the year to follow their parents’ work in agriculture or other industries.

This is an inspiring success story and the staff and students well deserve our congratulations. In addition, these people and their story provide an excellent example of a magic pill. That pill is named Leadership. The school’s principal, Jesse Sanchez, showed us what a leader can accomplish. He identified a problem, figured out a possible solution, gained the backing of his teachers and others, and implemented his solution. That’s what leaders do!

I was surprised to see the improvement in math scores. I have two guesses as to why this may have occurred. First, the math teachers and all of the other teachers were working together to improve curriculum and instruction. Each teacher included an emphasis on writing, but each worked within the context of their own courses. This environment empowered the teachers to make change they thought would improve student learning (Moursund, 2017).

My second guess was the emphasis placed on critical thinking. Math is certainly a discipline in which the emphasis is on problem solving and critical thinking. Perhaps the math curriculum began to place less emphasis on memorize and regurgitate, and more emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking.

An Example from Africa

Patrick Awauh was born and raised in Ghana. He went to college at Swarthmore, an outstanding Liberal Arts college located in the United States. After working for Microsoft for several years, he returned to Ghana. There he observed that one of the things lacking in his country was a good liberal arts college designed to produce leaders.

He became involved in starting such a college. He discusses this project in his TED Talk, How to Educate Leaders? Liberal Arts (Awauh, June, 2007). I strongly encourage all of you to view this inspiring talk about leaders and leadership in Africa.

Awauh emphasizes the importance of schools producing ethical, honest, responsible, and dedicated service-oriented graduates. Such graduates, no matter what their chosen occupations, can fill positions in which they identify problems, propose solutions that are good for their company, country, and the world, and implement their ideas.

After describing a particularly devastating problem in an African hospital, Awauh shares his ideas about leadership and the training that leaders need:

You see, the folks at the ministry of health, the hospital administrators, the doctors, the nurses—they are among just five percent of their peers who get an education after secondary school. They are the elite. They are our leaders. Their decisions, their actions matter. And when they fail, a nation literally suffers. So when I speak of leadership, I'm not talking about just political leaders. We've heard a lot about that. I'm talking about the elite. Those who've been trained, whose job it is to be the guardians of their society. The lawyers, the judges, the policemen, the doctors, the engineers, the civil servants—those are the leaders. And we need to train them right.

Final Remarks

Now, returning to Jesse Sanchez, his school, his teachers, and his students. Think of every teacher as a leader. Think of every student as an emerging leader. It is essential that these emerging leaders learn to communicate effectively in writing as an important aspect of each discipline they study. It is essential that they get an education that helps them to develop their leadership capabilities. We need many hundreds of thousands more school administrators and teachers who will be the leaders in making the changes needed to improve our educational system.

What You Can Do

As you criticize our current educational system and propose changes designed to improve it, think broadly. Think about the breadth and depth that is required to constitute a “good” education. Think about how well our graduates are being prepared to be leaders in whatever they do after completing school. Think about individual differences in student interests and natural abilities. Think about preparing students for lifelong change that they will face as adults.

And, think about your own education. Are you a good role model for being an engaged, lifelong learner and a leader? Do you use your knowledge and skill to help solve the problems and accomplish the tasks that will help to improve your company, country, and the world?

 References and Resources

Awauh, P. How to educate leaders? Liberal arts. TED Talks (Video, 17:27.) Retrieved 1/6/2017 from

Harrington, T. (1/4/2018). A focus on writing in every class is key to success in this rural California district. EdSource. Retrieved 1/4/2018 from

Moursund, D. (2017). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 1/6/2018 from

Moursund, D. (5/26/2017). Educational games. IAE Blog. Retrieved 1/5/2018 from

Moursund, D. (3/21/2017). Reading and writing in today’s world. IAE Blog. Retrieved 1/5/2018 from

Moursund, D. (12/23/2016). The fourth R. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the Microsoft Word file from Download the PDF file from Access the book online at

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