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Teacher, School and District Leaders Rethink Schools for Social Justice for All Learners

The Greendale Schools’ leadership team is focused on developing leadership capacity and a disposition towards social justice in schools by expanding our knowledge, skills and disposition about how to create and develop more teacher and school leaders in the district.

This winter, I have been reading "Leading for Social Justice – Transforming Schools for all Learners". The concepts in this 2007 book, written by Elise Frattura of UW Milwaukee and Colleen Capper of UW Madison are gaining traction.

Capper and Frattura correlate the powerful educational movements school leaders are dealing with the realities of daily practice. They discuss the accountability movement as reflected in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and contrast it to the necessary leadership skills and dispositions for a true commitment for social justice for youth. They believe that to truly lead for social justice requires transformation of traditional beliefs and practices about schools, to change practices about leadership; transforming teaching and learning. It means refocusing schools on expanding teacher capacity to teach to a widening range of students in a heterogeneous setting; developing leadership capacity of teachers, building, and district executives, and changing decision maker views about how to acquire and redeploy resources.

According to Fratttura and Capper, the key characteristics of those who lead, have a clear focus on social justice for excellence and equity, are based on a platform that children and youth learn best when they are educated in heterogeneous educational settings. Many say they believe this, but the reality is very different. When one understands this basic contradiction or dilemma the leader’s work on this core belief can begin. Without the realization, leaders find themselves in ambiguous practices that doom the work for social justice and the effort to educate every child or youth who enters the schoolhouse. Frattura and Capper advocate that for this work to move forward the leader must have the knowledge, dispositions and skills to ensure that this belief in equity educational settings is carried out, with no exceptions -- none whatsoever.

Teacher leaders, principals and district leaders must also imagine and create schools where all students belong; and students are not segregated from each other to have their learning needs met.
  • We must be able to intuitively feel and see their similarities found across student differences.
  • We must see how students are seen, treated, respected and taught.
  • We must be able to engage in conversations with youth; with the goal of understanding their challenges, hopes and aspirations – using this youth voice to tell their stories to colleagues and guide decisions to move the school or district to one of opportunity and high expectations for all.
  • We must have courage and belief for advocacy for youth and children that struggle in school – to advocate for them as the authors write, perhaps where no one else in their lives do so.
  • We must engage students in authentic activities that have meaning for them and for the community that encourage them to advocate on behalf of social justice and social issues.
  • We must accept no excuses for children or youth failure or lack of achievement. This must be paired with the overall drive and core belief in heterogeneous learning environments -- to keep the momentum going in that direction in every school.
  • We are learners. Many in education claim to be so, but the authors witness and report these teacher, school and district leaders have a relentless drive to understand student differences – so the children and youth can receive the full benefit of the school experience.
We are not defensive about their limitations and challenges. We confront data and tell the real truth -- even when it hurts. As Bob Dylan wrote and sings in the song “Honest With Me:” We don’t spin data and report student learning and other troubling information in a way that the adults in the schools take full responsibility for the youth’s learning and do not blame.

The learning and the work of leadership is never over when one takes on education for all in the community. These leaders are swimming against the current of existing community and school based structures – one that may value the adult voice and needs over the needs of students. They understand that the child is first, the teachers’ second, and school principals, district leaders and the Board of education in descending order. Thus where we find a school where in most cases, adults are unintentionally marginalizing some children, the primary focus becomes how leadership capacity can refocus effort and resources on all youth and children as well as facilitate the growth of the school or district so that accountability and justice come together based on the core beliefs and hard work of teacher, school and district leaders.

We must all lead together for schools that are necessary now -- the most vibrant innovations in education will be happening as a result of expanded teacher leader capacity. In fact, senior leadership in school districts will be judged in part, on how well they expand the leadership skills of those working with them, not for their own leadership. Together, teacher leaders, principals and district leaders will determine and set the responsibility of educational institutions -- so that all youth and children can be engaged in school and maximizing their learning.

About the author: Dr. William Hughes has worked in education for  31 years as a teacher, principal, superintendent of schools. He has served as Superintendent of the Greendale School District in Greendale, Wisconsin for the past 14 years. Greendale is a garden community and one of three greenbelt communities in the United States. It is a suburban district of about 2,600 students located in the Milwaukee metro area; an area known for high achieving schools.  Greendale is known for its high level of student achievement with over 90 percent of graduates attending higher education institutions, ongoing community engagement on multiple levels, along with collaborative relationships with bargaining groups while retaining a focus on children, service, citizenship and learning. He is a former board member of the Milwaukee Area Technical College, a member of the National School Climate Council, board member of the National Center for Learning and Citizenship and adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

You can contact William Hughes at

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