MOUNT STERLING, Ill. -- A poster just inside the doorway at South Elementary School provides a reminder of one benefit Principal Angie Ruebush gained from recent leadership training.
"We created a school vision that was measurable and understandable by everyone, even parents, that guides everyone in my building," Ruebush said.
The training -- a partnership of the National Institute for School Leadership and Illinois Regional Office of Education No. 1 made possible through funding from the Tracy Family Foundation and grant support from Knapheide Manufacturing -- stressed the importance of having a clear vision for each school.
"We had a school mission statement, but it involved a lot of educational jargon. It sounded really good, but really meant nothing," Ruebush said.
So now by the end of second grade, the school, the Home of the Little Braves, wants its students to read and comprehend on a second-grade level, be fluent with addition and subtraction facts and apply grade-level mechanics in their writing.
"We're always working on student learning," Ruebush said. "This helped guide us more."
Ruebush was part of the first group of 32 administrators and teachers from seven area counties to graduate from NISL's West Central Illinois School Leadership Initiative and its 18-month curriculum. A second group started in early February with a third set to begin in September.
"Our goal is to train 150 school leaders in West-Central Illinois by 2020," said Jean Buckley, president of the Tracy Family Foundation. "The foundation's vision for education is a world-class educational system in West-Central Illinois. We believe the strategy to do that is to utilize strong school leadership as a lever for change."
So the foundation levered its financial support behind NISL's executive development program, the curriculum on which the initiative is based, the most widely used, rigorous school leadership development program in the country with some 10,000 school leaders trained across 27 states.
"This is a tip of the hat to my mom and dad who always believed in people development, leadership development," Buckley said.
"If you want to help a school or a school district be better, or go from good to great, it has to happen with the leader. You can have great things happen in the classroom with walk-on-water, dynamic teaching, but if you want to be big and involve the whole school district, it's got to be at the leadership level," said Liberty Superintendent Kelle Bunch, part of the initiative's first group.
"When you invest in school leaders, you start to impact other things. Making sure students receive best practices starts boosting up teacher morale and can boost the climate of a building and district and help boost student achievement."
Bunch found the initiative a perfect fit – not only for positive changes in her school district but with her dissertation tied to school leadership.
"This is not just about how each school in West-Central Illinois can be better. It's bigger than that. It's how can West-Central Illinois be better regionally," Bunch said. "If we do that in this region, can that permeate through the entire state?"
Training sessions targeted strategic thinking, visioning, instructional leadership, data mastery, team leadership, coaching and mentoring, creating a just, fair and caring culture and driving change.
"A great deal of what we worked on was what can be accomplished with teamwork and strong leadership in the schools. We went through everything from student evaluation to evaluating teachers using data to move forward with student growth and with teacher growth," said Diane Kasparie, Quincy Notre Dame's dean of academics, who participated in the initiative.
After 37 years in the classroom including 17 at QND, Kasparie said the concepts were familiar.
"But it's kind of like in the medical field. You could be a doctor for 30 years, but you keep up on the newest and best research-based pedagogy," she said. "You want what's best for your kids and your teachers."
Kasparie came away with a clearer understanding that changing school and classroom culture needs to be a team effort. "It gives you a different aspect on leadership. It's not just from the top down. It has to be from the top out," she said.
Over the past year, Kasparie has spent more time in QND's classrooms helping with coaching and evaluation. "The teachers are seeing more advantages. We're all on the same path. We all see the same vision," she said. "I'm just really looking forward to seeing the positive results and lots of growth from teachers, administrators, students, everything."
Using better strategies can make each classroom experience better for students.
"This is about the kids and kids' learning growth," Kasparie said. "Our mission is to make them lifelong learners in lives of service. When we send them out, we want to be confident they can do it on their own."
Bunch said that's more than making sure students know algebra but helping to make them competitive in a market reaching way beyond West-Central Illinois.
Educators need to "get up to speed" with what students know about technology and change instruction with use of technology, Bunch said. The Liberty district changed its vision statement, focused on instruction and put in place professional learning communities to look at student data.
"It's helped us to do a better job of teaching and preparing our students," she said. "It's made a difference in what we do in terms of professional development and how we use school improvement days, how we look at student growth. We're doing it purposely and strategically."
Ongoing measurements will help gauge the initiative's success including whether participants are still employed in West-Central Illinois three years after the training. "They may not be in the same position, but if they're in the West-Central Illinois educational system, that's one indicator of success," Buckley said.
Just as important to educators was the collaboration time with other principals and school leaders.
"We just don't have the time to talk about curriculum with each other," Ruebush said. "You might get a simple idea from another district that you could implement to improve your school."
Bunch said she and High School Principal Jody Obert heard from their tablemates about "some great stuff" happening in math in Jacksonville. "Jody and her team went over and did a visit to bring it back to Liberty to help with guided math groups," Bunch said. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel."