In September, Dowling Elementary School in Minneapolis was identified as “beating the odds” by the Star Tribune. The paper annually crunches test scores to come up with a list of Twin Cities metro area schools that do better than expected in “math, reading or both, based on their poverty rate — a measure that’s been shown to have a significant impact on student achievement and progress.”
At the helm of Dowling is Lloyd Winfield ’00 EdS, ’11 EdD. While this is his third year as the school’s principal, he has been working in Minneapolis Public Schools for nearly three decades. He acknowledges Dowling has made the Star Tribune list multiple times in the past six years due in part to the school’s environmental focus, low teacher turnover and dedicated parents.
When asked what inspired him to pursue administration roles – including being principal, Winfield said he felt like he had “something to offer, wisdom to share” with students and staff. He called it a “shepherding role” where he is able to help people grow. He credits his 30 years of service in the Army National Guard and Reserve for helping shape his principled leadership style. For most of his military career, Winfield was an aviator, but also spent 12 years as an instructor with the Army’s Command and General Staff College.
“I like bringing people together toward a common goal,” said Winfield, who received the 2019 Division Leadership Award from the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association in January. “I have what I like to think of as a global vision of things, and I noticed that even early on in my career, I had a tendency to look at the big picture and develop an understanding. I bring that perspective to any leadership position that I’m in.”
Being an effective school leader
Dr. Aura Wharton-Beck knows what it takes to be an effective school leader, as well as the challenges of navigating the ever-evolving needs of students and staff. With more than 30 years of involvement in the public school sector, Wharton-Beck has experience as a former school principal in Minneapolis Public Schools – first at Jenny Lind Elementary School and later at Kenwood Community School.
Now as an assistant professor and director of administrative licenses (principal, superintendent and director of special education) at St. Thomas’ School of Education, Wharton-Beck is sharing her knowledge with an emerging group of educational leaders.
“I know the transformative power of getting a good foundation in education,” said Wharton-Beck, who holds both education specialist (EdS) and doctor of education (EdD) degrees from St. Thomas. “I want to help redefine what principalship looks like for the 21st century. We want to graduate school leaders who are easily adaptable to the needs of their stakeholders and who are able to identify the key needs in opportunities and challenges in their specific community.
“How do you identify the needs of your community so you are advancing the common good?” she added. “With the dramatic shift in our country’s demographic landscape, a new generation of school leaders must be able to use the lens of equity and inclusion to effectively communicate, lead, manage and collaborate to move their school forward.”
Along with coursework, she said, key field experiences in a student’s respective area of study are vital when working on a licensure.
“With the different field experiences, we’re training people and giving them the support in order to be competent, confident school leaders,” said Wharton-Beck, who is interested in collaborating with school districts to maximize the potential of creating leaders from within their own systems.
It is crucial for schools to have strong leaders. Leadership is fluid, Wharton-Beck said, and a good leader is able to ride that wave. Those seeking their EdS and EdD degrees come to the programs with a variety of principled leadership experiences they have acquired throughout their learning. They want to take their skills to the next level, and the faculty and staff at the School of Education are there to help make that happen.
“The ideal principal doesn’t wear a superhero cape,” she said. “The best leaders are those who have a spirit of collaboration where they’re able to effectively work with their school communities in order to maximize the potential of all students. The most effective principals are the ones who are ethical leaders and are able to say, ‘This is what I believe in, these are my ethics and I am not going to waver from that.’ As a principal, how do you stand behind your own principles and say, ‘This is what I believe in and this is for the common good?’ Sometimes that is taking an unpopular stance, knowing it is the right thing to do, and that is what we expect our graduates to do. You’re going to fall but the question is, ‘Are you going to be able to get up?’”
As a St. Thomas alumna, Wharton-Beck knew if she was facing a school-related issue such as managing a tight budget, she could turn to her professors at St. Thomas as a resource. She wants people in the program to be able to make informed decisions that better children’s lives and to lean on their Tommie network for support and advice if needed.
“The baton has been passed to me in this role,” she said. “We’re change agents who are in a position to help people to navigate new landscapes and opportunities. We are about closing the opportunity gap for the next generation. It starts with a leader who says, ‘I can.’”
Thoughts on principled leadershipWe talked to three school leaders and St. Thomas alumni: Michael J. Thomas ’95, ’05 EdS, ’18 EdD; Nichole Rens ’02 MA, ’05 EdS, ’17 EdD, and Lloyd Winfield ’00 EdS, ’11 EdD, about leadership, education and their St. Thomas experience.
Michael J. Thomas ’95, ’05 EdS, ’18 EdD
Superintendent at Colorado Springs School District 11; formerly chief of academics, leadership and learning at Minneapolis Public Schools
The role of superintendent: I see my role as being the lead learner in the district. We are a learning organization. We have to be able to model what learning is as learners ourselves. I am a broker to bridge district-level resources, personnel and staff to be in support of our schools and our community. There is a lot of liaison work I do between a variety of employee groups and our community.
I want people to ask questions, push back and challenge decisions I make. That keeps me humble; it keeps me accountable and it keeps me grounded. I cannot expect accountability from others if I don’t expect it from myself. I also see myself as the district’s No. 1 cheerleader and coach. I need to inspire greatness in this organization and that is done by affirming the right people here. That is the best part of my job – I love coaching and being able to recognize greatness in people and to let them know that. As educators, we are often told how bad or challenging things are. So focusing on the strengths we have in the system is always a great thing to do.
The most important part of the job: To ensure our students and families are receiving what they need to be successful. I tell people being a principal was the best job I have ever had in my life. I will never stop being a principal – my school just continues to get bigger. As a superintendent, I continually think like a principal, making sure my focus is on our students. The most important aspect of being a superintendent is being grounded in instruction and what is happening in our classrooms. At least one full day a week, I am in the schools. It keeps me grounded to where the magic is happening every single day.
St. Thomas experience: St. Thomas has a rigorous superintendent licensure program aligned to the state competencies. I felt that the portfolio I had to develop for both my principal and superintendent licensures was very challenging. Putting together your portfolio and choosing artifacts that align to state competencies then demonstrating it and defending it to a team were intense. They put you through various exercises and simulations. I felt prepared as a principal and then when I became an associate superintendent in Minneapolis, St. Thomas prepared me for that as well.
Nichole Rens ’02 MA, ’05 EdS, ’17 EdD
Director of curriculum and instruction at ISD 15 St. Francis School District; formerly principal of Lakeview Elementary School in Robbinsdale
Biggest challenges when putting together curriculum: In every district in the country, kids come in with a huge range of abilities. For one teacher to say, ‘I can meet each individual child’s needs and have the resources to do that’ is a huge challenge. Yet, we have to strive for that every day because when we send our own children to school, we expect our child is getting that need met. I have to think of all the students in this district as my kids and they deserve that, too. How do we make that happen? One of the challenges is always the financial resources. That is a significant challenge for many districts – finding the resources and meeting those needs.
The difference between working in an urban school versus outside the metro area: Students have needs wherever you go. The needs are different. I was principal of a high poverty and racially diverse school in Robbinsdale. Here, there is not a lot of racial diversity. That does not mean we do not have varying needs in our students and our community. Equity is still a big piece of the work.
The difference is twofold – it is equity, meaning both racial equity, but also equity overall. Is every student getting what they need socially, emotionally and academically? Equity is also an important key to be learning in a community where the racial diversity is not as apparent.
St. Thomas experience: St. Thomas gave me leadership skills that helped me approach situations and look at them in a big picture, more multifaceted way.
In one course, we talked about a dilemma we had and about multiple ways that dilemma could be approached. That happened in many of my classes. At the beginning of my graduate work, I came in thinking one-way – there is one solution, maybe two solutions. Throughout the program, it helped me think about why there are often many solutions to a problem or challenge. What might be the right solution at this time, or the solution with the least conflict in the end. That was definitely a skill I developed and it is the one that has helped me the most.
I started in the education specialist program and carried through to the doctorate program. Throughout my time at St. Thomas, I developed skills that helped me become a better listener and more empathetic.
Lloyd Winfield ’00 EdS, ’11 EdD
Principal of Dowling Elementary School (Minneapolis); formerly assistant principal in Minneapolis Public Schools
St. Thomas experience: As far as a preparation, St. Thomas opened my eyes to similarities and differences in our educational practices and philosophies among urban versus suburban versus rural environments. One of the more valuable experiences was the interactions I had with my peers. Talking to someone who is from Biwabik and hearing how they see things, and then talking to someone who is from St. Paul or Edina and hearing what they think … Sharing those thoughts and sharing those experiences shaped how I would envision the way things could be for whomever I was working for at the time. Those experiences provided us a context that went beyond the classroom.
I always appreciated the staff and their willingness to work with me. From the professors to the library staff, people always seemed to find a way to help me get the resources I needed.
The role of principal: I see my role as leadership through support. One way I do that is by bringing together resources to support our students’ learning. That means hiring folks, making sure we have the books, curriculum materials – things our staff needs to do their job well. Providing meaningful professional development for our staff to help them grow as professionals. There is also an aspect of developing leaders among our teachers. I do not have to be the only person in a leadership position, the only person saying I can guide this process. I want to know when I have to leave the building there are people there who can continue to make sure things run as they are supposed to.
In the old days, so to speak, there was this push for school leaders to establish the mission and the vision. These days, it is more of a group process. I believe we need to communicate frequently, transparently and candidly. In that communication, there are going to be times we disagree and we may have to leave it open and revisit it. It is important to take risks, be willing to think outside the box and try new things. I’m someone who tries to find a way to say ‘yes’ to what people want instead of saying ‘no.’
Academic success: In my mind, academic success for our students is continuing their growth. From the children at the low end of the performance spectrum all the way to the above grade-level high performers. We talk about no child left behind; it is more than just a concept, regardless of your political persuasion. We have to find a way to say, ‘Yes, we can make this happen for students.’ That is dependent on how we do things like examining performance data, whether that is test scores or formative assessments in the classrooms. We look at how they are best learning and what is working for them. Academic success also means we as adults have to be able to seek out those things, recognize successes in students and urge them to continue with those successes.