Districts of Distinction finalists: Leadership development

DA honors four K-12 school systems as Districts of Distinction runners-up for programs that develop education leaders.

Here are the finalists in the leadership development category of Districts of Distinction.

Launching Leadership Academies with Play to Trigger Passion and Develop Purpose

Northshore School District (Wash.)


Challenge: Although the expectation is for schools to cultivate and utilize innovative approaches to education, officials realized that leadership development was less than a model of innovation. Monthly Administrative Team Meetings (ATMs) used a standard “sit and get” format. Modeling of innovative leadership learning was absent.

Initiative: The August Advance annual leadership event became the venue for engaging leaders in an innovative twist on leadership development. The district recruited leaders willing to plan and facilitate breakout sessions for their colleagues—incorporating play (with inspiration from the 2021 Tony Wagner book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World). Participants could explore and select Leadership Academies that aligned with a personal passion. Team-building activities ranged from art stations to scavenger hunts to adult games of Hide-and-Seek to 50-yard dashes in T-Rex costumes. Dragon boat training and racing was the culminating event. Play became the intrinsic motivator for leadership engagement and learning.

Impact: Providing options and choice to leaders for ongoing leadership development has positively impacted engagement and motivation. Leaders feel empowered to guide their own learning. Because Leadership Academies embed a “Plan, Do, Study, Act” cycle within and between the sessions, leaders immediately apply their learning in their schools or departments.



Cherokee County School District (Ga.)


Challenge: A downward trend in ELA scores and limitations of current Tier I instruction created an urgency for instructional change. Shifting student demographics further required teacher growth in strong pedagogy. The additional challenge of an intensive implementation of a process of Rigorous Curriculum Design (RCD) required an aggressive professional learning focus on highly effective instructional strategies and talent-managed instructional leader development.

Initiative: The district added an Instructional Lead Strategist (ILS) at every school, providing each with a certification endorsement in Instructional Coaching and monthly training on district initiatives. Strategists facilitate the effective use of professional learning communities. They build teacher capacity in effective instruction through side-by-side, collaborative guidance and reflective practice, as well as enhance development of relationships among teachers and administrators, training and teacher needs in real-time during the school day, and create resources to bolster professional learning. CCSD values the succession of ILS into administrator positions as a talent pathway.

Impact: While ELA assessments K-8 still reflect opportunities for improvement, an upward trend has been realized. About 3 in 10 strategists have moved into administrator positions since 2018, and 144 teachers have or are attending the CCSD Teacher Leader Academy as a means of preparing to become ILS candidates.


Building Team Capacity to Lead Change and Innovation

Elmhurst Community Unit District 205 (Ill.)


Challenge: Administrators were leaving the district for positions elsewhere and there had not been an internal promotion at any level in a decade. The superintendent elected to make building the collective leadership capacity of the First Team (all EC-12 and District level administrators) a top priority.

Initiative: The District took hired administrators to a model that emphasized growth and innovation, ensured pay was competitive with comparative districts, used the majority of available time for collaborative professional learning, and invested in the professional learning of First Team through advanced degrees and professional associations. First Team implemented PLCs and actively cultivated a healthy culture.

Impact: Innovation is flourishing. Eight of the nine administrators hired between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years remain in the district, and 11 administrators have entered superintendent endorsement programs. The district has promoted six people internally.


Transforming Instructional Leadership: A Systems Look

Newhall School District (Calif.)


Challenge: Although it is considered an extremely high-performing district, Newhall was experiencing a glaring achievement gap between various student groups, specifically English learners and students in English Only classrooms. Officials felt a sense of urgency to develop the expertise of principals, teacher leaders and central office leaders around a researched-based instructional framework.

Initiative: Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs) at each site help develop and sustain a learning-focused culture. This includes defining what it means to work as a high performing ILT; assessing and determining strengths of students, teachers and leaders; identifying next steps and plans for improving student, teacher and leader learning; and planning for team improvement and continually building the capacity of teacher, school and district leaders. The Board recently approved a new Equity Policy. Site administrators are evaluated using the 4 Dimensions of Instructional Leadership framework and a new teacher evaluation tool is based on the 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning Rubric aligned to the 5D instructional framework.

Impact: During the 2018-19 school year, four schools received the Innovate Public Schools Awards for high performance of low-income Latino students in math or ELA, and the district was identified as the #1 “Outlier” district in the state of California based on the academic performance of our white and Latino students regardless of socioeconomic status.


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