John Osborn (’21) and Anita Hart-McNair (’21) are reimagining what school leadership can look like in Arkansas. As Cohort 5 graduates of the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions IMPACT Fellowship Program, Osborn and Hart-McNair were on separate leadership journeys with Arkansas Lighthouse Charter Schools. Osborn had served as a school leader at the system’s campuses in North Little Rock and Pine Bluff before taking on a new role last spring as STEM coordinator for the district, while Hart-McNair had transitioned from a successful classroom teaching role to an assistant principal position at the system’s Jacksonville campus.
Due to a change in leadership at the Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School’s Elementary Campus, Hart-McNair was set to take over as school principal last summer when a unique idea was put on the table. Rather than hiring an assistant principal to serve under Hart-McNair, the district’s administrative team decided to move forward with a collaborative leadership model for the school. Similar to a co-teaching model that is used in classrooms, this collaborative leadership approach would actually place two principals into leadership of the school with both having equal authority over the campus’s academics and operations. The idea of co-principals for a school was an idea that Arkansas Lighthouse Charter School CEO/Superintendent LaShawnda Noel had considered previously, but she knew she would need the right pair of leaders to make it work.
Since John Osborn and Anita Hart-McNair had previously worked together in other Lighthouse school settings and had also shared the IMPACT experience, they already possessed a special type of collegial relationship. Additionally, their different academic backgrounds of STEM for Osborn and literacy for Hart-McNair made for a natural alignment in approaching the areas of curriculum and instruction. Hart-McNair is a self-described “planner who likes to think clearly through every point of view when making decisions,” whereas Osborn possesses a “let’s go do it” mentality. The distinction between the two leaders’ personalities allows for a decision-making process that is extremely balanced and, in a spectacular show of leadership humility, neither makes a decision without consulting with the other.
While the co-principal experiment is still in its fledgling stage, results are already starting to show some tremendous improvement in the school’s academic performance. Based on NWEA testing results for kindergarten students at the school, more than 70% are currently on track to be considered at grade level by the end of the school year. This compares to only 35% of the same group of students being on track in the fall.
Additionally, data on student attendance has shown an improvement every month this school year in comparison to the previous school year. In fact, overall student attendance has increased from last year’s mark of 92% to more than 94% this year. Engagement between the school and the local community has improved dramatically this year, as well. Students are now tutoring at a nearby church, and formal partnerships have been formed with local businesses, including First Arkansas Bank & Trust. Teacher retention is also on the rise with turnover decreasing from approximately 70% among teachers at the school last year to only one teacher indicating intent to leave at the completion of this school year.
Osborn and Hart-McNair contribute their school’s phenomenal improvement to clarity of expectations for students and staff, clearly defined operational systems and procedures, and consistent implementation of professional learning communities within the school. These U of A IMPACT Fellows are change agents who exhibit the type of creative leadership approaches needed to effect real change in outcomes for students in Arkansas schools.
The IMPACT Arkansas Fellowship Program is a leadership preparation program provided by the University of Arkansas and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. The fellowship’s purpose is to prepare future leaders in low-income schools throughout Arkansas. Fellows receive a Master of Education in Educational Leadership upon completion of this 18-month program. To date, the program has prepared 106 graduates for school leadership positions, and more than 90% of IMPACT graduates are working in high-poverty Arkansas schools today. The program’s 8th cohort was recently selected, and these new fellows will begin the program in June. More information on the program can be obtained at impactfellowship.org.