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date: 20 September 2018

Promoting Student Success in Low-Performing Schools

Summary and Keywords

The growing economic and employment disparities between members of different socioeconomic groups often paint a bleak future for people living in marginalized communities. These conditions are reflected in many low-performing urban schools where dropouts, behavioral problems, and poor academic performance prevail. In the United States, large numbers of adolescents have a sense of hopelessness, particularly among racial and ethnic minority groups. Despite these challenging circumstances, school leaders are well positioned to build these urban students’ hope for a bright future. Using hope theory—goal development, agency, and pathways—as a foundation, the article describes ways school leaders can become agents of hope, which is reinforced by research from an international study of leadership in low-performing schools. The article concludes by examining how leadership preparation and development programs can influence aspiring and practicing school leaders’ capacities to become agents of hope.

Keywords: low-performing urban schools, hope, student success, leadership practice and development

Promoting Student Success in Low-Performing Schools: Principals as Agents of Hope

The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (French philosopher)

Confidence in American public schools has been wavering for the past three decades since the release of the Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). This report was a springboard for policy makers, business organizations, and citizens to support several waves of educational reform that have continued into the 21st century. An alarming number of students are dropping out of school, indicating parents and their children are losing faith in our educational systems’ ability to prepare our youth for future success. Consider these statistics: over one million students in the 2012 graduating class dropped out of school, students living in poverty are five time more likely to drop out of school, and poverty rates for Hispanic and Black families are three times higher than White families (Rumberger, 2013).

The plight of students in urban school systems is even more alarming, as evidenced by (a) high levels of poverty, mobility, homeless families, children in foster care, incarcerated students, drug abuse, and English Language Learners (ELL) (Barnett & Stevenson, 2015; Duke, 2008a, 2012b; Picus, Marion, Calvo, & Glenn, 2005); (b) limited instructional resources for teachers who have little control over the curriculum (Chung, 2005; National Center for Education Statistics, 1996); (c) politicized school boards, cumbersome central office bureaucracies, incoherent instructional practices, inadequate data management systems, and decaying buildings (Jacob, 2007; National Center for Education Statistics, 2006); (d) high teacher absenteeism, low morale, and constant turnover (Barnett & Stevenson, 2015; Duke, 2008a, 2012b; Picus et al., 2005); and (e) lack of qualified applicants to fill principal vacancies (The New Teacher Project, 2006).

These challenges continue when students from marginalized urban communities finish their formal K-12 schooling and enter the workforce. Recent analyses indicate large discrepancies in economic and employment opportunities based on education level and social class. For instance, over the past 25 years, hourly earnings of college-educated males rose from 20–56%, whereas earnings for males with a high school education declined by 11% and earnings for those who dropped out of school declined by 22% (Autor, 2014). During this same time, the net worth of college-educated households increased by 47% (average of $1,000,000); however, high school educated households’ net worth decreased by 17% (to slightly under $200,000) (Putnam, 2015). In addition, job prospects for high school and college graduates are becoming more limited and tenuous, especially for many people of color who tend to attend segregated public schools and/or universities with lower Carnegie classifications (Bowen & Bok, 1998). Because opportunities for higher-paying jobs are becoming far more competitive, Weis and Dimitriadis (2008) sound a clear warning of the continuing struggles for certain individuals in our society:

Those historically disenfranchised [groups] may or may not be running faster and doing more (the successful among them), but it is, quite simply, going to be increasingly difficult to catch up given that the middle and upper middle classes are running faster as well. (p. 2298)

The consequence of being raised in households and communities with limited resources and opportunities is that many students of color have lost hope in the ability to control their lives and become productive members of society. Hope is defined as a positive motivational state that influences peoples’ ability to expend energy to pursue individual goals (Helland & Winston, 2005). Unfortunately, many children living in poverty are likely to encounter events that reinforce their sense of hopelessness and do not experience enough “mastery experiences” that allow them to understand how they can improve their situation and solve problems (Duckworth, 2016). Duncan-Andrade (2009) contends there has been an “assault on hope . . . in our nation’s urban centers” (p. 181) due to underfunding schools and overfunding jails and prisons. Although American adolescents and undergraduate students tend to be more hopeful than their counterparts in other countries (Lester, 2013, 2015), studies indicate that about 30% of American adolescents have a sense of hopelessness (Child Trends, 2012), which often is associated with high suicide rates (Beck, Brown, Berchick, Stewart, & Steer, 1990; Jain, Singh, Gupta, & Kumar, 1999). Being hopeful is not always related to talent or income (Duckworth, 2016; Gallup, 2009a); however, dropout and suicide statistics indicate significant numbers of students have given up on their educational future, which can negatively affect their income, increase the likelihood of being incarcerated, and raise the probability of enrolling in social programs (Sum, Khatiwada, McLaughlin, & Palma, 2009).

Many oppressed and marginalized students do not possess a sense of hope for a successful future life. For instance, inner-city African American adolescents report high levels of hopelessness, particularly when they are repeatedly exposed to violence, experience constant disruptions in parental stability, lack a sense of community, and have no religious affiliation (Bolland, Lian, & Formichella, 2005). In addition, hopelessness prevails in many Native American communities (Johnson & Tomren, 1999), especially for students who move to urban areas and do not possess a sense of cultural competence (LaFromboise, Albright, & Harris, 2010). Conversely, some evidence suggests undocumented immigrant students appear to be extremely resilient, are quite hopeful, have high grade point averages, are academically engaged, and possess high educational aspirations (Bahena, 2015; Gonzales, 2008; Perez, Espinosa, Ramos, Coronado, & Cortes, 2009).

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words provide a resounding statement of the effects of hopelessness:

A great deal of violence happens among young persons who feel that their lives will end in a cul-de-sac. They may come from depressed communities and lack father figures or caring adults. Without human comforts and outlets for wholesome recreation, they may turn to drugs for excitement and seek status or security in guns and knives. They desperately want to count but take short cuts to gaining respect. If you can’t be recognized for doing good, maybe people will take notice of you if you are troublesome. (as cited in Brendtro, Brokenleg, & Van Brockern, 1990, p. x)

If hopelessness is so pervasive, especially for students living in poverty and attending urban schools, what can be done to overcome this predicament? Principals and other campus-level leaders are well positioned to implement programs and practices that raise students’ sense of hope, especially when they have networks of family and friends supporting their schooling efforts (Bahena, 2015). Clearly, other individuals and groups (e.g., community-based agencies, faith-based organizations) can address hopelessness (see Weis & Dimitriadis, 2008); however, several factors support the argument that principals have the power and influence to affect students’ future aspirations, goals, and attitudes. First, because students spend substantial amounts of time in elementary and secondary schools during their formative years, principals and teachers are in an ideal position to affect their academic and social outcomes. Second, besides improving their academic skills, principals are being urged to influence students’ life and career skills, including flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, and leadership and responsibility (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d.). Finally, research evidence reveals various school-level interventions (which principals can support) positively influence students’ sense of hope, academic performance, and career development skills (Diemer & Bluestein, 2007; Marques, Pais-Reibero, & Lopez, 2009).

Therefore, school principals are particularly well situated to be agents of hope, creating the conditions that allow students to build their sense of purpose and hope for a bright future. By working collaboratively with teachers, parents, and community members, principals can devote learning resources and create the school climate necessary to affect students’ sense of hope. The foundation for this argument begins by reviewing literature on low-performing schools, especially successful efforts to turn around these schools. Next, the elements of hope theory—goal development, agency, and pathways—are examined followed by a description of how this construct has been measured, programs aimed at improving hope, effects of hope, and leaders’ role in influencing hope. To illustrate how school systems and leaders can provide a more hopeful future for our nation’s youth, the article (a) describes programs and practices educational leaders can use to address the elements of hope theory; and (b) summarizes research findings emerging from the International School Leadership Development Network, a multinational study of school principals who are committed to working in low-performing schools where hopelessness prevails. The article concludes by suggesting how to better prepare and develop school leaders’ capabilities to promote hope in their students and local communities.

Low-Performing Schools

What Constitutes a Low-Performing School?

Accountability trends around the world have identified schools with unique student and community characteristics and low student performance (Duke, 2012b; Leithwood, Harris, & Strauss, 2010). These so called, high-need/low-performing schools mirror many of the characteristics associated with urban education settings, which include: (1) high levels of ethnic minorities, immigrants, mobility, homeless families, children in foster care, incarcerated students, drug abuse, and ELLs; (2) large percentages of students not reaching expected levels of achievement; (3) high numbers of student truancies, suspensions, and dropouts coupled with low attendance and graduation rates; and (4) significant problems with the learning environment, including high teacher and leader turnover, high teacher absenteeism, low staff morale, and financial problems (Duke, 2008a, 2012b).

Given the preponderance of low-performing schools, especially in marginalized urban communities, researchers, practitioners, and policy makers are interested in identifying schools demonstrating strong student performance and high community and parental involvement in the school’s activities (e.g., Waits et al., 2006). Recent investigations of turnaround schools in the United States and cross-national studies of successful low-performing schools provide insights regarding how principals and teachers in these schools are making significant differences in student achievement. These studies provide evidence that principals and teachers can overcome the legacy of poor performance plaguing low-performing schools.

Turning Around Low-Performing Schools

Efforts to improve low-performing schools spawned the school turnaround movement in the 1990s (Duke, 2012b). Although there is a dearth of empirical studies of turnaround leadership, several investigations reveal ways in which leaders alleviate their schools’ low performance. In many instances, school leaders challenge the status quo by demanding teachers either embrace a new direction or force them to look for a new job (Hollar, 2004). Principals and teachers in successful turnaround schools improve literacy programs, increase parental involvement, provide timely data on student progress, develop interventions for low-achieving students, and create new approaches to school discipline (Duke, 2008b; Salmonowicz, 2009). Because turnaround schools require “quick and dramatic” results (Duke, 2012b, p. 9), school leaders direct their initial focus on literacy, daily schedules, targeted intervention and staff development, and teacher teams responsible for data analysis and curriculum alignment (Duke, 2008a; Salmonowicz, 2009).

Evidence also shows that as positive results occur, turnaround school leaders adapt their direct leadership style, becoming more democratic and collaborative with the staff (Ylimaki, Brunderman, Bennett, & Dugan, 2014). Examples include encouraging teacher-directed professional development, establishing teacher-led committees, allowing teachers to set their own improvement goals, increasing teachers’ responsibility for data analysis and curriculum alignment, and scheduling common planning time for teachers (Duke, 2008b, 2012a, 2012b; Halford, 1996). Turnaround leaders also work diligently with teachers to increase their problem-solving capabilities (Chenoweth & Theokas, 2013); develop their commitment to instructional improvement (Herman et al., 2008); examine their beliefs about teaching and learning, increase instructional time for low-performing students, employ new grouping approaches for students, create orderly learning environments, and use different data sources for monitoring student progress (Duke, 2004); redesign the school organization around learning, collaboration, and capacity building (Ylimaki et al., 2014); and support, retain, and develop effective instructors (Duke, 2014; Klar & Brewer, 2013).

Besides working directly with teachers to alter their attitudes and teaching strategies, turnaround principals also promote new programs and procedures. One of the driving philosophies of turnaround principals is the notion of “quick wins,” demonstrating tangible improvements early in the process (Herman et al., 2008). In some cases, school leaders look outside the school by restructuring school governance to foster greater local community involvement and ownership (Halford, 1996), increasing parental involvement and choice (Duke, 2012a, 2012b), and working with local faith-based organizational leaders (Klar & Brewer, 2013). In other instances, they implement internal procedures and processes aimed at increasing classroom processes and effectiveness, such as reducing class size (Halford, 1996), maximizing instructional time (Chenoweth & Theokas, 2013), creating clear and consistent daily schedules (Duke, 2008b), extending the school day (Duke, 2012b), instituting cross-grade ability grouping (Duke, 2012a), implementing single-gender programs (Klar & Brewer, 2013), developing new approaches to school discipline (Duke, 2008b), and targeting interventions for low-achieving students (Duke, 2008b). Finally, principals institute and support instructional interventions, such as targeted literacy and numeracy programs (Duke, 2008b), interim and benchmark testing (Duke, 2012b), and culturally responsive teaching practices (Ylimaki et al., 2014).

International Studies of Low-Performing Schools

Two prominent cross-national studies examining successful principals in a variety of cultural contexts are the International Successful School Principal Project (ISSPP) and the International School Leadership Development Network (ISLDN). Researchers in both projects are investigating how principals and head teachers in historically low-performing schools have dealt with declining student performance and community engagement. Highlights from these studies are summarized below.

The International Successful School Principal Project is the longest currently running international study of successful principals. Established in 2001 to examine successful school principals in seven countries, the project now has 26 participating countries (ISSPP, n.d.). Their findings reveal important qualities of principals leading these schools as well as the major ways they reshape their organizations. First, these leaders are social justice advocates who possess a strong commitment to reducing inequalities for students, believe in the ability of all children to learn, have a sense of persistence and optimism, are flexible, and display emotional sensitivity (Jacobson, 2011; Leithwood, 2005). Second, these leaders set direction by establishing shared goals and purposes; encourage high expectations; develop people by providing professional development for teachers; redesign the organization by increasing professional collaboration and improving home-school relations; and manage instructional programs by staffing wisely, providing instructional support, monitoring performance, and minimizing distractions (Ylimaki, Jacobson, & Drysdale, 2007). Finally, the longer these schools are involved in accountability, school leaders’ concerns about meeting standards diminish; however, they continue to connect standards to their schools’ priorities and use external demands to overcome teachers’ resistance to change (Leithwood, 2005).

Created in 2010, the International School Leadership Development Network is a collaboration between the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) (Barnett & Stevenson, 2015; ISLDN, n.d.). ISLDN researchers from around the world are conducting studies of leaders who are committed to: (a) providing social justice for underrepresented and marginalized students; and (b) working in low-performing schools, typically located in high-poverty communities populated by people of color (ISLDN, n.d.). The social justice strand involves researchers from 12 different countries. Their guiding research questions are: (1) How do social justice leaders make sense of “social justice”? (2) What do social justice leaders do? (3) What factors help and hinder the work of social justice leaders? and (4) How did these school leaders learn to become social justice leaders? These researchers have identified social justice school leaders as those who are committed to reducing inequalities, which is a high priority in their work. Their most recent publication provides a series of case studies from countries around the world capturing social justice leaders’ decision-making processes as well as how their practices are influenced by national policies, mandates, and local contexts (Angelle, 2017).

The second strand, focusing on principals working in low-performing schools, consists of researchers conducting studies in 14 countries (Bryant, Cheng, & Notman, 2014). Research teams are completing in-depth case studies focusing on these research questions: (1) What fosters student learning in low-performing schools? (2) How do principals and other school leaders enhance individual and organizational performance in low-performing schools? and (3) How do internal and external school contexts impact individual and organizational performance in low-performing schools? Researchers are identifying schools and using interview protocols with the school leader, senior staff members, teachers, parents and school council members, and students (Baran & Berry, 2015).

The ISLDN studies confirm and expand findings from research conducted on leadership in turnaround schools. For instance, many school leaders alter the school’s vision and culture by clarifying and communicating desired values and performance expectations (Gu & Johansson, 2012; Hipp & Baran, 2013), implementing comprehensive data collection and decision-making processes (Drysdale, Gurr, & Villalobos, 2012), and being organized and planning thoughtfully (Notman, 2012). In addition, school leaders attempt to gain a better understanding of the factors affecting the community context, especially the assets and values of parents and community organizations. Principals utilize school resources to purchase food for students; work with local agencies to provide medical, social, and educational services; organize multicultural activities for parents and community members; and provide job training for disabled adults (Richardson & Sauers, 2014; Szeto, 2014; Wildy & Clarke, 2012). To gain greater parental involvement, some schools establish formal agreements with parents, requiring them to monitor their children’s homework assignments, attend conferences with teachers, and provide transportation (Hipp & Baran, 2013).

The ISSPP and ISLDN projects conduct research studies aimed at learning about the practices school leaders in various cultural contexts employ to improve student performance. In most cases, these studies are located in school contexts where student performance is low, especially in marginalized communities with high-poverty rates. This is particularly true of the ISLDN studies because research teams in both strands are purposely selecting schools that are underperforming and where leaders profess and practice an unwavering commitment to improving the life chances of marginalized students, ones who historically have experienced oppression and segregation (Angelle, 2017; Theoharis, 2010). Later in the article, examples of leaders’ beliefs and practices from ISLDN studies will be highlighted to showcase their commitment to increasing students’ sense of hope. Before reporting these findings, the concept of hope is examined, including how the construct has been defined and measured, existing programs focusing on hope development, and the positive effects of hope.

The Importance of Developing Hopeful Students

What Is Hope?

Scholars and researchers have conceptualized hope in general and broad terms. For instance, Dufault and Martocchio (1985) identify two spheres of hope—generalized hope and particularized hope. While generalized hope refers to peoples’ general belief of experiencing a beneficial and uncertain future, particularized hope consists of specific events individuals expect to experience in their lives. A more nuanced conceptualization of hope has been described by Duncan-Andrade (2009), who contends that hope is an important way to address the circumstances of marginalized and oppressed students in urban communities. He argues there are two sides of the hope coin. On one side is false hope, which occurs when students are told: (a) any obstacle can be overcome through hard work and perseverance (hokey hope), (b) a single event demonstrates a radical change that may actually be luck or chance (mythical hope), and (c) future conditions and events will be drastically better (deferred hope). Educators, he warns, must be cognizant of how these types of false hope claims can erode students’ faith in educators’ commitment to their future success. The other side of the hope coin is critical hope, which are more realistic and proactive approaches educators can employ to help urban students and their families deal with the persistent inequalities and oppression they experience. Critical hope results when educators provide students with high-quality teaching and learning resources aimed at helping them gain a sense of control in their lives (material hope); demonstrate they care for students by examining the realities of injustice, oppression, and marginalization they face (Socratic hope); and stand alongside students to share their pain, suffering, and successes (audacious hope).

To further refine the concept of hope, scholars in the field of positive psychology developed what has been come to be known as hope theory (Snyder, Irving, & Anderson, 1991). Similar to Beck’s conceptualization of hopelessness, hope theory is comprised of three interrelated components: (a) setting goals, (b) having the agency to achieve goals, and (c) possessing pathways to overcome obstacles in pursing goals (Helland & Winston, 2005; Luthans & Jensen, 2002). Setting goals provides individuals with direction and a future orientation. High-hope individuals pursue goals enthusiastically and have more goals than low-hope individuals, believing they have “something significant yet to do in their lives” advocated by Barker (1991). The second component, agency (also referred to as motivation or willpower), is possessing the personal capacity and determination to maintain the effort to reach desired goals (Leithwood & Mascall, 2008; Luthans & Jensen, 2002). Finally, pathways (also referred to as waypower) are the ability to generate alternative solutions when obstacles are confronted during goal pursuit (Luthans & Jensen, 2002). These pathways are based on a person’s problem-solving abilities, resilience, persistence, and coping strategies (Leithwood & Mascall, 2008). Figure 1 captures the elements of hope theory and their relationship.

Promoting Student Success in Low-Performing SchoolsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Elements of hope theory.

Hope has been compared to other psychological constructs (see Table 1). On the one hand, hope is similar to resiliency and creativity. Resilient individuals meet challenges, overcome them, and learn from their experiences to deal with problems they may encounter in the future (Milstein & Henry, 2008). Research has shown that high-hope individuals not only have more effective coping strategies, but also are more persistent when they possess clear goals, are motivated to achieve goals, and possess the means to achieve their goals (Helland & Winston, 2005). Hopeful people also tend to be creative because they envision future outcomes, are self-directed, and have the patience and willingness to accept alternatives. On the other hand, Helland and Winston (2005) suggest hope differs slightly from optimism, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Optimism is the perceived ability to pursue goals (Seligman, 1998); however, it ignores the means for achieving goals. Self-efficacy, the belief that an outcome can be achieved, does not acknowledge how emotions affect the ability to achieve goals. Finally, self-esteem reflects individuals’ personal estimation of how well they conduct their lives, but does not account for the goals they seek to achieve.

Table 1. Concepts Comprising Hope Theory Elements of Hope Theory




Similar concepts








Locus of control

Coping strategies




The mindsets people have about their ability to learn and grow are highly related to hope. Dweck (2006) indicates individuals can have fixed or growth mindsets. People with fixed mindsets believe their intelligence, abilities, and talents are stagnant and cannot improve. Conversely, growth mindset individuals believe they can learn and improve themselves with effort and persistence (Duckworth, 2016). These mindsets are very similar to the concepts of locus of control (Rotter, 1966). External locus of control individuals reflect a fixed mindset, believing their life is shaped by events outside of their control. People with an internal locus of control feel they are able to influence what happens to them, reflecting a growth mindset. Clearly, hopefulness is reflected in having a growth mindset with an internal locus of control. These fixed mindsets can be altered; when students engage in high-quality, targeted instructional programs and interventions, their personal sense of control increases (Duckworth, 2016; Duncan-Andrade, 2009).

Measuring Hope

Various instruments have been developed to measure adults’ and children’s hope (Helland & Winston, 2005). One of the first instruments was the Beck Hopelessness Scale, a 20-item self-report inventory examining feelings about the future, expectations, and motivation. The BHS has been found to be a highly valid and reliable instrument, one that continues to be used today by clinically trained professionals. This scale has been translated into Chinese, Danish, Finnish, and Portuguese and is used to measure the hopelessness of adolescents and adults in countries where these languages are spoken (Lam, Michalak, & Swinson, 2005; Shek, 1993; Shek & Merrick, 2007). Another popular instrument is the Adult Hope Scale (AHS), a 12-item self-report measure focusing on two of the domains of hope theory—motivation and pathways (Luthans & Jensen, 2002; Snyder, Irving, & Anderson, 1991). The AHS has been found to be valid and reliable and has been used in hundreds of studies to better understand hope in adults (Pedrotti, Edwards, & Lopez, 2008).

In the late 1990s, the AHS was adapted for school-aged children (Snyder, Cheavens, & Michael, 1999). Referred to as the Children’s Hope Scale (CHS), this six-item self-report instrument examines children’s perceptions about their goals and the ways they strive to meet them. Reporting high validity and reliability, the instrument was initially developed for 7- to 16-year-olds (Lopez, Snyder, & Pedrotti, 2003). Originally focusing on White students, there have been recent attempts to broaden the use of the CHS to other populations, including Mexican Americans (Edwards, Ong, & Lopez, 2007), undocumented immigrants (Bahena, 2015), and African Americans (Valle, Huebner, & Suldo, 2006); however, “more information is needed regarding conceptual equivalence of the construct of hope across cultures” (Pedrotti et al., 2008, p. 102).

Programs Aimed at Developing Hope

A variety of school-based programs have been developed to assist students in becoming more hopeful. For instance, Making Hope Happen for Kids (MHHK) is an elementary school program comprised of sessions to help students apply hope constructs in their lives, Making Hope Happen (MHH) is a junior high program using didactic teaching and group work, and Making Hope Happen High School (MHH-HS) involves sessions with groups of 20 or more ninth grade students (Pedrotti et al., 2008). In addition, Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life (n.d.) is a character education program for fourth through ninth graders developed by Major League Baseball to provide students with strategies to deal with obstacles and challenges in their lives. The program is based on the values of determination, persistence, and integrity emulated by Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball. Each year the organization sponsors the Breaking Barriers Essay Context where students describe obstacles they are facing in their lives and how the values exemplified by Jackie Robinson have influenced them. Finally, Kids at Hope (n.d.) is a national youth development project aimed at reversing the trends and stereotypes associated with at-risk youth by helping them learn to be successful and develop hopefulness. The program works with schools, juvenile justice systems, child welfare departments, recreation and community centers, and parents and families. Since its inception in 1993, the project has trained 50,000 adults and served 500,000 students in 18 states and in Canada. One of the tenets of the program is, “All children are capable of success. No exceptions!” (Kids at Hope, n.d.). This focus on high expectations for high-risk students mirrors the “Strong and Smart” philosophy for Australian Aboriginal children developed by Chris Sarra (2012) and his colleagues.

Effects of Hope

Interest in understanding hope and its influence has emerged in nursing, counseling, business, bioethics, and education (Li, Mitton-Kukner, & Yeom, 2008). Empirical findings related to hope are in their infancy (Avolio, Gardner, Walumbwa, Luthans, & May, 2004), and current measures also tend to focus on individual hope, rather than collective hope in organizations or communities (White-Zappa, 2001). Despite these shortcomings, tentative claims about the effects of hope reveal its effects on adults’ thinking and performance. For instance, hopeful leaders not only increase company profits, but also improve employees’ retention rates, job satisfaction, and commitment (Helland & Winston, 2005; Peterson & Luthans, 2003). In addition, hope is associated with improving academic and athletic performance, enhancing mental and physical health, reducing stress, and living longer lives (Luthans & Jensen, 2002; Stern, Dhanda, & Hazuda, 2001).

Research also has examined how hope positively influences children’s and adolescents’ thoughts and actions. For instance, studies indicate hope is related to: (a) personal and social development, such as accomplishing goals (Snyder, Sympson, Michael, & Cheavens, 2001); achieving satisfaction (Chang, 1998) and relieving depression (Kwon, 2000; Snyder, Cheavens, & Michael, 1999); (b) academic performance, including attendance, credits earned (Gallup, 2009b), and grade point average (Marques, Pais-Reibero, & Lopez, 2009; Snyder, 2002; Snyder, Cheavens, & Michael, 1999; Snyder, Irving, & Anderson, 1991); (c) scholastic competence (Onwuegbuzie, 1999), problem-solving (McDermott et al., 2000), and dropout rates (Worrell & Hale, 2001); and (d) career development skills, particularly vocational identity development (Diemer & Bluestein, 2007) and future identity development (Super, 1980).

Because our society expects schools to produce hopeful students (Lopez, 2008; Rath & Conchie, 2009), school leaders play a vital role to ensure this occurs. Attention is now directed at various leadership concepts and styles reinforcing the important role school leaders can play in promoting a positive learning environment for those marginalized and historically oppressed students who tend to be the most vulnerable to becoming hopeless.

How Can School Leaders Become Agents of Hope?

Given the continuing interest on school accountability, it is not surprising that a growing body of evidence seeks to understand indirect effect principals have on students’ academic performance improvement (Heck & Hallinger, 2009; Leithwood, Anderson, Mascall, & Strauss, 2010; Robinson, 2010; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008). However, the circumstances and events many disenfranchised students experience dictates that more attention needs to focus on how school leaders can affect these students’ social and emotional well-being. In recent years, a growing research base is examining how school leaders work to improve the social and learning conditions for marginalized students, especially those from historically oppressed racial and ethnic groups. First, social justice leaders work tirelessly to eliminate marginalization of students by incorporating inclusive practices for students of color as well as disabled, English Language Learners; and other segregated students (Angelle, 2017; Shields, 2010; Theoharis, 2010). These leaders are particularly attuned to disrupting injustices by changing school structures that marginalize students, building teachers’ capacities to work with diverse students and communities, creating a school climate that welcomes historically marginalized families, and creating programs to address disparate and low student achievement (Theoharis, 2010). Second, culturally responsive school leaders identify and institutionalize practices that affirm indigenous and authentic cultural practices of students (Gardiner & Enomoto, 2006; Johnson, 2006; Khalifa, 2013; Khalifa, Gooden, & Davis, 2016; Merchant, Garza, & Ramalho, 2013). Culturally responsive school leaders demonstrate their commitment to developing their own critical self-consciousness; implementing culturally responsive curriculum and training teachers; establishing a culturally responsive school environment; and engaging students, families, and communities in culturally appropriate activities (Khalifa et al., 2016). Finally, female leaders may be more likely to establish caring relationships with students and families (Trinidad & Normore, 2005), which suggests they may be more adept at developing relational trust necessary for students to gain a sense of hope (Duncan-Andrade, 2009). For instance, case studies of female social justice leaders reveals their devotion to the success of marginalized students by “developing authentic relationships between themselves as school leaders and their students” (Normore & Jean-Marie, 2008, p. 197, emphasis added).

Furthermore, the relationship between leadership and hope is quite evident in various models of leadership emphasizing future aspirations and commitment:

  • Spiritual leadership examines the fundamental needs of leaders and followers that influence their commitment and productivity (Fry, 2003);

  • Positive approach to leadership (PAL) deals with optimism, emotional intelligence, and confidence (Luthans, Luthans, Hodgetts, & Luthans, 2001);

  • Social justice leadership refers to leaders who openly confront issues of race, class, gender, disability, and sexual orientation to improve opportunities for students (Theoharis, 2007);

  • Authentic leadership focuses on mutual trust to help others become more positive, build on their strengths, expand their horizons of possibilities, behave morally and ethically, and become committed to continuous improvement (Avolio et al., 2004; Luthans & Avolio, 2003); and

  • Reflective leadership encourages leaders to assist teachers and students to examine past practices to make better-informed future decisions (Barnett & O’Mahony, 2006; Barnett, O’Mahony, & Matthews, 2004; Osterman & Kottkamp, 2004).

Clearly, leadership and hope both deal with envisioning the future, developing relationships, and affecting outcomes. Despite our society’s complexities, inflexible thinking, and conflicting values and aspirations (Walker, 2005), numerous scholars have indicated effective school leaders are those who instill hope in adults and students (DePree, 1997; Farran, Herth, & Popovich, 1995; Gardner, 1990; Koestenbaum, 1991; Kouzes & Posner, 1999). The explicit connection between leadership and hope is articulated by Burns (2003):

A leader not only speaks to immediate wants but elevates people by vesting in them a sense of possibility, a belief that changes can be made and that they can make them. Opportunity beckons where none had appeared before, and once seized upon opens another opportunity and another. (p. 239)

Because school leaders’ daily decisions affect students’ life chances and future aspirations, they have the power to build students’ hope for future success. This sentiment is espoused by Lorraine Monroe, former principal of the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, New York, who indicates educators must “be allowed to work [students] into their bright future” (60 Minutes, 2009). Therefore, school leaders who are aware of the three pillars of hope theory are better equipped to help teachers provide learning activities aimed at developing students’ capabilities to set goals, affect their agency, and establish pathways for dealing with obstacles and failure. Attention is now directed to the practical ways in which principals and teachers implement can implement each pillar of hope.

Embedding Hope in the Curriculum

A growing literature base describes useful instructional strategies teachers can use to help students develop goals, improve their agency, and build pathways for dealing with obstacles. Many of these approaches may be new to teachers; therefore, as the instructional leader of the school, the principal’s role to ensure these instructional approaches are implemented is vital (Leithwood, Anderson, Mascall, & Strauss, 2010). Besides understanding these new strategies, principals also must ensure teachers obtain instructional materials, allocate time for professional development, and observe classroom practices and provide feedback (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008; Zepeda, 2012). Specific instructional strategies and learning experiences focusing on each pillar of hope are examined below. In addition, examples are provided from the ISLDN’s international case studies of ways in which principals’ beliefs and actions support goal setting, agency, and pathways.

Setting Goals

To successfully establish and monitor goals, the fundamental properties of this process must be understood, which include: (1) determining an accomplishment to be achieved, (2) identifying measurable outcomes, (3) setting timelines and milestones for goal achievement, and (4) assessing personal and resource costs (Rouillard, 2003). Wilson and Dobson’s (2008) 10-step process clarifies the essential elements of effective goal setting. They advocate that goals must: (1) be written, (2) be defined in measurable terms, (3) be visualized, (4) be achievable, (5) have realistic deadlines, (6) consist of manageable parts, (7) identify potential problems or obstacles, (8) identify solutions to these roadblocks, (9) be reviewed periodically for progress, and (10) be rewarded when accomplished (Wilson & Dobson, 2008). It is important to note that steps 3, 4, and 10 deal with having agency (motivational element of hope theory) and the 7th and 8th steps reinforce the importance of possessing pathways to confront obstacles to goal completion.

Hope-generating techniques used by school counselors provide educational leaders with practical goal-setting guidelines and strategies. Snyder, Feldman, Shorey, and Rand (2002) claim the first step in engaging students about hope is to help them identify goals in various aspects of their lives (e.g., school, friendships, family). When students complete inventories to assess their values, interests, skills, and abilities, they identify and prioritize important goals. Typically, when goals are clearly stated and have distinct endpoints, students have a better chance of determining how well they are progressing toward goal achievement. Rouillard (2003) suggests a useful exercise is for students to identify opportunities, write goal statements, develop timelines, and formulate and implement action plans.

ISLDN Studies

The ISLDN studies illustrate how principals prioritized goal setting within their schools and with students (Bryant, Cheng, & Notman, 2014). Many of these school leaders demonstrated the importance of goal setting in working with staff to alter the school’s vision and culture. Examples include clarifying and communicating desired values and performance expectations (Gu & Johansson, 2012; Hipp & Baran, 2013), developing integrated intervention plans using comprehensive data collection and decision-making processes (Drysdale, Gurr, & Villalobos, 2012), and being organized and planning thoughtfully (Notman, 2012). More importantly, principals had an unwavering commitment to expand students’ future aspirations and life chances. They strived to give students a voice by treating them as individuals, ignoring their past mistakes, and providing them with learning opportunities they had not previously experienced (Richardson & Sauers, 2014; Slater, Potter, Torres, & Briceno, 2014). Principals revealed their desire and concern for students’ future success in these comments:

I think about equality, opportunities, human rights, dignity for all, and trying to level the playing field. I think one cannot help but live here in India and not question, why me? Why do I have these opportunities in life? Why not this other person? (Indian principal). (Richardson & Sauers, 2014, p. 107)

Every person has a value, not only to themselves but to the world. You never know which student might be that one student that ends up making a difference. Taking the time to figure out those individual needs and taking the time to get to know how to fulfill those needs makes a tremendous difference. It is important that we maximize our resources. Our resources are our kids (American principal). (Norberg, Arlestig, & Angelle, 2014, p. 103)

Fostering Agency

The second pillar of hope, having the agency or motivation to achieve goals, can be nurtured in a variety of ways. Luthans, Vogelgesang, and Lester (2006) identify promising strategies for fortifying the willpower of youth by developing their emotional capacities. First, positive emotion strategies use emotional responses (e.g., smiling, laughing) to trigger a wide range of thoughts and actions. The ability to self-manage emotions, referred to as emotional intelligence, can be developed with practice and feedback (Goleman, 1995, 1998). Second, individuals who possess self-enhancement strategies can channel their positive emotions to adapt to new situations, cope with stressful events, and believe they will find a way to succeed. Third, attribution strategies focus on examining perceptions of whether the causes of events are within or outside an individual’s influence. Similar to internal (self) and external (other) locus of control (Rotter, 1966), practicing these strategies allows youth to emotionally disassociate themselves from stressful situations, a quality found in optimistic individuals. Finally, meaning making, self-reflection, and self-awareness exercises intentionally develop hardiness strategies whereby youth can find purpose in their lives, realize they can influence their surroundings and outcomes, and learn from positive and negative experiences. One of the best examples of how these types of strategies can build young adults’ emotional intelligence and the agency to succeed is the “live it forward” philosophy (Julian, 2010), which is the ability to confront barriers in life by developing optimism, passion, excellence, integrity, energy, and leadership.

Other promising agency-developing strategies principals can introduce to teachers focus on building students’ capacity to monitor their own performance and make individual choices. For instance, the self-regulated strategy development process allows students to learn and practice goal setting, self-monitoring, and self-reinforcement (Lienemann & Reid, 2008). Students are treated as active collaborators in the learning process, moving through instructional stages at their own pace and proceeding to later stages when they have met the learning criteria. Studies have demonstrated if students with attention deficit disorder use these processes to monitor their expository writing, then their essays were longer, more complete, and of higher quality (Lienemann & Reid, 2008). In addition, Stiggins (2002) advocates teachers incorporate assessment “for” learning practices by using classroom assessments to build student’s confidence in themselves and take responsibility for their own learning, translating classroom assessment results into frequent descriptive feedback, providing students with insights about how to improve, engaging students in regular self-assessment so they see themselves grow over time, and actively involving students in communicating their achievement status and improvement with their teacher and their families. The effect of these strategies is directly related to increasing students’ hope:

In short, the effect of assessment for learning is that students keep learning and remain confident they can continue to learn at productive levels if they keep trying to learn. In other words, students don’t give up in frustration or hopelessness. (Stiggins, 2002, p. 762, emphasis added)

ISLDN Studies

The ISLDN research suggests principals worked with their local communities to help motivate parents and students (Angelle, 2017; Bryant, Cheng, & Notman, 2014). Some principals capitalized on local needs and interests in designing the curriculum. For instance, a Costa Rican principal developed art, music, and computer video game programs to allow students to see the school as a place where their talents and interests were relevant and applicable (Slater, Potter, Torres, & Briceno, 2014). In addition, recognizing the Aboriginal students’ and community’s love of art, an Australian principal displayed murals and pictures around the school, designed math lessons to incorporate artistic drawings, and created an art gallery to display students’ work (Wildy & Clarke, 2012). Furthermore, principals were highly visible in the community to better understand the physical, economic, social, and cultural aspects of the environment. This firsthand knowledge allowed them to re-connect with communities that had lost confidence in the school, seek additional resources to address the community’s needs, and incorporate community values within the school environment and curriculum (Qian, 2013; Szeto, 2014). They viewed community values and culture as an asset, rather than a liability to the school, an important factor in understanding how community context influences schooling (Clarke & O’Donoghue, 2016). Advocacy for students, families, and communities is expressed in these principals’ words:

I educate the youngsters other schools do not want—my school protects other schools from the challenge these students present and the low base of their starting point . . . I cannot spend my money just on teachers, I have to spend it on social support, enforcement officers, personal tutors and the like . . . The social injustice is that this in not understood (England principal). (Slater et al., 2014, p. 114)

As a principal, I feel the pain and the struggles that the families are going through. So, when the parent calls you and says “My car is broken in the driveway, I need to get my child to school,” I’ll put them in my car and I’m going to bring them to school. Some parents do not have money to [purchase] their children’s uniform, some do not have money for electricity, and their children cannot do homework (American principal). (Medina, Martinez, Murakami, Rodriguez, & Hernandez, 2014, p. 95)

The parents need to know that other children are equal to and as important as their own. Every student in our school should enjoy equal [and fair] opportunities to learn and be shown mutual respect. This is the notion of social justice we want to share with the parents (Hong Kong principal). (Szeto, 2014, p. 119)

Developing Pathways

The final element of hope theory is possessing pathways, or the ability to surmount obstacles arising during goal pursuit. Mounting empirical evidence suggests that “it isn’t suffering that leads to hopelessness, [but] suffering you think you can’t control” (Duckworth, 2016, p. 172, emphasis added). This may be the most challenging aspect of hope to instill in our youth since two-thirds of American students believe they are incapable of overcoming the problems they encounter in their lives (Lopez, 2010). In addition to some of the previously mentioned strategies for goal and motivational development, a variety of other approaches can be used. Solution-focused training includes “solution talk,” not “problem talk,” by teaching students to counter negative self-talk by substituting positive self-statements (e.g., “I can do this,” “I’m a capable person”) (Snyder et al., 2002) and keeping a personal journal to monitor the types of language used to describe personal actions, thoughts, and behaviors (Lopez, Rose, Robinson, Marques, & Pais Reibero, 2009). Mental rehearsal uses visual imagery, similar to systematic desensitization used by psychologists to help clients overcome their phobias or fears (Luthans & Jensen, 2002) and psycho-cybernetics where individuals visualize positive outcomes (Maltz, 2002). Hope-reminding techniques explore solutions by working with trusted friends, colleagues, and mentors. School counselors can assist students to develop manageable sub goals by providing resources (e.g., finding a peer tutor, completing extra assignments) and offering assistance as obstacles arise as students pursue their goals (Pedrotti, Edwards, & Lopez, 2008).

Finally, strong pathways are developed when students possess resiliency. Duckworth’s (2016) notion of “grit”—the blend of passion and perseverance—is particularly relevant for pathway development. When confronted with setbacks or obstacles in life, talent alone does not predict persistence; individuals possessing grit are far more likely to tirelessly work to find solutions, rather than giving up hope (Duckworth, 2016). One way to help students become more resilient is to promote conditions that build internal protective qualities that can be used to cope with setbacks and failure to accomplish goals. Resilient individuals possess various internal mechanisms, such as having a sense of humor, possessing an internal locus of control, being independent, holding a positive view of the future, being flexible, and being self-motivated (Milstein & Henry, 2008). Another strategy for building resiliency is to lower students’ risk and stress, provide them with personal and organizational resources, and develop their cognitive abilities (Luthans, Vogelgesang, & Lester, 2006).

ISLDN Studies

Principals working in low-performing schools in the ISLDN studies demonstrated a keen interest in building the capacity of students, parents, and community members to withstand the continuous challenges and obstacles they faced (Angelle, 2017; Bryant, Cheng, & Notman, 2014). They did this by gaining an understanding of the factors affecting their community contexts, especially the values and assets of parents and community organizations. They were aware of the chronic problems facing families living in poverty, such as lack of food and health care services (Gurr, Drysdale, Clarke, & Wildy, 2014; Medina et al., 2014; Richardson & Sauers, 2014). Attempting to overcome these challenges, principals utilized school resources to purchase food for students; worked with local agencies to provide medical, social, and educational services; organized multicultural activities for parents and community members; and provided job training for disabled adults (Richardson & Sauers, 2014; Szeto, 2014; Wildy & Clarke, 2012). To gain greater parental involvement, some schools established formal agreements with parents, requiring them to monitor their children’s homework assignments, attend conferences with teachers, and provide transportation (Hipp & Baran, 2013).

Furthermore, community members gained a renewed sense of hope for and commitment to the school when leaders revitalized the school grounds (Sharvashidze & Bryant, 2014) and acknowledged how the school was overcoming previous failures and inefficiencies (Drysdale, Gurr, & Villalobos, 2012; Qian, 2013). Based on their own significant life experiences (e.g., religious upbringing, personally experiencing disadvantaged conditions), principals were staunch advocates for their students and communities. Their words capture the important life experiences that shaped their commitment to underprivileged youth and families:

Growing up in an at-risk home, but hanging around with a friend who had money and a father who exposed me to other areas, other than I was exposed to when I was growing up, helped me to broaden my vocabulary and allowed me to learn new things. I can pay attention to those kids with the same background as I had and say to them that regardless of where you come from, you actually have the ability to be anything that you want (Swedish principal). (Norberg et al., 2014, p. 104)

As a Latina leader, I work for restorative justice because we had a difficult road growing up and in our education. We will never forget the struggles we had within our families (American principal). (Medina et al., 2014, p. 95)

My parents, my grandmother . . . they never had any patronizing comments about others. And I have also seen people suffer at close distance (Swedish principal). (Norberg, Arlestig, & Angelle, 2014, p. 103)

Table 2 summarizes the types of learning activities that can be used to foster each element of hope. As these examples of goal setting, agency, and pathway development demonstrate, the three pillars of hope are interdependent and mutually reinforce one another. For instance, when developing goals, potential roadblocks are identified and solutions are proposed (Wilson & Dobson, 2008). In addition, the agency development strategies of improved self-enhancement, attribution, and hardiness (Luthans, Vogelgesang, & Lester, 2006) also focus on pathway development. Finally, the “live it forward” philosophy relies on motivation (e.g., developing passion and energy) as a means for creating pathways to confront life’s obstacles and setbacks (Julian, 2010).

Table 2. Learning Activities Promoting Hope Elements of Hope Theory




Learning activities

Goal-setting processes

Interest inventories

Problem-based learning


Hardiness strategies

Positive emotion strategies

Self-enhancement strategies

Attribution strategies

Emotional intelligence

Self-regulated strategy development

Assessment for learning

Solution-focused strategies

Mental rehearsal

Hope-reminding strategies

Action research

Leadership Preparation and Development

This article has examined the factors contributing to the hopelessness many students express, especially marginalized students of color from segregated urban communities. Despite horrendous conditions, the studies and stories of turnaround leaders, social justice leaders, and culturally responsive school leaders clearly demonstrate educators, particularly school leaders, can take a proactive approach to confronting these situations, ultimately affecting students’ academic performance and emotional well-being. The article also emphasizes that school leaders, as agents of hope, can positively affect the life chances of marginalized and disenfranchised students by creating the conditions for teachers to help students set realistic and meaningful goals, develop the agency and internal drive to seek these goals, and develop pathways to negotiate barriers and obstacles to goal attainment. Examples of hope-generating curricular programs exist; however, many school leaders and teachers may not be aware of these programs or the elements of hope theory that drive these approaches. Therefore, for school principals to become agents of hope will require concerted efforts to refine leadership preparation and development initiatives.

Given the social, health, and emotional problems that many students experience, leadership preparation programs can help leaders to better understand how they can affect students’ hope for future success. As noted earlier, a great deal of research has focused on ways school leaders can improve the academic performance of students (Heck & Hallinger, 2009; Leithwood, Anderson, Mascall, & Strauss, 2010; Robinson, 2010; Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008); however, far less attention is directed at how leaders can improve students’ social and emotional well-being, especially in developing their sense of hope. Therefore, preparation programs need to help school leaders develop a greater sense of empathy for the situations children experience, the conditions that create and maintain hopelessness, and the actions necessary to foster hope, especially for urban youth. By taking to heart the admonition of Beck and Murphy (1994), the profession may well begin to redefine itself:

. . . preparing administrators for ethical practice requires more than the establishment of courses. It demands that faculty and students engage in ongoing reflection and conversation about their beliefs and commitments and the ways in which practices and policies support or contradict these . . . [S]elf-examination and dialogue can ensure that efforts to address ethics in preparation programs resist the tyranny of technique and, instead, promote moral thinking and acting in departments of educational administration and in our schools. (p. 95)

Therefore, what would a school leadership development curriculum look like that focuses on creating more hopeful students, especially marginalized students of color from historically oppressed neighborhoods? Summarized below are promising activities aimed at developing aspiring and practicing school leaders’ capacities to ensure students are provided with learning experiences to build their hopefulness.

Understand the Conditions Responsible for Hopelessness

Over the past 30 years, a host of reforms have been proposed by national commissions and organizations concerned with educational leadership preparation (e.g., National Commission on Excellence in Educational Administration (1987), Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (1996); National Commission for the Advancement of Educational Leadership Preparation (Young & Peterson, 2002), National Policy Board for Education Administration (2002)). One of the most prominent program reforms is aimed at promoting leadership for social justice (Cambron-McCabe & McCarthy, 2006; Diem & Carpenter, 2012; Jean-Marie, Normore, & Brooks, 2009; McKenzie et al., 2008; Scheurich & Skrla, 2003). Programs embracing a social justice orientation “emphasize issues of diversity ethics, and equity, and utilize transformational learning to train leaders who will be better able to advance social justice in their schools and districts as well as in their communities and society at large” (Young & Mountford, 2006, p. 265).

Principals who are social justice leaders are adamant about raising student achievement for marginalized students, increasing student participation and engagement in school- and community-based activities, eliminating school structures that segregate students, enhancing teachers’ capacities to work successfully with low-performing learners, and strengthening the school culture to be more inviting to marginalized groups and individuals (Theoharis, 2007). (For a poignant illustration of how a principal can be a social justice advocate, see Sarra’s (2012) description of his efforts and the resistance he experienced when striving to raise expectations for Aboriginal children’s academic and behavioral performance.) Many of the actions and sentiments of principals participating in the ISLDN research embody the tenets of social justice, noting the importance of “fairness for all” and recognizing that social injustice means unequal life chances based on poverty and discrimination (Angelle, 2017; Bryant, Cheng, & Notman, 2014).

A social-justice oriented leadership program is particularly relevant for preparing leaders capable of combating student hopelessness. To be true champions of hope for urban youth, school leaders must embrace what Duncan-Andrade (2009) calls critical hope, where educators help students access resources to contend with the forces affecting their lives, acknowledge the pain and frustration they encounter, and struggle alongside their students. A great deal of attention has been directed at how to implement social-justice-oriented preparation programs. On the one hand, preparation programs have been encouraged to recruit students with positive dispositions toward social justice. For instance, leadership preparation programs can work collaboratively with practitioners to: (1) admit students who have demonstrated a commitment to social justice and are highly competent reflective practitioners, (2) allow social justice experts and novices to reflect together on their actions, (3) structure programs to assist students to understand that social justice is a moral obligation of schools and their leaders, and (4) immerse students in year-long internships in diverse settings where social justice is practiced (Cambron-McCabe & McCarthy, 2006; Grogan & Andrews, 2002).

On the other hand, numerous scholars and practitioners have recommended specific learning experiences and activities aimed at developing school leaders’ understanding of and commitment to social justice (Cambron-McCabe & McCarthy, 2006; Diem & Carpenter, 2012; Furman, 2012; Jean-Marie, Normore, & Brooks, 2009). Many of these learning activities are intended to assist leaders to better understand their own biases and prejudices as well as the internal school factors and external community and societal barriers and obstacles that many marginalized and underprivileged students encounter daily. As leaders come to understand their own personal tendencies and other obstructions students experience, they are better equipped to provide the support necessary to develop the pathways students need to overcome these obstacles and develop a more hopeful perspective for their life chances.

Numerous examples of learning experiences to promote leaders’ perspectives and commitment to social justice appear in the leadership preparation literature. First, personal knowledge and awareness occurs by preparing cultural autobiographies or autoethnographies, taking “educational plunges” in unfamiliar settings, capturing and reflecting on actions and attitudes in reflective journals, participating in book studies on racial issues, developing leadership growth plans, and obtaining resources illustrating how social justice occurs in practice (Aguilar, 2017; Diem & Carpenter, 2012; Furman, 2012; Philaretou & Allen, 2006). These activities require leaders to critically self-reflect, an essential ingredient to developing social justice leaders (Dantley, 2008). Second, to better understand school structures and policies affecting students’ progress, leaders can administer equity audits of the school; conduct cross-cultural interviews with students and parents; examine communication patterns and their effects on marginalized groups; and participate in field-based inquiry focusing on oppression, racism, and discrimination in the school (Cambron-McCabe & McCarthy, 2006; Furman, 2012; Jean-Marie et al., 2009). Finally, to obtain insights about external factors that may be contributing to hopelessness, leaders can participate in neighborhood walks; visit schools where students of color are experiencing academic and social success; and analyze social, economic, and environmental issues affecting the school (Furman, 2012; Jean-Marie et al., 2009).

These experiences are geared toward helping school leaders comprehend the impediments and obstructions that are contributing to students’ sense of hopelessness; however, merely understanding this context will not be enough to alleviate hopelessness. As Duncan-Andrade (2009) cautions, “if we are serious about giving our children hope, we must reflect on how to connect our pedagogy to the harsh realities of poor, urban communities” (p. 187). Social-justice-minded leaders and teachers committed to combating hopelessness must be willing to go well beyond their formal job descriptions to establish meaningful relationships with students. Only then will educators build the rapport and relational trust needed to engender trust with their students (Bryk & Schneider, 2003). Duncan-Andrade’s (2009) study of urban effective educators reveals teachers held high expectations for their students; took personal responsibility for student failure; and demonstrated self-sacrifice, love, and support. The most successful teachers in these settings devoted their time and resources tutoring after school and on weekends, transported students, purchased meals and supplies, constantly prodded and communicated with them via social media, and connected them with legal and medical services. When educators demonstrate this level of devotion to urban students’ needs and interests, they become the agents of hope so desperately needed in our schools (Theoharis, 2010).

Study Existing Programs for Developing Hope

Although a host of educational programs aimed at developing children’s and adolescents’ hope exist, school leaders may have little or no knowledge of these initiatives. One tact would be to introduce them to hope-generating curricula being used in educational, psychotherapeutic, and adolescent foster care settings (Shorey, Snyder, & Heim-Bikos, 2004; Snyder, Lopez, Shorey, Rand, & Feldman, 2003). Particular attention could be devoted to learning about the Making Hope Happen for Kids (MHHK), Making Hope Happen (MHH), and Making Hope Happen High School (MMH-HS) programs (Bouwkamp & Lopez, 2001; Edwards & Lopez, 2000; Pedrotti, Lopez, & Krieshok, 2000). Leaders also can be exposed to instruments measuring hope (e.g., Children’s Hope Scale), administer them in schools, and employ action research to determine the effects of programs intended to increase hopeful thinking and problem-solving behaviors (see next section for examples).

Furthermore, leaders can understand how hope is conceptualized and practiced in different cultural contexts. Brendtro, Brokenleg, and Van Brockern (1990) have examined ways of providing hope for youth, especially Native Americans. Based on the spirit of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity, those who are successful in building hope with Native Americans recognize the importance of creating “reclaiming” environments by (a) relating to the reluctant, (b) using brain-friendly learning strategies, (c) developing discipline for responsibility, and (d) having the courage to care.

One of the important ways prospective and practicing school leaders can focus on social injustice, especially the factors contributing to hopelessness, is to conduct action research studies (Bosu, Dare, Dachi, & Fertig, 2009; Furman, 2012). Action research occurs when small groups of practitioners and researchers identify a problem, determine a plan of action, collect and analyze data, and use the results to shape future action (Caro-Bruce, 2000; Sagor, 2000). The central premise of action research is its focus on social change (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988), which means research team members need to have an “explicit ideological commitment to addressing social and political problems of education through participatory research” (Hollingsworth, 1997, p. 89). Illustrations of action research studies examining the social and political issues affecting students’ action include how belongingness affects African American students’ achievement, teaching strategies that improve reading development of struggling high school students, and how non-English language learners segregate themselves during academic and social activities (Caro-Bruce, 2000; Hollingsworth, 1997). Furthermore, head teachers in Ghana and Tanzania have used participatory action research to combat teenage pregnancy, improve literacy and language development, decrease absenteeism, and increase school access for students living in poverty (Bosu et al., 2009).

Therefore, aspiring and practicing school leaders can conduct action research studies of school programs explicitly designed to increase students’ sense of hope. For instance, studies can be designed to examine the various Making Hope Happen programs (MHHK, MHH, MHH-HS) in elementary and secondary schools. In addition, studies can measure the degree to which students are becoming more hopeful about their life chances (Bahena, 2015). Administering the Children’s Hope Scale (CHS) not only can determine the degree of hope reported by elementary, middle, and high school students (Lopez, Snyder, & Pedrotti, 2003), but also can reveal the hopelessness expressed by various marginalized populations, including Mexican American (Edwards, Ong, & Lopez, 2007) and African American youth (Valle, Huebner, & Suldo, 2006). Finally, these studies would be particularly relevant in determining the effects of Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life (n.d.), Kids at Hope (n.d.) and the Stronger Smarter Schools (Sarra, 2012).


The types of hope-building strategies described in this article are particularly important for students attending urban low-performing schools, because they constantly face economic, social, and emotional challenges. If school leaders are capable of helping our youth develop hope, then schools stand a better chance of disrupting the inequities these students encounter (Bahena, 2015). The “mastery experiences” provided through hope-building strategies are essential to build their capacity to be proactive in solving problems to improve their chances for success (Duckworth, 2016).

Some caution, however, should be recognized when attempting to prepare social-justice leaders as agents of hope. Although many of the examples provided in this article describe what schools and principals can do to create conditions for establishing hopeful students reflect the notions of critical hope, educators need to be aware of the pitfalls of communicating false hope (Duncan-Andrade, 2009). For instance, some of the ISLDN principals’ comments appear to reflect hokey hope, indicating their belief that hard work and persistence alone will ensure students’ success (Norberg et al., 2014). Because many socially just school leaders overcame discrimination, injustice, and poverty in their own lives through persistence and hard work, they believe that if their students can develop these qualities, then they too will overcome hardship (Angelle, 2017; Barnett & Stevenson, 2015; Medina et al., 2014; Norberg et al., 2014). Although being willing to work hard and persevere are important qualities, hopeful students also must be able to create meaningful goals and develop the agency to achieve these goals.

How might our schools and society be affected if school leaders and teachers were committed to creating hopeful students? In other words, what benefits might occur if our communities, schools, leaders, and teachers paid more attention to helping students set goals, become motivated to reach these goals, and possess the means for overcoming adversity? On the one hand, studies can assess how hope-generating curriculum is affecting students’ 21st-century learning outcomes beyond their academic performance. Their life and career skills can be measured, including the ability to be flexible and adaptable, take initiative and self-direction, demonstrate leadership and responsibility, make positive contributions, and achieve economic well-being (Morrison et al., 2009; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d.). Clearly, these life and career skills align with the problem-solving strategies demonstrated by hopeful students.

On the other hand, when students become more hopeful, especially those who have been marginalized and oppressed, we would expect to see: (a) reductions in school dropout rates, especially for Latino, African American, Native American, and low-income students; (b) lower violence and gang activity, resulting in fewer deaths, safer communities, and more prosperous local businesses; (c) improved college retention and graduation rates, particularly for first-generation students; (d) improved mental and physical health, resulting in lower health care costs; (e) greater personal accountability and responsibility, evidenced by less criminal activity and reduced law enforcement, social welfare, and court costs; and (f) improved civic and community engagement, demonstrated by increased participation and voting in local and national elections.

It would be naïve to expect the economic and social disparities in our society will disappear if schools are successful in creating more hopeful students (Autor, 2014; Bowen & Bok, 1998; Putnam, 2015; Weis & Dimitriadis, 2008). Although schools and their leaders must do their part to address these problems, other factors outside the school impact students’ life chances, such as prenatal care, diet and nutrition, environmental pollution, medical care, family relations and stress, and neighborhood norms (Berliner, 2009). These long-term conditions have contributed to what Ladson-Billings (2006) refers to as the “education debt.” Therefore, parents, social agencies, businesses, and religious organizations must contribute to creating environments of hope. In concert with these individuals and agencies, school leaders can confront negative stereotypes about race and class that promote deficit thinking. Not only can they model an “asset-based” view of students and communities demonstrated by principals in the ISLDN studies, but also follow the guiding principles of the National Institute for Urban School Improvement (2004–2005), which underscore that educators should value the knowledge and experience of children and families, use community resources, and provide an education based on care and respect. School administrators also can work collaboratively with other organizations committed to strengthening high-poverty urban schools, such as the Coalition of Essential Schools (Brown University), School Development Project (Yale University), Communities in Schools (headquartered in Arlington, Virginia), Institute for Urban School Improvement (University of Connecticut), and National Institute for Urban School Improvement (Arizona State University).

When students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, begin displaying these desired positive social and academic outcomes, it will be evident that our schools, leaders, and communities are creating citizens that are more hopeful. We also will know that Robert Kennedy’s vision is becoming closer to being achieved:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (as cited in Lopez, 2010, p. 41, emphasis added)


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