“I Want to Be a Better Leader Than I Am Right Now.”

Meaningful professional development is a key reason principals stay in their roles. Here’s what that looks like in Vancouver Public Schools—and how it is motivating one principal to keep growing.
new leaders education leadership development partner feature vancouver public schools new leaders education leadership development partner feature vancouver public schools
Blog date
8/1/23
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“My New Leaders coach really pressed on me and helped me be more reflective,” observes Jessica Graham, principal at Hough Elementary School in Vancouver, Washington. This coming school year, Graham will participate in her second year of our in-person and virtual leadership development training that is being provided to all 38 principals, the superintendent, and senior district leaders in Vancouver Public Schools (VPS). “I asked my coach to press on me,” Graham adds, “because I want to be a better leader than I am right now.”

During Graham’s tenure, student achievement in reading has continued to improve. Her school serves close to 300 students who reflect the economic and racial diversity of the city, including a significant student population that experiences homelessness, transitional housing, or housing insecurity. This coming school year, Graham and her team are prioritizing math and writing instruction, building on their foundation in reading and emphasizing how reading strategies can accelerate student learning in math and writing as well. 

“I’m really excited to delegate more leadership to my teachers,” Graham explains. “The teachers on our math and writing committees know the content. They will be the ones putting together the professional development and bringing teachers together every month.”

“I’m really excited to delegate more leadership to my teachers. The teachers on our math and writing committees know the content. They will be the ones putting together the professional development and bringing teachers together every month."
Jessica Graham, Principal, Hough Elementary School, Vancouver Public Schools

This shift toward implementing high-impact instructional leadership practices—and away from the principal as an operations and compliance manager—is at the core of our partnership with VPS. “Coaching district leaders and school leaders at the same time is how we align their vision and create systems and structures to support the work in schools,” explains Courtney Strozyk, Executive Director, Program Implementation at New Leaders. Faced with the urgent need to accelerate student learning, districts like VPS are seeking longer-term solutions that develop instructional leaders like Graham who can close opportunity gaps.

We spoke with Graham to learn more about her journey and professional learning. Here are her top five ways that New Leaders strengthened her leadership—and why she is excited to grow more in this new school year. 

Empowered me as an instructional leader

In addition to gaining new strategies and tools, Graham sees the impact on her students. “I now have a better understanding of effective classroom instruction, how to assess student progress, how to provide meaningful feedback. As a result, I'm better able to support and develop my teachers and foster a culture of continuous improvement in our classrooms.”

Fueled more data-driven decision making

Building on existing data practices, Graham was able to take her team to the next level. Data analysis and collaborative meetings became even more effective. “We really drilled down into the data and looked for areas of growth. Then we made more informed decisions that positively impacted student achievement.” 

Expanded our community partnerships

Encouraged to broaden and redefine key stakeholders, Graham began building new collaborative relationships with multiple homeowner associations. Together they established a plan to meet monthly to discuss school and community needs—specifically, as she explains, “how we can support them as they support us.”

Helped to cultivate a culture of trust

From active listening techniques to staff assessments to strategies for tough (and necessary) conversations, Graham gained valuable feedback that deepened her relationships among her team members. “Having those hard conversations that you have to have with staff, parents and students is an area where I really struggled—and where I grew the most.” 

Aligned with our district plan

“There’s a very clear focus in the work that New Leaders does and it meshes with our VPS partnership plan for principal development,” explains Graham. She and her coach have already identified her goals and areas of focus for this coming school year—and outlined them in her district plan. “I’m excited about that.”

“Coaching district leaders and school leaders at the same time is how we align their vision and create systems and structures to support the work in schools."
Courtney Strozyk, Executive Director, Program Implementation, New Leaders

The other thing that excites Graham is her students and teachers returning in late August. “I’m like a kid those first weeks of school. I get so excited to see how our students grew over the summer and to reunite with families. I’m excited to discuss our vision and priorities with my teachers this school year. I’m excited about our two PD days. I want to be really intentional so teachers leave feeling that it was valid and meaningful.” 

Her advice to leaders right now

“Love what you do. The job is hard. The work will never go away. Self-care is extremely important as is prioritizing what needs to be done now and what can wait. Our number one priority is to our kids. And if you don’t love what you do, it shows.”

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Jessica Graham

Jessica Graham

Jessica Graham currently serves as the principal for Hough Elementary School in Vancouver Public Schools (VPS). Prior to leading at Hough, she served as an associate principal for six years and as a special services manager for the district, supporting special education. She began her career as an elementary school teacher.

Jessica Graham

Jessica Graham

Jessica Graham

Jessica Graham

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