Paying it Forward: 5 Key Learnings for Leading a Successful School Transformation

When I took over as principal eight years ago, Belmont-Cragin Elementary was not in great shape. A Level 3 school, our students and staff did not believe they could be better, and the surrounding Belmont-Cragin community had no role in the learning environment or stake in its outcomes. Over the course of the last five years, we have transformed learning at Belmont-Cragin: our enrollment has increased 23 percent from where it was a decade ago, our math attainment percentile has more than doubled (with reading attainment close to doing the same) and our teacher retention rate has exceeded state and district levels the past three years. Getting to where we are now has been a complicated, deeply inspiring process, with more challenges and triumphs than any other experience in my time as an educator. Here are five lessons for school leaders spearheading learning transformations in their classrooms.

    1. Empower your teachers to lead the way. The principles of personalized learning apply far beyond the classroom: just like your teachers listen and adapt to their students, bringing them into the driver’s seat, you, as a leader, should actively work to empathize with and encourage your teachers as agents of change. For over a year, Belmont-Cragin teachers were collaborating offsite and talking with community members as we designed our transformation with LEAP. Their brilliance and passion have driven Belmont-Cragin’s turnaround.

    2. Listen to everyone. Talk with the community, talk with parents, talk with your staff, talk with experts and talk, of course, with your students. Understanding and engaging the whole child means understanding and engaging with that child’s world, and no perspective is dispensable.

    3. Take it one day at a time. When you’re shifting into a personalized learning environment, you can’t expect to do everything at once. We’ve been successful, at Belmont-Cragin, because we made shifts gradually and thoroughly. We didn’t move on from any piece of the whole-school redesign blueprint we’d created with LEAP until we were sure we’d executed it as well as we could.
    4. Roadblocks are opportunities to grow. In the early days of our transformation, my team worked incredibly hard to apply for a grant that would have provided a sizeable investment in our transformation. When we found out we hadn’t won the grant, it felt like a significant setback, but looking back now, I see the moment that followed as far more important than any financial support could have been. That was when we decided, as a team, that we would proceed nonetheless. We knew, afterward, that while financial support would have been a nice motivator, we were in this because because it was what we wanted, and what our students deserved.
    5. Learn to love the journey more than the destination. I am certainly proud of what we’ve done at Belmont-Cragin, but I would never—and will never—suggest our work is done. Leading a school transformation is, inevitably, a process of continuous refinement; there will always be more you can improve. That said, don’t let this truth overwhelm you. Lean into it, and let it motivate you to finish each day farther along than you began.

Because the days, after a while, add up. Looking back, I can promise you’ll be astonished at how far you’ve come—and even more astonished at how far your learners have come with you.


Learn about Belmont-Cragin’s transformation from the people creating it:

Tour a Belmont-Cragin classroom designed with the student at the center:

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