Rachel is the Principal of Eastern Senior High School, a D.C. Public School. She was also the Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.
My goal in posting interviews with successful leaders in education like Rachel is to inspire us to reflect on how our own choices, goals, and actions can affect our lives, our leadership, and our teams.
WDP: Thank you so much for sharing with us, Rachel. First, we want to get to know you. Can you introduce yourself and explain what led you into educational leadership?
Rachel: I’m the proud principal of Eastern Senior High School, a turnaround DC Public School. I began my education career as a teacher at my alma mater, Boston Latin School, where I taught English for seven years.
I transitioned to administration through a program called the Boston Principal Fellowship, which allowed me to intern for an academic year under an experienced school leader. After my fellowship, I assumed the principal role at Another Course to College, a small pilot Boston public high school.
I then had the privilege to serve as Chief of Staff for the Superintendent of Boston Public Schools. The opportunity arose for me to re-launch Eastern Senior High School in Washington, DC, beginning with a ninth grade cohort and adding a great each year. It has been an amazing experience as we prepare to reach our full size in 2014-2015.
This past December, I was named a Principal Ambassador Fellow by the United States Department of Education. It allows me to engage with principals nationwide about critical issues in school leadership.
WDP: As an educational leader, what would you consider your biggest wins so far?
Rachel: I am extremely pleased by what our team has achieved at Eastern thus far. We have been authorized as an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. Over 50% of our 11th graders are enrolled in IB or AP classes.
Our standardized test scores showed proficiency rates that were over 30 points higher than Eastern’s proficiency rates before the re-launch.
I’m also proud of the talented team of faculty and staff that we’ve assembled. Our retention rates of effective and highly effective teachers are amongst the highest in the entire district.
WDP: No one leads well without also experiencing failure along the way. Can you describe a failure you have faced and how you overcame it?
Rachel: I was a national finalist for the national White House Fellows program two years in a row and didn’t get selected either time. It was disappointing, as I was eager to move to DC and work with the Obama administration.
However, I started to look into other opportunities in DC, which led me to my dream job at Eastern Senior High School.
To be able to serve in this role while now also working with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his team on issues that affect school principals just proves that life is a combination of making it happen and letting it happen.
WDP: What is something that is really working for you or your team right now? What lessons have you learned from this?
Rachel: Because we have been adding a grade level each year, we have an extraordinary amount of hiring to do each spring. The process is one that strengthens our existing school community because we have a robust personnel committee to which all are welcomed.
When candidates come in, they meet an amazing cross section of staff members, and the benefit for me is that I get multiple perspectives on whether an applicant is the right fit for our team.
WDP: Strong leaders are constantly learning. What is a great book or resource that has helped you grow and that you would recommend to others?
Rachel: I loved Carol Dweck’s Mindset. My whole faculty and staff will read it this summer, and we are going to very intentionally incorporate key lessons into our students’ Advisory curriculum next school year.
WDP: What advice do you have for leaders who struggle to balance work/life demands?
Rachel: Honestly, I need some advice for others on this. Turnaround school leadership does not lend itself to work/life balance. The one thing that has worked for me is to commit to something on weekends that I prioritize above most else. The gym serves as a a great stress relief.
WDP: Thank you so much for sharing with us. Please offer one parting word of wisdom for the rest of us, and then tell us how we can connect with you.
Rachel: You can’t inspire others if you aren’t personally inspired by the work.
Please “Like” Eastern on Facebook (www.facebook.com/easternhighschool). You’re welcome to message me there anytime.
WDP: What a great opportunity to learn from Rachel Skirrett! If you are interested in being a part of the most exciting school turnaround movement in Washington, D.C., you can click here to help by contributing to the re-launch of Rachel’s school, Eastern Senior High School.
Now It’s Your Turn
Rachel uses a strong team approach to the selection of new staff. What are some tips from your experience in finding and retaining great teachers and staff members?