A poor principal can quickly destroy a good school. Even the best teachers will either retreat behind their classroom doors or leave the school entirely. But a great principal can turn a school around. Mediocre teachers all of a sudden become good teachers. Despair turns to hope.
Trowbridge Elementary was in danger of closing. Its student population had dropped to 180 students. The superintendent flirted with merging Trowbridge and Dover Elementary and then backed away. Instead he changed principals.
When Tom Matthews became the Trowbridge principal in fall of 2007, he found a teaching staff that was beaten down. I remember attending meeting after meeting in the school library where Matthews brought together his school community to chart a new direction.
Trowbridge is only blocks away from Lake Michigan so the school community decided to make the Great Lakes and freshwater studies as a focus for the school. It sought out partners like UWM, MSSD and the Coast Guard to enhance its curriculum.
Trowbridge couldn’t afford an art teacher, but Matthews was determined that his students would get art. He brought in artists-in-residence, Danceworks, and recently partnered with the Skylight Opera.
Today Trowbridge has growth from a school of only 180 students in 2007 to 312 students, just under the capacity of its building. More members of the Bay View community are embracing the school for their children.
Milwaukee Public Schools has a lot of good principals like Tom Matthews. Unfortunately, we rarely hear about them from the news media. But MPS could use a lot more of them.
We tend to think the way to get great principals is to discover them. But rarely do people come into the profession as natural leaders. Instead we need to concentrate on developing that leadership. We can take fair principals and make them good, good can be made great.
Yes, we must fire a few. Some school problems are so great that they challenge even the best principals. So many other things must be done to make our schools better. But without great principals, we will not have great schools.