An Administrator’s Vision For Putting Kids First

By Wendy Zacuto

As a new school administrator, I often struggled with tough decisions until I discussed the difficulty with my sister-in-law. A professor of early childhood education and school director, she shared with me her rules for decision-making:  Put children first, teachers second and parents third. Parents might quibble with that order, but I chose to focus my leadership on the first priority: kids. While it did not always make me popular, I never regretted making a child-first decision.

As a parent and grandmother looking at the upcoming school board election, I see that Nick Melvoin agrees with me: Children must come first. For that reason, I will vote for him on May 16. Decisions made by the Los Angeles Board of Education have left the schools in my local district in complete disarray, with special interest politics driving the decision-making process. I believe Nick has what it takes to create new solutions to age-old problems. 

What does it mean to put children first? How does a school leader accomplish the task of putting kids first?  In my 40 years working in the field of education, I developed a clear set of child-first practices and principles:

1.     When examining our actions, begin by asking this: “How does this practice directly support children?” Don’t accept habits as proven practices. Examine everything.

2.     Education is not scalable. Individual kids are less likely to benefit from decisions made at the district level by people far removed from the classroom. One size does not fit all.

3.     Avoid top-down, hardline policies when possible. Even behavior policies must have flexibility. Newer approaches such as Collaborative Problem Solving and Restorative Justice require that behavior supports take a holistic approach to how best to serve child behavior.

4.     Don’t play to the middle. As a district teacher I was told to basically ignore the needs of the highest- and lowest-performing kids. Most of my students would not have benefited from this directive, although it may have served to boost district test scores.

5.     Always look for the child’s perspective. Do not be afraid to ask tough questions of parents and teachers, but provide support to help them best serve children. Build a team around the child.

6.     Do not make budget cuts to programs or people that directly support children, such as special education and teacher support staff. The more money allocated to supporting children with special needs, the more all students benefit. Look for ways to cut expenses that do not reduce student services, or find ways to fundraise.

7.     One of the best ways to support the needs of children is found by asking teachers: What do you need to do your best job?  Try your best to fulfill those needs.

8.     Set high standards for teachers. Expect everyone to work hard for students.

9.     Give equal importance to academic success, classroom safety and compassionate classroom communities.  Test scores may or may not directly rise because students are happy, but caring adults and peers always enhance student lives.

10. Continuously provide leadership and education to adults in the community.

11. Understand that parental approval and teacher desire may not reflect what is best for kids. Be willing to be at odds.

12. Do whatever it takes to involve all parents in important ways. The more involved parents are in positive ways, the more they learn about supporting their children. Also, parents have great ideas and talents that benefit the school.

13. As a school leader, keep learning. Create cadres of peers with whom to self-reflect. Continuously check with constituents.

14. Class size matters. It may not point directly to higher test scores, but it definitely affects the quality of daily life for kids.

15. School size matters. Smaller schools allow for more reflective oversight and precision in implementing effective policies.

16. Put decisions in the hands of parents, teachers and school site administrators.  Decisions match needs. People learn from seeing the results of their decisions. Local autonomy works.

17. Be clear which things in your job description are expendable. Take those tasks off your plate so you have time to focus on kids. Kids are what matter.

-- Wendy Zacuto has worked as a teacher and administrator at district neighborhood schools, charters, magnets, dual language immersion, independent and religious schools in Los Angeles.

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