Five years ago, Christy Free was a middle school math teacher interested in taking on a bit of work beyond the walls of her classroom.

Flash-forward to this summer. Ms. Free has just finished her first year as head principal of John F. Kennedy Elementary School, part of 2014 SCORE Prize-winning district Kingsport City Schools (KCS). She credits her district with shaping her into the leader she didn’t know she could be.Kingsport City Schools

“If you had asked me five years ago where I would be now, there are a lot of things I might have said, but not being principal of an elementary school,” Ms. Free said. “KCS has dynamic leadership programs that help us continually grow, uniting us all. They set up the opportunities and then step back to let us grow, supporting us along the way.”

At KCS, which serves more than 6,600 students in East Tennessee, leadership development and collaborative decision-making are ingrained in work at every level. Superintendent Dr. Lyle Ailshie says the district lives its message that everyone who works with kids – secretaries, central office staff, bus drivers, teachers – is an educator. And every educator is a leader.

“Success breeds success. When you have people who really are empowered and feel they are making a difference, that rubs off on children and builds confidence,” said Dr. Ailshie. ”We expect everyone who comes in contact with students to exhibit leadership in whatever way is available to them.”

Dr. Ailshie believes this philosophy has helped deliver strong academic performance at KCS. The district has delivered significant achievement gap closures between white students and their Hispanic and black peers. KCS posted strong three-year marks on TVAAS growth, and the system-wide ACT average score is 22.

KCS teachers have many opportunities to lead, regardless of whether they’re interested in joining the administration. Ms. Free’s journey toward principalship began when she joined the KCS Teacher/Leader program five years ago. Designed for outstanding teachers who want more involvement without giving up their teaching roles, the program currently allows about 60 teachers – chosen through an application process – to meet regularly and tackle significant work within schools and systemwide. Participants often work on district-wide curriculum and help plan supports for teachers, while also serving as model educators within their schools.

“Teacher leaders are typically very effective in the classroom because of the constant professional learning that takes place,” Ms. Free said. “We encourage each other to continue to grow, so the learning never stops.”kingsportstrat

After two years in the Teacher/Leader program, Ms. Free was hired as one of the district’s eleven associate principals. The KCS associate principal program allows educators with a strong interest and aptitude for administration to get a complete sense of the job, while providing the district with an outstanding pipeline for school leaders.

KCS has one associate principal in place at each elementary and middle school. Program participants receive expert mentorship from KCS principals, meet regularly in their own collaborative, and form close relationships that facilitate synergistic work after the program’s completion.

“We’re able to come together as educators, all with different strengths. As we develop, we’re never working alone,” Ms. Free said. “I didn’t expect to be a principal. My mind started shifting … when I had that opportunity provided to me to experience it, to find out that I do like it and I can do it.”

Associate principals experience as many components of principalship as possible – including management of curriculum and instruction, professional learning, test coordination, and parent and community relations. The positions are term-limited and maintain teacher-level salaries. Associate principals must complete an administrative graduate program during their first three-year term; if this is accomplished, one additional three-year term is an option.

Associate principals are top choices to lead district initiatives and often maintain system-side responsibilities. For example, associate principals prepare the district’s regular report to the school board.

“They really jump at every opportunity to show the types of things they can do,” said Dr. Ailshie.

All but three of the district’s current principals were hired from the associate principal pipeline. Assistant Superintendent Dory Creech, who worked as an associate principal 10 years ago, said the program’s effectiveness has created a surplus of outstanding, highly qualified candidates for each principal opening.

“It’s great to have that problem,” Ms. Creech said.

Leadership at KCS extends well beyond the principal’s office. A distributed leadership model builds collaboration and empowerment into as many processes as possible. Key decisions about school management are made by school leadership teams, which must include at least one parent and at least one support staff member. Many system-wide plans are made by a district leadership team that includes a rotating group of principals, central office staff, associate principals, assistant principals, and teacher leaders. In all cases, decisions are transparent, and not made from the top down.

“I want to make sure that we’re modeling the things we want to see in our schools. It’s really a collaborative approach,” said Dr. Ailshie. “You can’t just talk about empowering people. When someone wants to do something to show what they can do, we try to find ways to make that happen.”