Nikki Raftery, Leadership Coach for the University of Notre Dame’s ACE Principal Academy, first visited a Success Academy school in 2017 and vividly remembers sitting in on a kindergarten math class.
“The kids were on the rug and the teacher was walking through a problem and intentionally stopping at different points, prompting them with questions and things she noticed,” she recalls. Nikki was amazed by the level of rigor and the sophistication of the discourse. “The teacher was incredibly adept at putting the thinking on the kids — there was so much productive struggle.”
Nikki was captivated. At the time, she led an affluent suburban Catholic school and had enrolled in the ACE Principal Academy, a two-year professional development fellowship for Catholic school principals, to further sharpen her leadership skills. Her school was performing well academically, but Nikki felt they could be doing more as educators. “I didn’t think our kids were reaching their potential and it wasn’t teacher capacity. It was a leadership issue — I didn’t know what to do next to support my teachers in bringing students to the next level.”
Back at her school, Nikki immediately began applying some of the lessons she had absorbed from her visit. Key among them was using planning meetings more intentionally for intellectual preparation so teachers could be responsive to children in the moment. “The line I heard at Success was ‘Adult actions determine student outcomes.’ That was already a core belief of mine and Success gave me practical leadership actions for changing adult behavior in ways that raise the bar for kids.”
Now a leadership coach for the program that helped her excel as a principal, Nikki has deepened her partnership with Success Academy via the Robertson Center. She has attended most of the Robertson Center’s professional development workshops to strengthen her practice as a coach, and brings principal fellows to visit Success Academy schools as part of the Principal Academy’s “Best in Country” school immersion experience, designed to broaden fellows’ vision of what is possible at their schools.
“On these trips, we remind our principals to commit to observing as learners not critics,” Nikki explains. “It’s easy to get stuck on what’s different in schools — resources, demographics, teacher experience — and use that as an excuse. We want our principals to identify something that’s wildly effective, understand why the leader is doing it, and then figure out how to adapt it for their school.”
The Principal Academy’s most recent immersion trip to Success Academy was in February, for a day of learning at SA Harlem West. The focus of the trip was shifting from a “culture of teaching” to a “culture of learning.” “Educators think of themselves as responsible for teaching,” explains Nikki. “We want them to think of themselves as being responsible for learning. Their goal should be mastery, not coverage.”
Nikki recalls a classroom where the group witnessed an exchange they felt exemplified this culture of learning. The class was analyzing the relevance of the phrase “light as air.” One student gave an answer that was nearly right. “The teacher said, ‘There’s a difference between what you’re saying and what the question asked,’ and he pushed the student to try again with greater accuracy and specificity.”
The fellows were struck by the consistency with which the teacher pressed the students to go for more. “He wouldn’t let students get away with one word or incomplete answers. He would say, ‘Yes, but how do you know that? What’s your evidence?’ We saw real ownership for improving the quality of thinking and collective responsibility for developing a full understanding of the poem.”
Nikki and the principal fellows also sat in on a planning meeting and were impressed by Senior Leader Amaury Ramirez’ intimate knowledge of SA Harlem West students as learners. “That level of investment allowed him to give very relevant and specific observations, rooted in what he saw in the kids’ work. From that, he determined the implications for his teachers and the implications for him as a leader.”
The principal fellows lead a wide range of schools — some serve very privileged students, others have a student body predominantly from disadvantaged backgrounds — but, Nikki says, “the expectations for kids are so high at Success Academy that the socioeconomic background and demographics are moot. This is just excellent leadership for all kids.” Like Nikki on her first trip, the fellows’ biggest takeaway was their need to intensify their investment in what happens behind the scenes — intellectual preparation, studying student work, and using planning meetings to determine key instructional moves.
Back at their schools now, Nikki is providing one-on-one coaching for the principal fellows as they begin to incorporate some of what they learned into their leadership practice. “I have a principal in Cleveland whose school is high-performing but she took to heart Success Academy’s mantra that the work is ‘for the kids but about the adults.’ It’s easy to be complacent and assume things are going well, but she realized how much more they could be doing. Now she’s working with her teachers around intellectual preparation so they can keep that cognitive burden on kids.”