When I took the opportunity to intern at SCORE, my main hope for the semester was to spend time speaking with and learning from the various stakeholders that SCORE partners with. Although there is something to learn from all groups involved, I started my semester with a particular interest in school leadership. As a Human and Organizational Development major at Vanderbilt University, I instinctively look to leadership as an indicator of the health of a particular school or district. I have learned to believe that organizational success starts at the top. When it comes to our nation’s public education system, the role of a school leader in academic improvement is second only to the role of great teachers.

Hillsboro Elementary Middle School Principal Kari Miller
Hillsboro Elementary Middle School Principal Kari Miller

Sitting across from Kari Miller, the Principal of Hillsboro Elementary Middle School in Franklin, Tennessee, I was able to see this belief in action. I had the chance to visit HEMS as part of the 2014 SCORE Prize Finalist site visits. Throughout the day, I found myself inspired by how one person could create and maintain a culture that permeates the halls of this very special K-8 school.

Ms. Miller’s work has led to some very tangible impacts. Just five years ago, the school was ranked as one of the lowest performing in Williamson County. Since then, HEMS has been named a National Blue Ribbon School and has received the 2014 SCORE Prize in the middle school category because Ms. Miller and her team have brought about notable academic growth and community support. This example led me to start thinking about the role of school leaders, and how we can apply the theory of transformational leadership to other low-performing schools in Tennessee.

Transformational leaders are not ordinary leaders. As the name leads one to believe, transformational leaders are capable of pushing through sweeping changes. They achieve this by giving the various stakeholders of their school, including parents, teachers, administrators, and of course, students, the confidence to take risks and make hard choices. Transformational leaders cannot stand on their own – they must support a team of administrators and teachers and push them to believe they have what it takes to make real change for their students. This belief system trickles down to the students, and leads to a culture of achievement, confidence and capability.

Research has shown the importance of transformational leaders, also known as “turnaround principals,” in radically improving low performing schools. A challenge for Tennessee going forward, and one of SCORE’s priorities for this past year, is to continue working to prepare principals to meet the needs of Tennessee’s most at risk schools by understanding the specific skill set required to manage change. From what I learned when meeting Ms. Miller, radical change must begin with believing in the abilities of your fellow administrators, teachers, and most importantly, every single one of your students.