McCracken Middle School in Spartanburg, S.C., went through a major transformation last year. The school, historically a junior high with students in grades 7-9, became a true middle school with all its students in grades 6-8.

Two-thirds of the student body and 60 percent of the teachers were new to the school, recalls Principal Margaret Peach, who was in charge of the shift to a pure middle school in 2011-2012.

“We changed everything we did last year in terms of teaching and planning,” Peach says. “It was sweeping change unlike anything I’ve ever led.”

South Carolina principals attend leadership training at CCL's Greensboro, NC, campus.Normally, in those circumstances, a school’s test scores would be expected to drop. Not at McCracken. Instead, the school, for the first time in its history, was identified as a School of Excellence and students’ test scores rose.

Peach says the success of the school’s changes and the increases in academic performance are due in part to her applying what she learned at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®). Peach attended two sessions at CCL during the last school year, in November and January, as part of South Carolina’s School Leadership Executive Institute (SLEI). Hundreds of K-12 principals and school superintendents have been trained though SLEI since its inception in 2000.

“We’ve really been very, very happy with what we get out of CCL,” says Bruce Moseley, program director for the School Leadership Executive Institute at the state’s Department of Education. The program has garnered rave reviews from principals, and South Carolina continues to put 20-25 principals through it each year.

Moseley and principals who have been through the program cite the deep self-knowledge they gain and how that impacts their ability to work with teachers and staff at their schools and across their school districts. Effective communication, collaboration and leadership skills are vital for the kind of improvements in student performance schools are seeking.

Vicki Underwood, principal of North Myrtle Beach Elementary, went through the SLEI program during 2010-2011. She says the insights she gained about herself made her a more effective leader. Among other things, she got better at having “hard conversations” with the teachers who work for her.

“It’s a very tough thing to have hard conversations,” she says. “Going through the CCL program helped with the dialogue and with handling those hard situations.”

In addition to the leadership training from CCL, SLEI also provides principals with management training and further specialized training focused on education, teaching and curriculum issues. It’s the CCL component that helps principals go back to their schools and apply what they learned in the other parts of SLEI.

Participants learn, “how do you lead yourself, others and then the team,” says Janet Massingill, the CCL faculty member who leads the SLEI effort in Greensboro, NC. Those skills and that self-knowledge translate into concrete results for schools like McCracken.

“Because of the work we did at CCL, not one thing was left unchanged in my building,” Peach says. “I had a belief system in myself, because of what I was learning at CCL, to make it happen.”

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