Empowering School Leaders: The Role of Leadership Academy in Accelerating Student Achievement

The Leadership Academy is designed for school leaders at all levels: principal, assistant principal, dean, instructional coach—essentially any educator who wants to grow their leadership capabilities to maximize their impact in accelerating student achievement.

The program is grounded in a virtual cohort experience. Professional learning is focused on change management, strategic planning, leading effective adult teams, managing data-driven decision making, and strengthening school culture. Leaders grapple with content in small groups, as well as assess and reflect on the current state of their school and their own personal leadership skills.

As we move forward this school year, we’re keeping our Leadership Academy educators’ achievements from the 2022-23 school year top of mind to help inform our continued efforts for supporting a diverse pipeline of leaders to meet our nation’s overwhelming demand for educators who share similar identities and life experiences as the students in the school communities they serve.

Their impressive results are evidence of their commitment to building healthy teams, creating focused strategic plans, and using data to guide decision making. To ensure that they’re never forced to go it alone in these efforts, our advisors Erica Eichleay and Keelin Philippe have forged strong relationships with each leader.

Read on to hear some of their incredibly inspiring stories now!

Maria Luna, High School Placement Counselor, Learn 10 North Chicago

As high school placement counselor, increasing the number of students who were on track for high school and college was of utmost importance for Maria last school year.

To that end, she set the goal of increasing the number of students who were on track and used regular analysis of her on-track/off-track data with staff and a targeted intervention program to monitor progress. As a result, Maria and Learn 10 North Chicago’s leadership team were able to elevate the number of on-track students to 25% by the end of the year.

Maria credited her involvement in the Leadership Academy, which helped level up her mindset for mastering effective leadership strategies, as a major catalyst in helping her and her team reach her high school- and college-readiness goals.

“Overall, my confidence in myself [grew],” she said about what she took away from the program. “I felt I had it before, but the more knowledgeable I became on my areas of growth—and [then continuing to work] on them—has helped me improve my confidence.”

Here were Maria’s key focus areas as a member of the Leadership Academy.

  • Grounding her communication in “the why” and impact:
    • Used positive stories and examples to inspire
    • Added specific, positive progress to the weekly staff communication to build investment by naming the impact and adding momentum
    • Implemented intentional tracking of D/F reports to connect to the impact on high school placement and students’ future opportunities
  • Developing and leveraging emotional intelligence to build relationships, trust, and buy-in among staff:
    • Learned about staff personally
    • Scheduled bi-weekly, 10-minute check-ins with teachers to check in, answer questions, and provide support
Brandi McDaniel, Principal, Richard Allen Academy (Dayton, Ohio)

Brandi’s main objective as principal last year was to increase the percentage of students performing at or above grade level on the MAP reading assessments to 60%, from 47%.

The key to accomplishing this important student achievement goal was to leverage strategic planning to set a clear focus for her team and align systems of teacher support, including focused observations, targeted coaching and professional development, and data analysis to support their academic goals. By doing so successfully, Brandi and her team increased the amount of students at or above grade level by 13 percentage points.

When asked about what she took away from her time in the Leadership Academy, Brandi said the opportunity to level up her strategic planning skills was second-to-none.

“This program has had a huge impact on me as a school leader,” she explained. “It has helped me to put things in perspective and organize my thoughts in a way that I can turn them into action steps which lead to the continued progress of my building.”

Here’s what Brandi prioritized during her time in the Leadership Academy.

  • Developing her confidence in decision making and holding the entire team accountable:
    • Made an effort to set clear priorities (80/20) and say “no” to priorities outside of the school’s focus
    • Built a calendar based on strategic planning priorities and reflected on it weekly
    • Increased her comfort with accountability conversations
  • Executing effective coaching and professional development systems to improve teacher skills:
    • Used data to drive cadence for coaching prioritized teachers
    • Offered even more effective professional development by providing clear models and opportunities to practice

Our 2023 Leadership Academy cohort kicked off in September with a six-day Institute. We have leaders from across the country coming together to learn and grow. This group of educators is committed to developing their own leadership growth as a pathway to increasing equity in education for all students. We are so proud of them for challenging themselves with this commitment!

Latricia Baker-Tall

Latricia is entering her ninth year as assistant principal at Wendell E. Green Elementary School in Chicago. She enjoys old-school comedy shows.

Brandi Barrett

Brandi, who has served in a range of leadership roles throughout her career, is entering her second year as assistant principal at Chicago’s Perkins Bass Elementary School. She is a former track and field college athlete—who would have rather played basketball. As someone who also has experience with catering and event planning, she is Perkins Bass’ go-to expert for planning extravagant events.

Kevin Coppage

Kevin is entering his second year as principal of Corliss Early College STEM High School in Chicago. He is passionate about making sure young people have opportunities to achieve all of their aspirations in life. While he has traveled extensively, if he can find a little free time these days, you might find him playing billiards with friends or listening to music.

Matt Cowan

Matt is entering his second year as principal of Believe Memphis Academy. Matt’s wife is also a principal in Memphis. He is a sneaker collector who owns over 90 pairs of Jordans.

Alyssa Dons

Alyssa is principal of Cruz – Acero Schools in Chicago. She has over 25 years of experience and has been in leadership at Cruz for the past six years. Alyssa was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and lived in Colorado as well, before settling in Chicago.

Charlotte Graham

Charlotte is entering her third year as principal of Memphis Scholars Florida-Kansas/Raleigh-Egypt after almost 20 years in various leadership and non-leadership roles across district and charter schools. She completed her master’s degree at University College London after teaching middle school for eight years. Outside of her work as an educator, Charlotte loves to travel.

Janelle Hatch-Miller

Janelle is beginning her second year as principal of Chicago’s LEARN 8 Middle School after serving in a range of leadership roles in charter and district-run schools across Chicago. Janelle, whose real name is Kenyatta, loves to travel, sing, play volleyball, and jump double Dutch.

Christine Henderson

Christine is entering her first year as assistant principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy of Social Justice in Chicago after holding numerous leadership roles, which includes everything from dean to running a nonprofit parenting program. She describes herself as a loud introvert.

Charnette House

Charnette is entering her second year as principal of Chicago’s Higgins Community Academy. She is a wife, mom of three children, and passionate change maker. She has never eaten chocolate before.

Zully Jimenez

Zully is starting her second year as principal of Bartolomé – Acero Schools in Chicago after seven years with Achievement First. She has a chihuahua named Taco.

Verronda Johnson

Verronda is in her third year as principal at Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie. She loves anything that has to do with numbers and almost became an accountant before becoming an educator.

Laura Kissinger

Laura is beginning her second year as assistant principal at Rudyard Kipling Elementary School in Chicago. A San Diego native, she spent her fifth grade year as an extra on the TV show, “The Wonder Years.”

Marlena Little

Marlena is entering her first full year as principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy of Social Justice after serving in a range of leadership roles in schools and nonprofits in Chicago and Memphis. She truly became “Marlena” in 2016.

Arregina (Gina) McCullum

Gina, who was born and raised in Chicago, is in her second year as assistant principal at the city’s Percy L. Julian High School. She loves to read all kinds of books and has a love-hate relationship with the gym.

Randall Moore

Randall serves as the director of culture for Catalyst Maria in Chicago. He is a classically trained musician.

Melinda Reyes

Melinda is Catalyst Maria’s director of special education. She is currently pursuing her PhD in organizational leadership, with an emphasis in special education.

Terri Thomas

Terri is beginning her third year as principal of Chicago’s Medgar Evers Fine & Performing Arts School. She loves sports, especially basketball. She also loves all kinds of music, but says she can’t sing herself.