School leaders struggle with leading successful turnaround efforts in difficult schools in both the rural and urban South. Often, these rural and urban schools are haunted by societal problems that negatively impact the culture and undermine the learning environment. Early in my career, I witnessed myriad leadership models—some were good, some were bad. Once I became a principal, I quickly realized the models I used weren’t working. Later, I researched to find an appropriate leadership model for principals leading difficult rural and urban schools.

I began investigating leadership models in the fall of 2010. I wanted to know what characteristics successful principals exhibited that allowed them to lead high-performing schools under difficult circumstances. Surprisingly, there were a handful of principals in Alabama who led high-performing schools in poverty-stricken areas who were called Torchbearer Principals. In my research, six themes emerged from my study titled “The Alabama Promise to Improve Student Achievement: A Phenomenological Study of Torchbearer Principals in Alabama.”

The themes were:

  • Empowerment
  • Provider
  • Openness
  • Data-Driven
  • Expectations
  • Collaborator

After completing my research, I tested the findings of my study to determine whether the Torchbearer model I discovered is truly effective in turning around difficult schools in rural and urban settings in the South.

The Torchbearer Journey

Education in the South is very challenging, especially with the scars left behind from the civil rights movement and the desegregation of public schools. From my view, education in the rural and urban South is just as segregated today as it was 50 years ago. The rise in popularity of private schools, as well as the infamous charter school movement, has essentially caused resegregation of schools in the South (segregation in terms of equitability—the quintessential theme of the “haves” and the “have-nots”). Often, schools in suburban areas in the South are labeled as “over the mountain,” “the good side of town,” or even the “white” school. Generally, these schools have more resources available to them, such as newer facilities, the latest technology, and a wide range of extracurricular activities. In comparison, students in rural and urban areas often experience older buildings, outdated technology, and extracurricular activities that are limited to a few sports. In fact, the lack of resources accentuates the pressure to avoid the label of “failing school.”

Despite the challenges, I led two schools (which will not be named) in turnaround efforts using the core competencies of the Torchbearer Leadership model during my tenure in rural county schools.

Leading Through Empowerment and Open Dialogue

The illustration of empowerment is seen in the challenge I faced as principal following a fire at a rural county high school. I understood the importance of inspiring, motivating, and recognizing those I supervised after this life-changing event.

Following the fire, we used the misfortune of losing part of our building as a step forward toward a better future. My message was simple: “We will turn the page.” This message did not replace the tangible resources this school lost, but it provided the reassurance that everything would be OK. Additionally, I worked extensively to determine the specific needs of the teachers and students and provided them with what they needed to make a smooth transition toward normalcy.

As a school, the faculty (about 60 personnel) and I were responsible for earning accreditation with AdvancED, sponsored by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Apprehensions regarding accreditation were high because the fire destroyed one-third of the school, and a considerable amount of documentation was needed for the accreditation process.

The faculty and I met in small groups and openly discussed where we were as a school. In the Torchbearer Leadership model, the school leaders must take ownership of the good and poor performances of students. Additionally, the school leader must convey to the faculty the importance of taking ownership as well. In that way, everyone is invested in the process of turning around the dismal performances by students on state-​sponsored assessments and school benchmarks. Several months following the fire, the faculty, staff, and I turned our attention to gathering the documentation, data, and instructional evidence to support the activities outlined in the school’s continuous improvement plan.

The AdvancED accreditation team entered and reviewed every instructional item, observed every teacher, and interviewed both parents and students. By talking openly and honestly regarding the school’s academic position, we received status as an accredited educational institution through June 2019.

Leading Through Data-Driven Decision Making

Under the Torchbearer Leadership model, student performance data was consistently used to make informed instructional decisions. Unfortunately, the school’s performance designated it as a focus school on a list for failing schools in the state of Alabama. Focus schools are institutions that have consistently shown a decline in student performance over a three-year period. However, the data team disaggregated student performance results to identify trends in student learning behaviors and collectively decided to use research-based instructional strategies schoolwide. This was a critical time during my Torchbearer leadership. I had to make crucial decisions to reach optimal levels of performance from faculty and students to ignite the momentum toward turning around a school facing being labeled as “failing.”

Leading Change With Expectations

The reluctance and fear of change was an obstacle I had to overcome in order to successfully implement the Torchbearer model, to change the culture and climate, and to improve student performances. Communication was key in successfully transforming the rural elementary school. At the start of the school year, I presented the faculty and staff with my “Principal’s Principles”—expectations of the principal and faculty. Collaboratively, the faculty, parents, students, and I penned a brand-new vision for the rural elementary school, which read “Where Excellence Is Expected.” It was a vision that identified the direction we were going with regard to teaching and learning, with an emphasis on improving student achievement.

Leading Change With Collaboration

Under the Torchbearer Leadership model, the teachers and I worked collaboratively to increase students’ performances by planning grade-level curriculum and assessments, scheduling periodic data meetings, and establishing policies and procedures. The increase in morale was evident in the faculty’s willingness to participate in school activities and programs. Likewise, we began to see authentic student engagement more frequently. The children were happier because they were rewarded for their efforts in improving their academic performances. The rural elementary school made an incredible turnaround, and they committed to the vision set at the beginning of the year.

After reflecting on my performance as a Torchbearer leader, the most effective and strategic decision I could ever have made was relinquishing control and developing teacher leaders, which, in turn, empowered them to take ownership of the process. This strategic move generated 100 percent buy-in by the faculty and staff. A trickle-down effect catapulted students’ performances toward a positive trajectory in student achievement. Torchbearer Leadership worked for me, and I am optimistic in its ability to work for other school leaders leading rural and urban schools in the South, or for that matter, almost anywhere.

Stacey P. Gill, EdD, is the department head of educational resources and assistant professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.