At Pottsgrove High School, an activity known as the “dot project” helped faculty and staff pinpoint students at risk of falling through the cracks.

Principal Bill Ziegler printed out a list with the names of every student at the Pottstown, PA, high school and encouraged faculty members to put a dot next to the names of the ones they knew well enough to “tell if they were having a bad day,” he says. Students with no dots by their name were identified for outreach by staff. The activity was eye-opening for faculty, and it also helped Pottsgrove be “intentional about building positive and caring relationships with students, making sure every student is connected to a caring adult in the school, and listening to student voice,” he says. This gets to the heart of why principals became educators—to empower and inspire students, Ziegler adds.

As our schools and the students they serve face increasingly complex challenges, today’s principals must address the “whole child”—a student’s intellectual capacity, emotional and social development, and sense of place and potential in the wider world. Doing so challenges school leaders to develop and lead a positive culture that contributes to a learning environment that addresses the needs of each student and adult in the school community.

NASSP’s Building Ranks™, an actionable, standards-based leadership framework, helps school leaders in this important role by defining the “what” and “why” of effective school leadership through two leadership domains, Building Culture and Leading Learning. Based on the real-world experience of a wide range of highly recognized school leaders and extensive research on school leadership, Building Ranks is designed to help principals understand and embrace 15 critical leadership dimensions, including collaborative leadership, innovation, human capital management, equity, global-mindedness, and more (see image). By identifying which of these dimensions best meets the needs of their school community and their own personal growth as leaders, principals can nurture each individual to live the shared norms, values, and beliefs, and to thrive and succeed in a safe, caring, and high-performing school community.

The flagship publication, Building Ranks: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective School Leaders, builds on more than a quarter-century of the evolving understanding of school leadership detailed in the Breaking Ranks series. Along with a companion publication, What the Research Shows: Building Ranks in Action, and a planned series of diagnostic tools and other resources, Building Ranks helps school leaders translate such leadership standards as Professional Standards for Educational Leadership (PSEL) into practice in their own schools.

To find out how Building Ranks applies to the real world of education, Principal Leadership interviewed four members of the design team of the Building Ranks framework and contributors to the Building Ranks guide to get a clearer picture of how principals can use the techniques detailed in the framework in their evolving roles. Along with Ziegler, we’ve included incisive input from three other educational leaders: Jason Markey, principal of East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, IL; Jovon Rogers, principal at Gunston Elementary School in Lorton, VA; and Matt Saferite, a former junior and senior high school administrator and currently an executive director (assistant superintendent) of the Bentonville Public Schools in Bentonville, AR.

Beyond the Binder

Today’s principals understand the importance of moving beyond rigid instructional practices and empowering teachers to try new things. “You can’t have them teaching out of a binder 180 days a year,” Markey says. To ensure that doesn’t happen, principals must take an active role in shaping instruction.

“A principal can’t just be a building manager anymore,” Saferite says. “You absolutely have to know the intricacies and details of curriculum, instruction, and assessment today.”

Introducing New Opportunities

When introducing authentic learning opportunities, Rogers says to consider these specific steps:

  • Talk to or visit schools that have implemented programs you are considering to understand their perspectives on the pros and cons.
  • Lead your staff members in carefully analyzing the alignment between curriculum and student needs.
  • Use formative and interim evaluations aligned to the curriculum to continuously monitor progress.

Leading learning in today’s rapidly changing school environment, however, requires more than instructional expertise. It also challenges leaders to understand the needs of each student in their school. At East Leyden High School, administrators periodically survey students to determine their needs and provide continuing supports, especially when innovations are being introduced, Markey says.

Developing a high-performing learning environment requires leaders to build a culture that fosters and maintains strong relationships among staff members by enabling them to discover and share traits and perspectives, Saferite says. Principals can intentionally create small and large groups of staff (certified and classified) to study their individual and team strengths and develop plans to maximize their strengths to accomplish goals related to student learning, he says.

Building a Connected Culture

Building an effective school culture conducive to learning involves a wide range of leadership dimensions, but it ultimately comes down to connecting people—students, staff, parents, and the community. “It’s important that everyone understand what strengths they bring to the table,” says Rogers. The key to developing strong relationships and avoiding misconceptions is to get to know the individual before launching into the work situation, she adds.

Effective principals have long worked to foster reflection among their staff, but it is also vital for school leaders—and their own efforts can become part of broader culture-building efforts. Ziegler says he reflects in a collaborative environment at the end of each week with his leadership team. He also relies on his professional learning network, which includes Twitter’s #PrinLeaderChat and other social media platforms. “To grow, I must be involved in a professional learning network,” he says.

It’s also important to include students in decision making at all levels. Along with regular student surveys, one of Ziegler’s favorite initiatives is Falcon Feedback Friday, during which four students from each grade are randomly selected and asked four questions about the school:

  1. What does Pottsgrove do well?
  2. How can Pottsgrove improve?
  3. What do you dream our school can be?
  4. What can you do to personally improve our school?

To become more globally focused in today’s rapidly changing world, schools and their leaders also must find new ways to empower their students and faculty to improve their school, community, region, and world, Ziegler says. “To do this, we need to break down the walls in schools and open the doors to authentic learning experiences for students. This requires leaders to shift the thinking and practice of the teacher being the sole evaluator of student learning, consider ways students can solve problems right in their own school or community, and network with other school leaders around the world to learn about best practices and the latest research on learning,” he says. “No longer can school leaders have a myopic view of learning and their own professional growth; we must work collaboratively, creatively, and courageously to empower students.”

It’s also important to educate the adults in the community—both parents and staff—about why teachers are educating students in ways that didn’t exist when they were students. Principals need to make sure that they and their staff maintain a high degree of cultural responsiveness and establish a dialogue with parents and teachers about cultural issues, Rogers says. Cultural responsiveness has become a cornerstone of equity, one of the most topical dimensions of leadership in today’s schools, but it is also part of an overarching strategy for creating a climate conducive to learning—ensuring that each student is known and valued.

Bringing It All Together

Principals have always needed to apply strategic management as they lead their schools, but today’s challenges require leaders to both set and clearly communicate priorities to the entire learning community, Markey says. “We really need to understand our organization and be able to spell out to stakeholders what our mission is,” he says.

To ensure his school lives up to its mission, Saferite uses a wide range of tools to monitor and help develop his staff, his strategic plans, and his own personal growth as a leader, including the Strengths Finder research and assessment developed by the Gallup organization, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence program, and the Building Ranks School Culture Survey, which provides school leaders with detailed feedback from parents, students, teachers, staff, and community members on the school’s culture. “The Gallup research and tools helped me develop my staff, the Baldrige Performance Excellence program helped improve my schools systemically, and the NASSP resources help provide externally validated leadership and management tools,” Saferite notes.

The bottom line? “We need to get kids creating, designing, publishing, and solving real-world problems—and that takes a leader committed to leading learning and building culture,” Ziegler says.

For more information on Building Ranks and to explore the aligned Educational Leadership Product Suite, visit

Michael Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer and editor based in North Potomac, MD. Mark Toner is a freelance writer, editor, and publications consultant based in Reston, VA.