For the past 10 years as a Director of District and School Leadership with PBLWorks, I’ve walked alongside many incredible leaders who make magic happen in their schools and districts across the country. While unique in their approaches, these leaders have one thing in common: a deep desire for all their students to engage in learning that is authentic, cognitively demanding, and validating of who they are and aspire to be. Desire becomes reality when these dedicated, hard-working teachers and school leaders intentionally create the conditions necessary to plan and facilitate high-quality Project Based Learning experiences.
Every time I’m in the field working with leaders, I witness the impact of highly effective leadership. In fact, various bodies of research highlight it as the second most important factor that positively impacts students’ academic outcomes. These highly effective leaders inspire me with how they embody their commitment—to their students, staff, and community. I leave energized by the examples of PBL coming to life. I’m moved and inspired by the efforts (both in the foreground and the background) to ensure every student has access to Gold Standard PBL.
Instead of admiring these folks quietly, I’d like to honor their work, pay forward their words of wisdom, and amplify their role in turning aspiration into reality in their schools.
Westmoreland County Public Schools: Stories of Success
Leslie Steele, Principal of Cople Elementary
Since the start of our district partnership in 2018, Principal Leslie Steele has been deeply engaged in bringing PBL to life. She explains, “It is my role to ensure that we implement division initiatives. But to do that, I am my building’s resident tone-setter, motivator, and coach, creating an environment of safety that encourages a ‘fail forward’ mentality for both my staff and students. New things only work sometimes, and that’s ok. But if it’s what’s best for kids, we must try, learn from our mistakes, and keep going.”
It’s easy to talk the talk, but it’s walking your talk that makes the difference, and Ms. Steele takes that to heart, taking action so students have the most positive learning environment possible. She shares, “Many of my key actions stem from my desire for all students to grow socially, academically, and emotionally. I am a student-first leader and my teachers always know I have their backs, and we are in this together.”
She is also diligent in her recruiting and hiring practices. She says, “I will not have anyone working at my school that I would not trust with my own grandchildren. Every child deserves the best, and when you make it personal, you ensure that your school and staff are the best!”
Her advice to aspiring leaders? To stay humble, be intentional, and lead with a servant’s heart. Be honest, even when it’s hard. Be reflective. Protect the time it takes to really think about your role, your actions, and whether or not you’re showing up how you want to show up. Challenge and celebrate yourself and your staff, even the small stuff, and when it’s hard, extend grace.
She emphasizes building a strong culture, living out one of Cople Elementary School’s mantras: We’re Doing it for the CULTURE:
Cople Teachers & Staff
Understand that a
Love of Learning
Takes Place when
Unconditional Relationships &
Rigorous, Relevant Learning
More than a mantra, it’s a palpable feeling throughout the school. In this culture, students trust that they are seen and loved.
Dr. Michael Perry, Superintendent of Westmoreland County Public Schools
A district leader’s role is to create the ecosystem where school leaders can nurture the necessary conditions for all students to access high-quality learning experiences. We’re fortunate to partner with committed superintendents like Dr. Michael Perry and Cathy Rice who passionately and steadfastly pave the way for PBL to happen in their districts. Dr. Perry says, “This is no passing fancy. We are deeply committed to PBL. We believe that this is the best way for our students to learn. It’s the kind of learning that our students deserve.” Ms. Rice adds, “We’ve worked hard to help our teachers see that PBL is not an event or something to check off the list, but rather a pedagogy, a way of thinking about the learning experiences they’re designing for their students and the moves they make in the classroom to ensure that the learning is facilitated with a student-first mentality. Some of my most important work has been in helping to shift that mindset.”
Not only are they committed to PBL, but also responsible and accountable to the board for its results based on their shared expectations. Perry says, “PBL, for our board, is a story of addiction (the good kind). They’ve been involved since the beginning, engaged in their own professional learning around what PBL is, and pushed our thinking about how to do it well here and now. Every time I meet with them, that’s one of their first questions to me—’How’s it going with PBL?’”
And it seems like it’s going well! Westmoreland County now has a new high school designed for PBL. Perry says, ” [It is] a point of immense pride for our small community. Seeing that vision come to life after five years of planning has been a highlight of my tenure here. And while that building was still just a dream, we knew we needed to ensure that our teachers were ready to take on the challenge of teaching in a space with so much to offer, one that had been designed for PBL. It’s all come together now and it’s really something beautiful.”
Dr. Perry and Ms. Rice, like many of our other district leaders across the country, set, speak to, and stand in front of a vision of success for all children. They evaluate every decision and initiative against how well it will serve this vision. They attend professional learning alongside their leaders, commit to understanding their journeys, and ensure that their support of leaders is coherent and aligned.
Rockbridge County Public Schools: Words of Wisdom
From left: Dr. Phillip Thompson, Superintendent RCPS: Tim Martino, Asst. Superindtendent, RCPS
Dr. Phillip Thompson, superintendent of Rockbridge County Public Schools, says his role is to clearly set and continuously reinforce a vision to the school board and community. He shares, "Language matters and consistency is key. Our staff and community need to be able to connect the dots between what we say and what we do to fully trust that this is the direction we're headed, so they can put their efforts toward supporting PBL from the seat in which they sit. That coherence is what will ensure sustainability and make this work stick long beyond me.”
Tim Martino, Rockbridge’s asst. superintendent sees his role as ensuring that teachers have the knowledge, skills, expertise, and support to deliver on their promises to their students. He shares, “High-quality instruction is key. We make sure that our internal PD, which we’ve worked hard to create over the past few years, leverages our internal expertise and deepens PBL practice across our division. It helps us celebrate and continuously deepen work simultaneously. And who doesn’t love working smarter, not harder?”
University Prep Schools: Amplifying Aspiration
DJ Cherif, Chief Academic Officer for University Prep Schools
DJ Cherif, Chief Academic Officer for University Prep Schools says, “We work tirelessly to create the necessary environment for our scholars to develop the competence and confidence that will propel them to success in whatever their post-secondary aspirations are. Their brilliance is already there. We have to create learning experiences that allow for that brilliance to be tapped and exercised, that are worthy of their time and attention. Well-designed projects facilitated by educators who know and care about their students are the vehicle for that greatness.”
I could go on and on with stories of our partners’ work in the field—the anecdotes abound. So to the principals, asst. principals, superintendents, and anyone else in formal (or informal) leadership who work day in and day out to pave the way for our kids to have the learning environments and experiences they deserve: I thank you.
Have other words of wisdom, stories of PBL in action, or anecdotes about effective school and district leadership? Send them our way to [email protected]!