Breakthrough Principals: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Stronger Schools

Jean Desravines, Jaime Aquino, and Benjamin Fenton.
Jossey Bass, 2016, 336 pp.

Principal, November/December 2016

Being a principal who works in a high-poverty school, I love stories about leaders who overcome all odds and succeed despite their disadvantages. However, these stories often focus on the charismatic leader who triumphs by sheer force of will and purpose. Breakthrough Principals teaches us that sometimes it’s not about being “Superman,” but about the right practices that can make any principal or school super.

Breakthrough Principals is a step-by- step, how-to book concerning school success. It outlines a research-driven, systematic process that takes principals from diagnosis all the way through implementation. As an added bonus, the book provides extra resources for principals and instructional coaches.

The Transformational Leadership Framework that Breakthrough Principals works from consists of five areas that are key for effective schools: learning and teaching, school culture, talent management, planning and operations, and personal leadership. The authors make clear that these are not five standalone components, but five areas that are interwoven throughout the fabric of our schools. For example, negative personal leaders have a direct effect on school culture, which in turn could affect classroom instructional outcomes.

After discussing the framework, the authors go into their three stages of school development. Each component of the framework falls into one of the three categories. In the first stage, leaders develop the systems and structures that their schools need for success, then introduce it to staff. Next up is stage two, which speaks to building staff capacity. This second stage focuses on how to make staff better at performing the structures, interventions, and practices established in the first stage. The final stage is based on ownership. This sense of ownership extends beyond the principal and teachers, and involves community partners, families, and staff.

Another aspect of Breakthrough Principals is its liberal sharing of charts, graphs, sample schedules, and surveys. For those principals looking for real-world examples of the explained strategies in action, this would be a great book for you.

The important takeaway from Breakthrough Principals is simply—the next level. Whether you’re a beginning principal or have been leading schools successfully for years, you will find something in Breakthrough Principals that makes you want to try it immediately or wish you had thought of it sooner!

Reviewed by Brian Bond, principal of Hunter Hills Elementary School in Corbin, Kentucky.

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