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It’s long been known that excellent schools have principals who are clearly in command and who shape the virtues that lead a school to excellence. My book Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds has a chapter on principals, and in it I cite Ellwood P. Cubberley, an education professor at Stanford. In 1929, Cubberley wrote that a crucial goal of school reform was to do “whatever can be done to add strength and dignity and responsibility to the office should be done, with the view to making each principal feel his work is large and important. The knowledge, insight, skill, and qualities for helpful leadership of the principal of the school practically determine the ideals and standards of achievements of both teachers and pupils within the school.”

Ever since Cubberley’s day, school administrators and donors have tried to come up with ways to either create excellent principals or clone the ones that already exist. About every five years, another rising star merits our attention. The latest, Pittsburgh’s Bill Strickland, is the subject of a long profile by John Thornhill in the Financial Times.

As Thornhill describes it, Strickland was a troubled student at David B. Oliver High School in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. One afternoon he saw the school’s art teacher, Frank Ross, “throwing a pot in a room full of sunlight.” Strickland decided to try pottery, and then architecture and jazz. He became convinced that if students had art classes, they would do better in school.

In 1968 Strickland took over a small private school funded by Episcopalians called the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild. Four years later, he moved to run the Bidwell Training Center, created by a local Presbyterian church. Today Manchester Bidwell runs a high school and an adult training center. It is creating satellite centers and has plans to go nationwide.

Apparently the two things that make Manchester Bidwell distinctive are constant positive reinforcement and lots of art classes. “We have to build places of hope rather than places of despair,” Strickland said. “The public school system here is built to contain kids, not to educate them. If you build prisons, you create prisoners.”

As for the art classes, Manchester Bidwell chief operating officer Paulo Nzimbi says the goal of these classes is “to get young people excited about learning. We are trying to instill the notion of perseverance. You are going to have to try and try and try to achieve anything worthwhile. Failure is a learning experience.”

The school has gotten a lot of local philanthropic support and one national patron, Skoll Foundation founder Jeff Skoll, who holds Manchester Bidwell in such high regard that it’s the only board he serves on besides his own. Skoll told Thornhill that Strickland has “cracked the code” on how to create and run a successful school and no two of the franchised Manchester Bidwell schools “are exactly alike…all of these centres operate on the same principles and the results are the same. Put kids in an environment where they can find dignity and purpose and they respond. Bill has a saying that in the ghettos what matters most is faith, hope, and love—but hope is the most powerful.”

I don’t agree with what most of what Jeff Skoll funds, but he’s a smart donor. His smartest move was to create Participant Media, a for-profit enterprise that funds liberal message movies. But although his company has funded some turkeys (Furry Vengeance) much of the time his films have good scripts, good actors, and good directors, which make the messages much more palatable. I particularly recommend The Visitor, a pro-immigration film that was Richard Jenkins’s breakout role.

But replicating good principals is not as easy as Skoll makes it appear. It will be 10-15 years before we know if the Manchester Bidwell franchises work. Maybe they will, but right now we just don’t know.

It’s clear that much of what Bill Strickland says makes sense. The idea that having schools full of positive, uplifting art will help students do better is not new; Octavia Hill made a similar point over 125 years ago. But it’s an idea that makes good sense. So too is the idea that telling low-income students they can succeed—since telling them they will be hopeless failures has done little more than produce a generation of dropouts and criminals.

But strangely absent from Thornhill’s article is the 90 percent of a school’s curriculum that can’t be changed—Common Core standards and mandatory tests. Does Manchester Bidwell teach math, reading, and writing better than comparable schools? Thornhill doesn’t say. And while positive reinforcement is important, far too often schools go the other way with happy-clappy pablum that preaches that everyone is excellent and no one is a failure. What steps does Manchester Bidwell take to make sure their moral message doesn’t become sappy?

From Thornhill’s account, Manchester Bidwell is a success and Bill Strickland is an inspiring role model. But anyone who thinks that Manchester Bidwell is the one best way all schools should follow ought to check their premises.

(Source: John Thornhill, “Bill’s School of Revolution,” Financial Times, November 23)


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