Leading an Autonomous School — and How That’s Different From Being a Traditional School Principal

A handful of districts across the country are launching in-district autonomous schools, where schools remain part of the district but are granted some degree of autonomy, similar to what is typically granted to charter schools. As my colleague Mary Wells explained, there are a number of ingredients necessary for success in these schools, one of which is the leader in the building itself. 

Leading an autonomous school is very different from a typical building principal role. As one San Antonio-based autonomous school leader Brian Sparks put it: “This role is not for everyone, and what made you a successful principal may not help you be a successful [autonomous school] leader.” 

I’ve supported fourteen autonomous school leaders in four districts and have noticed that they typically have a few things in common:

Results orientation

Successful autonomous school leaders are driven by delivering better outcomes for their students. Maintaining a laser-like focus on this goal gives them courage to do things differently, such as creating year-round learning for their students or pushing their teams to leverage data to provide tailored support for students. 

Lack of fear

These leaders are fighters and are not afraid of pushing back on — or even ignoring — policies and practices that don’t directly support their plan for increasing student achievement. Successful autonomous school leaders find and thrive in any gray space between district policies and practices, and will secure community partnerships, empower parents, or make swift changes to fill in the gaps. 

Entrepreneurial mindset

Leaders in these roles must fully embrace the entrepreneurial instincts they had as traditional principals. Without the district to direct every instructional, financial, or staff move, autonomous school leaders must have a vision for how they will leverage their autonomy. How will they use budget dollars when they previously had little to no budgeting authority, source talent and creatively design roles that more closely fit their school vision, or explore alternative instructional practices? Leaders need to take risks while continuing to deliver results. 

Clear vision for their school(s)

Leaders need to identify the practices that have made them successful thus far and codify those into a clear, coherent vision. In some communities, high-performing school leaders are given the autonomy to lead networks of more than one school. In these cases, network leaders need help not only codifying their vision, but also thinking about how they will apply that vision across multiple schools. 

Skill at developing talent

Leaders who run networks of autonomous schools must also be able to quickly build the capacity of the leaders under their purview. They must make the shift from the direct coaching of teachers to the systematic leadership development of their principals. 

Strong advocacy skills

Once in the role, autonomous school leaders have to turn their fighting spirit into advocacy for the concept of autonomy, especially when charters with similar autonomy remain controversial in many communities. They need the political savvy to show district leaders, current and prospective staff, and families how they are leveraging the increased freedom of in-district autonomous schools. They will frequently need to nudge or even teach central office staff about their role and the school’s status in order to safeguard their autonomy while maintaining healthy district relationships.    

School leaders entrusted by their district to pioneer this foray into increased school autonomy need the proper supports in place. But districts need to start by selecting people with the prerequisite strengths and qualities needed to thrive in these new roles. 

A future post will consider the support from the central office these leaders will need once they enter the role. Stay tuned