Principal Karin Jones

If the students of Chinook Middle School are surprised to see aspiring school leaders gather in the foyer and sit in on their classes they take it in stride. These middle school students are an integral part of a living textbook designed to deepen understanding of instructional leadership and offer authentic practice to the University of Washington’s Danforth Educational Leadership Program cohort.

Providing instructional leadership has become one of the most important tasks principals must perform, as outlined in Standard 4 of the newly-released national Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015: "Effective educational leaders develop and support intellectually rigorous and coherent systems of curriculum, instruction, and assessment to promote each student’s academic success and well-being."

But how do aspiring leaders develop the knowledge and skills necessary to enact this deep level of instructional leadership? The Danforth program has designed a unique approach to prepare educational leaders that includes several authentic, live classroom learning walkthroughs conducted at a single school site.

Danforth’s Evolving Model

In the past, Danforth students participated in collaborative learning walks at two or three different schools each year. Danforth instructors decided to make those school visits even more intensive two years ago, redesigning their learning model to more fully capitalize on the host principal’s instructional leadership expertise.

During the 2014-2015 school year, the Danforth 27 cohort made multiple visits to both Chinook Middle School and White Center Heights Elementary School in the Highline School District. This year, Danforth students conducted three connected site visits at Chinook MS. Through these visits, Chinook Principal Karin Jones demonstrated how she and the school's leadership team collect observational data, use this data to inform feedback to teachers, and determine professional learning needs in order to realize the school’s mission and goals.

School and University Collaboration

Preparing and leading three cohesive school site visits required close coordination between Jones and UW instructor Dr. Anneke Markholt. To understand the school’s context, Danforth students explored publicly accessible data such as student achievement results, attendance and demographics in advance of their visit. During August, Jones also spent half a day with the Danforth cohort members to describe the story of the school, current strengths, challenges and goals.

Full-day site visits to Chinook were held during September, October and November, each focused on applying the knowledge and skills essential to building instructional capacity.

"The most important goal for principals today is to grow the teaching capacity at their schools," Dr. Markholt said. "We feel it's essential to prepare future school leaders to take on this challenge and develop a strengths-based approach to support teacher growth."

Through the school visits, Danforth students built their foundational knowledge in:

  • Observing and analyzing teaching and learning
  • Using an instructional framework to support observation and analysis of instructional practice
  • Maintaining a strengths-based stance when conducting feedback conversations with teachers
  • Learning how to track, monitor and support teacher learning and practice

Being on a middle school campus once a month offered Danforth aspiring leaders access to the dynamic Chinook leadership team. Jones—often joined by Assistant Principal Gil Parsens and coach Joan Ferrigno—shared authentic problems of student learning and demonstrated how they were working alongside the Chinook teachers to reshape practice to better meet the needs of all learners.

“The transparency of the school leadership—administrators, teachers and students—allowed for such honest and rigorous learning," said Danforth student Sarah Boerner Albertson. "The Chinook visits painted a strong picture of the power of positive leadership in schools.”

Additional classes led by Dr. Markholt at UW’s Seattle campus reinforced these experiences and deepened instructional leadership capabilities through course discussions, readings and development of leadership products. To deepen daily practice, each Danforth member also serves a 1,000-hour, yearlong internship, with 400 of these hours devoted to instructional leadership experiences.

Valuable Insights Gained from the Field

Danforth’s aspiring leaders identified these site visits as exceptional opportunities to observe instructional leadership in action. Jamie Lee, a member of Danforth 28, noted “It is very valuable to see an administrator be vulnerable and share her experiences and her thinking. Not only does it give us a lens in how principals shape their schools, but it provides a significant connection between what we learn at the university and what happens on-site at schools.”

Looking Ahead

Holding classes at a school site with middle school students present offers unique challenges but both Markholt and Jones believe the potential impact on developing instructional leaders is worth the extra effort. “Seeing an accomplished instructional leader at work brought the research and theory from the readings to 'life' and provided an authentic vision for what building instructional capacity entails, with all of the complexities in play,” Dr. Markholt said.

From Jones’ perspective, “Instructional leadership is complicated. This experience reminded me that we are always learning together and together we are committed to ensuring that the students we serve have access to high-quality instruction and learning in every classroom, every day.”

And while the school visits have been designed to develop aspiring leaders, Jones found the experience to be personally beneficial as well. “I found my time with Danforth interns to be really exhilarating," she said. "Planning and facilitating experiences that highlight the 'real work' of school leaders was a good opportunity to slow down and think what is key and what do new administrators need to know right now that will support and prepare them for future leadership opportunities.”

Plans are already under way to prepare similar on-site learning experiences for incoming Danforth 29 cohort members who will begin the program in summer 2016.

More Information on Danforth

Each year, the Danforth program seeks equity-driven, learning-focused, collaborative leaders to join a one-year, competency-based program supported by a performance guarantee. Since 2014, we have guaranteed our graduates’ performance in Building Instructional Capacity and extended our guarantee to include competencies in Driving Improvement with Data and Shaping Culture and Leading Change.

“With 96% of our past two cohorts already serving as principals, assistant principals and program directors and nearly 700 graduates leading throughout the Puget Sound area, state and nation," said Director Ann O'Doherty, "it is imperative that we prepare Danforth leaders for the complex role of delivering equity and excellence for each and every child.”

To nominate an aspiring leader for the upcoming cohort, or to learn more about Danforth’s innovative program and one-of-a-kind performance guarantee visit the Danforth Educational Leadership Program website.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications


Ann O'Doherty, Director, Danforth Educational Leadership Program