Case Studies in Great School Leadership: Brockton High School

By Jon Saphier - August 24, 2015

Sue Szachowicz was a great school leader. When Brockton High School went from awful student test scores and graduation rates to national awards and a front-page story in the New York Times, analysts provided all kinds of explanations. This is a school, after all, of over 4,300 students that didn’t break itself up according to the “small high school movement.” It is composed of 77% students of color and 81% on Free and Reduced Lunch. The city of Brockton is as urban as you can find with all the problems of poverty and crime urban America has. So how come great results?

Analysts said: “They focused so intently on data.” “They adopted a laser-like focus faculty-wide on literacy skills, no matter what academic discipline you taught.” “They practiced distributed leadership with intense teacher participation.” “They did professional development from within.”

These statements are true; but they are not the core reason. Other turnaround stories have quite different lists. The core reason was due to a particular kind of leadership. Sue exhibited vulnerability and strength at the same time; she elevated others who had the same combination of characteristics; and together they mobilized meaningful collective action across the school.

They started small. At a faculty meeting of 300 staff members twelve years ago when the faculty was first presented with systematic data about how poorly their students were doing, a teacher said: “But what about the students’ right to fail?” Sue, who was the associate principal and not presenting at time, rose and took the mike. “You know, I just have to respond to that. NO THEY DON’T. They have no such right. I was a social studies teacher and I never saw that in any constitution I know of. They do not have a right to fail!”

In subsequent days, she single-handedly embarked on a campaign to focus on one very accessible and public aspect of low-performance – students tuning out with their heads down in class. “We weren’t very sophisticated at the time” she says, but it was the start of everything. When you listen to her tell the story, look for evidence of “vulnerable and strong at the same time.” (Read the Brockton High Turnaround Story)

Anyone reading more detailed accounts of the Phoenix-like rise of the Brockton High School and hearing about the literacy initiative and the “Restructuring Team” of eventually 25 teachers who met on Saturdays and made decisions for the whole school every year should look between the lines for leadership moves that came from being “vulnerable and strong at the same time.” (Read More about Brockton High in the Harvard Exemplary High Schools Report)

In future pieces, I will highlight other leaders who share these characteristics. Some are extroverted, energetic, and funny; some are quiet and introverted. Some are older; some are younger. The ability for a leader to be vulnerable and strong at the same time is independent of gender, race, age, or personality. However, I would argue it is fundamental to what our schools need to improve and be the best that they can be. It is something that any school leader can learn.