High Performing Principals in Historically Low-Performing Minority-Serving
Schools: A Glimpse into the Success of 90/90/90 Schools in South Central
W. Sean Kearney, EdD
David Herrington, PhD
Texas A&M University-San Antonio
This study explores the experiences of principals in South Central Texas whose
schools have the following characteristics: a student body composed of at least 90% ethnic
minorities; 90% of students receiving free or reduced lunch, and passing ratios of 90% or
higher on standardized achievement tests. A concept map was constructed to visually
represent the lessons gleaned from this panel. Results of this study indicate that 90/90/90
principals in South Central Texas provide stable leadership, over time, by increasing
support structures, enhancing trust, and emphasizing relationships with various levels of
constituencies while simultaneously reducing potential threats to school success.
Key Words: sustainability, principal tenure, trust, mindfulness
“I was at…the highest functioning school in our district. And what I discovered after 4
years was these kids were smarter than I was. So I called [the superintendent], and I said, ‘Jack,
get me out of here. You know why you put me over here; I’m just good at (expletive deleted),
and keeping your parents satisfied, but I need to know if I know anything about teaching school.
I want a school that’s really having difficulty,’ and he sent me [there] saying I was a nut”
(Principal Panelist, March 27, 2010). There are some principals who feel a sense of calling to
work for schools with the greatest need. For principals like this, working for affluent
monochromatic schools is simply not an option. Hand in hand with this calling comes a unique
challenge – how do you get students to succeed academically when the school itself has a history
of low performance?
Design of the Study
Schools have arrived at a critical juncture where equity and excellence share equal
importance at both policy and practice levels in American society. The need to understand
principal behaviors and perspectives that lead to higher levels of achievement among all
populations of children is great (Brown, 2010). Within the context of this mindset, this study was
designed to identify top producing principals within a selected Education Service Center (ESC)
in South Texas and to interview these individuals regarding their attributions of success.
Based on researchers’ findings, this concept paper represents one of several connected
efforts to capture the essence of what goes on in 90/90/90 schools. 90/90/90 schools have a
student body composed of at least 90% ethnic minorities, at least 90% of its students qualifying
for free or reduced lunch, and achieves passing percentages of 90% or higher on standardized
tests (Reeves, 2004). To determine whether there were any 90/90/90 schools in South Central
Texas, data were obtained from the state accountability reporting instrument entitled,
“Accountability Ratings by Region: Region 20: San Antonio” (Texas Education Agency, 2009).
The three most recent years of testing and demographic data for 664 schools in this region were
examined, using the following criteria: 1) schools with 90% ethnic minority population; 2)
schools in which 90% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, and 3) schools that had an
over-all passing rate of 90% or better on the math and language arts sections of the state’s
mandated competency test (the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). Fifteen schools met
these stringent criteria. Six of these principals agreed to participate in a 90/90/90 principal focus
group. These six leaders represented a cross section of gender and ethnicity. Two panelists were
male; four were female. Two panelists were Anglo; one panelist was African American, and
three panelists were Hispanic. The proceedings of the panel presentation were digitally recorded
in audio and video and subsequently transcribed. This study records their insights and
interactions which also are treated herein as a focus group. Finally, researchers developed a
concept map to show the possible roles of various principal qualities and conditions that
reinforce a culture of commitment to high levels of school achievement in both equity and
Responses were coded into recurrent themes which form the basis for the findings
presented in this article. The most significant areas of agreement among the 90/90/90 principal
panelists were: 1) the role of support structures; 2) building relationships; 3) principal longevity;
4) stability; 5) the role of trust; 6) staff development based on identified needs; 7) refining the
shared vision, and 8) sustaining a culture of learning and achievement. While these emergent
themes were specific to the panelists of this study, the uniqueness of their success in similar
circumstances strongly suggests that there is good reason to examine each of these areas more
completely, both within this concept paper and in future research efforts.
Stability over Time
Perhaps the most overarching theme found among the six 90/90/90 principals was
“Stability of Leadership over Time,” on each campus. Principals who had been involved within
the community, the school district, or, especially the campus, for an extended period of time,
offered the greatest stability. In some cases, the principal had taught the parents of children
currently on their campus. (One principal quipped about her longevity on her campus, saying that
when she has seen the grandparents of her former students come through her school, perhaps it
may be time to retire.) In one case, there was a principal who had served as assistant principal on
the same campus, having inherited the support structures and relationships that had existed
during the previous administration. In this case, the teachers already knew the system. In fact,
they were the system. It was the prolonged period of engagement by each principal in the study
with the community that provided the richness of understanding and empathy needed to have
credibility with the parents, teachers, and students. Two of these principals indicated that the
current campus was the only campus where they had ever worked – first as a teacher, then as
assistant principal and most recently, as principal. Two other panelists indicated that they had
previously served at the same campus, but in a different role, before being promoted. The final
two principals came from within the same school district and knew the campus before they took
the position. They all felt that their contribution to school success came from maintaining
existing campus initiatives.
In the view of the participants, stable leadership positively impacts school success. One
principal told us the following story that shed light on this concept. “I think probably what kind
of helped in our particular case is the fact that, back in the ‘90s, … all the stakeholders that were
involved with the school [completed a survey]…and the survey hit upon about 36 effective
schools indicators. So everybody took the survey… and the results showed what key areas we
were low at, and which were the ones that we had particular strength at.” It is striking to note that
this principal attributes her current success in 2010 to a survey her campus completed in the
1990s. This principal had served at the same campus in various capacities for more than 35
Providing further stability are the support structures on each of these campuses. Without
safety, students can’t focus on their school work (Valenzuela, 2005). “I’m very big on
discipline,” one principal stated, “To me, if you have discipline in your school – then you don’t
take away from instruction.” Another panelist agreed, explaining that after a particular rule
infraction and subsequent consequence, parents were incredulous. “At the beginning you get,
‘For that?’ ‘Yes ma’am.’ And after a little bit the word gets out –as long as you’re consistent.”
Mindful Allocation of Staffing Resources
Regarding the capacity to teach children, the 90/90/90 principals asserted that people and
relationships are far more important than programs. The capacity to teach can be expanded
through effective staff development, but the capacity to care for children as unique individuals
cannot be taught. Hiring for “heart” was a priority. As one principal indicated, “When I interview
a person, I’m not concerned about how smart they are – I’m concerned about the heart they have.
I can teach you how to teach school, but I can’t teach you how to love children. So that is very
important.” Staffing the campus with the right personnel sets the school up for success (De
Cicco, 1985). For one principal, this meant hiring a math facilitator; another hired a reading
specialist, and several hired community liaisons. School leaders, in this study, identified a need
on their respective campuses and allocated resources to address that need, including materials,
staffing, and staff development.
Once staff and students feel safe, relationships can be built (Noddings, 2005). “It’s about
people. It’s not about programs. Programs come and go, but I really think it’s about the people”
(Principal Panelist, March 27, 2010). The relationship between the principal and his/her staff is
the foundation of school success (Tschannen-Moran, 2004). As one principal said, “I’m out in
the classrooms a lot. And I talk to them. I find out what their interests are. I know each one of my
teachers and a little bit about their family. I build those types of relationships with them. I find
out also what their goals are, and I try to help them achieve those goals.” Another principal
spoke to the importance of casual conversations to make the teachers feel at ease, while a third
principal told us that he plays poker with several members of his faculty once a month. The
approaches may vary, but each of these principals emphasized good relationships with their
teachers as key to their campus success.
The phrase, “Kids first,” was repeated by the principals in this focus group time and
again. “One thing that no matter who you ask on my staff, they will always tell you kids come
first. We don’t deviate from that,” one principal said. “Anything that we do, all of our decisions
are based on what’s best for kids. Kids come first” (Principal Panelist, 2010). Another
administrator added, “If I’ve got a hungry kid, I’m going to feed him. If I’ve got a teacher that’s
having difficulty, I’m going to help her or him.” Building relationships between teachers and
students creates inroads for success. One principal told an interesting story that demonstrates the
power of relationships. “I bought pizza for all the kids…I told the teachers, you know take the
afternoon off and chill, you know, no book covering, no writing paragraphs about what you did
over the vacation – and get to know your kids, talk to them, and let them know you, too. Eat your
pizza, relax, get to know one another, because the stronger the relationship you develop with
each of these kids – is going to take you a lot farther than anything you can possibly do,
especially around crunch time.”
Schools are an integral part of the local community (Fiore, 2006). “I would say some of
the key components that we have is (sic.)…really knowing your campus. You need to know your
students; you need to know your community,” said one administrator. Part of knowing the
community is addressing the needs of the whole child (Mack, 2008). “Our philosophy is teachers
can teach children who are healthy, and healthy children come from healthy families. So, if you
have an unhealthy family in your neighborhood, no one is going to do anything about that if you
don’t” (Principal Panelist, 2010). As one principal said, “Anything that’s happening at the
apartments, I wish I could say, ‘Go to the manager.’ It comes to our campus. Anything that
happens on the outside, we deal with it.” How that relationship between the school and the
community is finessed is a delicate art. If a school makes parents feel unwelcome, they risk
losing parental and community support altogether (Bryk, 2010).
Another theme that resonated clearly was that of trust. With trust comes greater
engagement and ability to focus on the vision. Trust diminishes the likelihood of teachers leaving
unfulfilled at the end of the year. It increases the likelihood of teachers becoming more engaged
or “in the mix.” The principal’s trust in the teachers’ willingness to recognize and admit to
shortcomings was important. Safety on the part of teachers to admit their shortcomings in a
trusting context triggered help-seeking behavior on their part. This, in turn, helps to eliminate
teacher isolation and teacher burnout (Tschannen-Moran, 2004). Principals who communicated
their disdain for the blame game that often plagues less successful schools helped to increase a
feeling of safety, fostering trust.
Willingness to delegate responsibility regarding decisions about curriculum, instruction,
and staff development further built each school’s capacity for trust. Principals build trust among
their faculty by sharing meaningful authority with them (Adler, 1996). As one administrator
informed us, “I delegate. Write that down. Delegate. It will keep you from having all the heart
attacks I’ve had. The issue in this business is, you can’t do it folks, I’m telling you. You cannot
run a school by yourself. It can not be done, and delegating issues to people will build power and
trust in themselves, and so all of a sudden teachers feel like they are a real affirmative part of
Another way to build teacher trust is through positive affirmation (Cummings & Bromily,
1996). “There are a lot of great things going on in classrooms, and a lot of great teaching going
on that I was not aware of before I got to be an administrator – that I only saw in my classroom.
Now I see, I’m just amazed at what these teachers…are doing out there” (Principal Panelist,
March 27, 2010). When teachers trust one another, they can begin to ask authentic questions
(Short & Greer, 1997). “On this campus,” said one of the panelists, “it is a virtue to say, ‘I don’t
know what’s happening. This is not happening in my classroom. I must have slept through this
during training, but I need some help.’” Teachers trust administrators who have demonstrated the
ability to advocate upwards to central office on their behalf (Butler & Cantrell, 1984). One
principal shared a story to demonstrate this idea, “So the teachers found a program – the Success
for All. They’re the ones that found the program – I’d never heard of it. And they brought it in,
and then we started building on that, and I told all the supervisors in the district, ‘Don’t come to
my campus. We’re just going to work on Reading this year.’” This story demonstrates not only
the trust that teachers could legitimately have in their principal to advocate on their behalf; it also
demonstrates the high level of trust which the district had in this principal.
Teacher-Centered Staff Development
As trust builds between teachers and administrators, staff members are empowered to
take responsibility for their own professional development. It may sound like a simple concept,
but convincing adults that every individual on campus has areas that should continually be
improved can be a difficult sell (Orlich, 1989). Once the staff members understand and embrace
the concept of life-long, self-actualized learning, they will be better able to embrace needed
change (Hall & Hord, 1987). Some principals in the group designed their professional
development around teacher needs, while others on the panel preferred to enhance teacher
strengths. Regardless of their perspective, all 6 principals emphasized the need for continued
adult learning which was designed to meet the unique needs of their campus. As one principal
put it, staff development, “absolutely… has to go with the needs of that campus. Once again it
comes back to you have to know your kids. You have to know your campus because staff
development for mine is going to be very different from (a campus) at the opposite end of the
Diminishing the Inhibiting Factors to Student Success
The 90/90/90 principal panelists also indicated the importance of working to diminish
inhibiting factors on their campuses. One factor they identified that can inhibit school-wide
success is teacher isolation (Drago-Severson & Pinto, 2006). One principal explained how she
moved from isolationism towards collaboration in the following manner, “There wasn’t (sic.)
enough 2 way types of conversations and collaboration. We would get together for grade level
meetings, and the blame game was played a lot. You know, 4th
grade blamed 3rd
primary, so the bottom line for this particular project was the teachers get together and formulate
a plan. If these are your weaknesses, then what’s the plan to address them? So the teachers sat
down and developed collaborative meetings between 2nd
, and set ground rules.
And it set the tone or the morale that was going to be more collaborative, rather than this…blame
Another factor that principals in this focus group addressed was the reduction of
uncommitted or untrained staff on their campus. They accomplished this either through staff
development or through career counseling. As one principal put it, “Two things happen your first
year – you’ll be challenged a lot from a lot of different people because they want to see where
your parameters are. Secondly, you’ll have staff that wants to transfer after your first year. I am
telling you that is one of the healthiest things that can happen. Districts never look at that as a
negative. Because then you’re able to hire your people, and then your growth really starts.”
Another panelist agreed with the importance of helping some individuals find a different school
or career when she said, “You’re going to have A players, B players, and C players. You can
make a B player an A player. It’s a lot harder to make a C player an A player. But on your
campus, you need to have A players all the time. So it’s just a matter of how do you get them
there? And then you will have those that will never be A players. And so those are the tough
decisions that as an administrator we have to make – where we go from here – once again how is
that affecting kids? Remember, if we have a C player, one year of instruction for a student that
has lost a key component, it is difficult for them to regain. We can continue to grow that teacher,
and that teacher’s getting successful. The thing is that student still has a year that they lost. You
know what? We don’t have time. We really don’t. It might sound horrible, but it’s a reality, that
we can not afford to have a weak link continue, because that kid keeps on falling.”
Refining a Shared Vision by Working Together
All of the principals in this focus group have found ways to address inhibiting factors
directly while increasing the support structures leading to their school’s success. Regardless of
which factors they have emphasized the most, they each communicated a clear vision which their
staff appears to have personalized. “Visions are written to be attained,” said one administrator,
“Don’t write a pretty vision. Write a vision that will lead you to the next step of success.” A
common leadership flaw is to focus on too many areas of growth (Colvin, 1999). As one
administrator said, “You know we try to teach teachers everything in one year, and you just can’t
do that. So you need to identify one or two things that the probability is very strong that if you
concentrate on those, your achievement will increase. If you have 5 goals, let me tell you, you
fail. Then on those 1 or 2 things, you look at your budget, and you focus your budget to those 1
or 2 things. Teachers are talking about this. Staff development, strategies, meetings, everything
you do is on these one or two things. You’ll get one or two new ones next year, and the next
year, and all of a sudden you’ve done 6 things.” Every one of our panelists pointed to key
decisions that were made by the staff and informed by data. By sharing (or in some cases giving
over) the decision making to their teachers, administrators were able to utilize more than just
their own skill sets to move the campus forward toward greatness.
Toward a Conceptual Framework for Sustaining
High Levels of Equity and Excellence
Finally, the principals in this focus group discussed the impact of the decisions they
made. As a result of their efforts, they found their staffs had increased commitment, higher
expectations, and enhanced levels of trust, while enjoying fewer discipline problems and a
decrease in staff turnover. There does not appear to be one simple formula that can be duplicated
in a scientific manner to lead to that school’s success. Instead, school success appears to be more
situational and contextual. What was found were a number of common themes that these highly
successful principals believe were vital to their school’s success (See Figure 1 below).
The authors noted that the experiences of these principals were not incompatible with
prior research in Educational Leadership and leadership studies in general. The Ohio State
Studies in 1945 provided a way to examine leader behaviors and styles. The constructs
“Initiating Structure” and “Consideration” have been shown to have high validity even today
(Judge, Picollo, & Ilies, 2004). The problem with these two constructs alone was that no
combination of these factors or interaction effects between them could reliably predict successful
outcomes (Bass, 1990). In this study, we used similar terms provided by the six 90/90/90
principals that included “Support Structures” and “Relationships” to describe the context in
which these minority serving schools were operating and succeeding (See Figure 1).
Conclusion: A Concept Model Introduced
The 90/90/90 principals of this study revealed a strong belief that building relationships
was critical to the success of the school. They identified structure as a “good word” and did not
see it as incompatible with relationship or trust factors. Principal longevity was the critical piece
that enabled them to provide the kind of stability that a new principal coming onto a campus
might not be able to achieve in a short time. Support structures and relationships that were
established on each campus were not accidental; these were critical ingredients of building and
sustaining a culture committed to looking for and responding to identified challenges. As these
schools began to initiate change processes, root causes of isolation and complacency among
teachers were identified and eliminated. It is not surprising that the principals reported a
reduction in the number of less committed staff decreasing over time; those who were not
committed to the new vision of meticulously examining pockets of inequity among student
learners eventually came around to take part in the transformation. Those who did not were
encouraged to find a setting more suitable to their own needs, or they simply left on their own.
Simultaneously, building trust among school stakeholders, especially teachers, was
paramount. Each principal had a deliberate strategy for achieving this. Principals emphasized
the role of teacher engagement in the selection and deployment of staff development on their
campus. Teachers identified specific areas of need, and professional development was selected
accordingly. As expectations were rising, teachers led in addressing the issues of equity and
excellence. All of these actions were honed through a lens of a common vision that the staff
members had initially helped implement with the expectations and support of principals who
expected them to take the lead.
The most important piece of the Kearney-Herrington model (Figure 1) is its results-
orientation. As these schools began to experience success, they found that staff turnover
declined; discipline problems diminished, and student success rose dramatically. The
relationships, compassion, and passion that these leaders modeled for teachers have shaped the
attitudes and behaviors needed to bring about the high levels of student success that they realized
on each 90/90/90 campus.
In the Kearney-Herrington model, there is an attempt to show desirable factors increasing
and limiting factors decreasing over time, both on the input side to the left and the output side to
the right. The critical ingredients are depicted at the center of the model as a “lens” through
which the inputs are channeled (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Senge, 1990; Bennis, 1989). This lens
of building the “common vision” and “shared decision-making” revealed by 90/90/90 principals
was developed in a context of trust, expectations, and intentionality. The authors suggest that
without this lens to bring together the simultaneously increasing and decreasing inputs, the high
equity/ high excellence results would likely not have occurred. Finally, the stability of these
schools contributed greatly to their success. Principal longevity within the context of a well-led
school was a consistently reported factor among the successful principals in this study. Principal
longevity could be viewed as reinforcing the other variables that lead to positive outcomes,
including the creation of a culture of commitment.
For principals who feel a sense of calling to serve at schools that have the highest levels
of need, it is important to further explore and identify connections between reinforcing and
limiting factors when it comes to creating and sustaining high performance with respect to both
equity and excellence. The themes that emerged from these interviews provide insight into the
success of high performing minority schools. It is hoped that further investigation will lead to the
development of a more robust model that can inform principals who aspire to work with schools
of highest need.
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Sean Kearney is assistant professor of educational leadership at Texas A&M University-
San Antonio. He has experience as a school administrator and has led regional consortiums
of campus and central office administrators from across South Central Texas. Dr. Kearney
has research interests in the areas of Principal Influence, Change Orientations, School
Culture and Climate, and the confluence of administration, ethics, and emotionally
David E. Herrington is associate professor and coordinator of educational leadership studies at
Texas A&M University-San Antonio. His research agenda includes lean six sigma initiatives
within public schools and universities, innovative applications of social media in teaching and
learning, and oral history of significant events and players in 20th
Century public education.
Figure 1. The Kearney-Herrington Model of Effective School Leadership.
Stable Leadership Over Time
Common Vision Shared Decision Making