Flying Colors - Success Story


by Elaina Hundley, Membership Coordinator

Kathleen Decker, principal at Walter Bracken, Walter Long, and Hollingsworth STEAM Academies in Clark County School District (CCSD), Nevada, is not new to success. She was named Magnet Schools of America (MSA) Principal of the Year in 2013 for her vibrant leadership skills and ability to turn around Walter Bracken, which in 2001 was a failing school and has recently made the news again. Since her initial MSA recognition, two more schools have been placed under her leadership. One ingredient of her success with all three schools is her use of the empowerment method.

The empowerment method is a model that may ultimately be used in a reorganization plan for CCSD. The state of Nevada already has a number of Empowerment Schools and the method is working both in Ms. Decker’s schools and beyond. However, Empowerment Schools and the method that fuels them, are not new and are not limited to CCSD. Several other states have begun implementing the method which originated in Canada.

So what is the empowerment method? 

Mike Strembitsky developed the empowerment concept (or site-based school management) during his tenure as the Superintendent of Edmonton Schools in Canada and helped to lead the implementation of his method in CCSD. The method is also used in the New York Public School System, Pasadena School District in California, and in Hawaii. It’s a very simple premise: empowerment schools enable principals, teachers, and students to determine how the schools actually operate. Instead of the district telling the principal what the school needs and the principal filtering instructions down to the teachers, principals and teachers work together to make decisions and problem solve - this applies to budgeting and operations issues as well as curricular level concerns.  Principals then report this information to their district offices. These schools are held accountable for the same district standards as non-empowered schools but have a little bit more freedom in reaching their goals.

For most schools, the ability to function as a fully empowered school is typically initiated at the district level, but there are many ways that school leaders and teachers can use this same philosophy in the way that they manage both their staff and their classrooms on a day to day basis.

Simple Ways to “Empower” your School or Classroom  

When speaking with Ms. Decker regarding the use of the empowerment method she described some of the smaller scale ways to utilize the concept as a leader within a school and as a leader within the classroom. Below are some of her tips for implementing this method in the day to day operations of schools and classrooms. 


As a principal:

  • Instead of responding to a problem with an immediate solution, seek to brainstorm a solution with your teachers. Vote together on a solution to a school-wide problem then see how the solution you developed as a team goes. A month or so later, re-evaluate the solution as a team and if a new solution needs to be implemented, repeat the process - brainstorm, vote, and try again. Two heads are better than one and five heads are better than two, collaboration yields a wealth of creative ideas and also allows for staff to have autonomy in decision making processes. As a result, faculty and staff will feel more invested in the outcome of each solution.
  • Include faculty and staff on budgetary discussions whenever possible. Although the district office may ultimately have the final say on a budgeting decision, those closest to the classroom may have the most realistic perspective on how much money is required to meet student needs. Teachers may also have keener insights into what technology or classroom tools are working best for students. Input from teachers can help schools and districts make wiser and more practical investments.

As a teacher:

  • Provide students with choices. Many magnet school educators are already terrific at providing choices for students. Giving students autonomy is the key to the empowerment method at the classroom level. Just as principals can empower their teachers to share opinions and take part in decision making processes, students can also be a part of critical decisions in their classrooms.  

When students are given the ability to collaborate with their teachers and have opportunities to reason out solutions to problems or choose assignments they believe will work best for their abilities and also pique their interest, they will become more diligent when completing tasks. By giving students the opportunity to contribute to decisions about how their class is run, or about how they will complete assignments, teachers also communicate to the students that they trust and respect their ability to make positive choices.

It might sound like common sense, but sometimes making these simple adjustments is easier said than done. However, it is clear that when both teachers and students feel that their opinions are being heard and that they are able to contribute to critical decisions, they ultimately feel more invested in their work.

Learn more about Kathleen Decker’s school turn-around story at Walter Bracken STEAM here

Learn more about CCSD here

Interested in sharing your magnet school success?

Email Elaina Hundley at elaina.hundley@magnet.edu to share your stories with the rest of Magnet Schools of America.

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Posted January 2017