For more than a decade, San Diego State University’s National Center for Urban School Transformation has engaged in a program of identifying, celebrating, and studying America’s best urban schools – public elementary, middle, and high schools that achieved outstanding academic outcomes for all demographic groups of students they served. Through this work, NCUST has learned much about how these very successful urban schools have moved all groups of students to high levels of achievement.

What have we learned?

No two of the high-performing schools we have awarded were exactly alike. They differed in the kind and quality of practices and structures they employed to achieve excellence and equity for the students they served. However, three critical characteristics were evident in all of these schools:

These characteristics did not emerge by chance. Instead, school leaders purposefully designed their schools to ensure that stakeholders felt valued and cared for, students accessed challenging content, and teachers planned and delivered effective instruction that led students to mastery. In other words, these leaders created a coherent educational improvement system – an independent set of structures and practices critical to the ongoing improvement of teaching and learning.

Evidence continues to mount regarding the critical role school leaders play in influencing academic success. Today, principals and other school leaders are called upon to transform struggling urban schools into places where all students achieve at high levels. In fact, many of the schools that NCUST has studied engaged in their own transformation in the years prior to the award. From the principals of our winning schools, we have learned a great deal about the leadership necessary to influence and guide deep change in school organizations.

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