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Does Leadership Matter? It Does When I’m Selecting a High School for My Son In NYC


It’s high stress time in NYC. The exams for the specialized high schools occurred on Saturday morning and rotational visits to schools are in full force. Getting your child into the right high school in NYC is running the gauntlet of evaluations, ambiguous criteria, and often unspecified standards. However, my friends at college admission offices tell me that my son’s performance matters more than finding the perfect high school.

That said, fearing a high school’s reputation can be used as a short-cut (heuristic device) to assess college applicants, I won’t stop worrying about finding the perfect high school for my son anytime soon. Cultural stereotypes about the ‘academic father’ set aside, I think most of you can be empathetic with my search for the one ingredient that differentiates one high school school from another.

Over the past few months I’ve been examining high schools based on their average class size, general curriculum, the number of teachers who hold advanced degrees, and the number of computers in the computer lab, etc. I kept looking for what makes us social scientists most comfortable: tangible output measures.

This morning while waiting in the auditorium in one of the local high schools (having traumatic flashbacks of my assembly days held in Jamaica High School in the mid-60s) I found the conversations going back to the new principal who had taken over the school we were visiting.

This particular school, previously a grand success, lost their best principal to retirement a few years ago and her replacement brought the school to new lows and was eventually replaced yet again. We were glad to hear the new principal was making head-way and producing great results. The school had the same average class size, the same curriculum, and the same number of computers, but its success was a function of solid leadership.

Even in my son’s current middle school panic set in when parents found out that the principal decided to take a year off to be with her family. There was a feeling that without her at the helm, the school would revert to chaos.

The moment you think leadership in an organization is an abstract notion, more hubris than content, think again about the great high school principals you have known. Sure, they may not be perfect, but they walk the halls, they hold people accountable, they make hard decisions, they are proactive, and indeed, they get things done.

Principals may not be charismatic, but I’m not looking for inspiration or vision. I’m just looking for a grounded education for my son.

Picture Source: Forgotten NY



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