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Simply put, Ray Landers is a man of action. In his eight years as principal of Boaz, Landers has been an agent of change and has successfully aggregated data to make a lasting difference in his school’s climate. When data revealed that an achievement deficiency existed among his school’s low-income students, Landers immediately launched an intensive one-year study on how poverty affects the learning process.

He worked with staff members to foster a greater understanding of the hardships that low-income students face so they could communicate better with those students and learn instructional techniques to meet their needs more effectively. Then he took to the streets. At the culmination of the study, Landers brought teachers on a trip to the city’s high-poverty areas. They walked the neighborhoods, met with families, and witnessed firsthand the kind of conditions students grapple with each day.

The trip had a significant impact on the teachers and inspired an immediate reaction. Within a week, they developed new policies on homework, started a new tutoring program, and bought food for families in need. And today, the staff at Boaz can take great pride in knowing that they were directly involved in closing the school’s achievement gap. There is now no statistical difference in the scores of the school’s low-income students versus those of its higher-income students.

Listen to an interview with Ray Landers 

“Poverty is one of the greatest deterrents to a student hoping to obtain an education. The valiant effort displayed by Ray Landers to assist the high-need students in his school at such a personal level is to be commended. He and his staff have proven that compassionate educators are invaluable assets to any school,” said NASSP Executive Director Gerald N. Tirozzi.

And it’s Lander’s compassionate leadership combined with his unrelenting drive for improvement that has fueled Boaz’s many successes. The school’s exemplary attendance record (98%) is a reflection of the great measures taken by Landers to promote personalization and not let a single student slip through the cracks—the school has had a zero failure rate over the past four years. Boaz has seen double-digit increases in math and reading scores, and a dramatic 25-point jump in writing scores. Even office referrals have dramatically declined—from 767 in 2004 to 150 in 2007. The school implements many diverse practices that promote personalization and was even visited by National Geographic magazine to gather documentary material on the school’s implementation of differentiated instruction.

At Boaz, personalization also extends to flexible scheduling that allows students to participate in experiential learning, extended projects, and discovery learning. Students are not “tracked” and special-needs classes are inclusive with in-classroom group and individual aids. To promote literacy, all language arts classes have double periods. And recognizing the role of health in learning, the school requires each student to take a daily physical education class.

In an effort to acknowledge how student achievement reaches beyond school hours, Landers has been a steadfast advocate of cocurricular programs and has helped Boaz maintain numerous clubs and groups created specifically to complement the curriculum. His school is the only middle school in the state that has a Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program, for example. Other cocurricular programs work directly with the community such as the National History Day Club that coordinates the school’s Veteran’s Day program, and clubs that have students doing everything from promoting autism awareness, to volunteering in nursing homes, to celebrating cultural awareness.

Landers does not believe that as principal, he should “make” his staff do anything. When considering his core philosophy of collaboration, Landers reminds us of the old saying, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. He works hard to foster excitement in his staff, exclaiming, “My job is not to make them drink. It’s my job to make them thirsty!” And it’s his leadership style and determination to bring his staff together as a cohesive unit that has helped him earn great respect from his teachers. One seventh-grade teacher said that Landers “does not expect anything from his staff that he does not emulate himself.”

With great humility, Landers is quick to dole out praise to his staff and others for the school’s accomplishments. According to a local city councilman, “although it is his leadership that has guided Boaz in the direction of success, Landers gives full credit for that success to his faculty, staff, parents, community members, and of course, his students.” Now, as the national middle level principal of the year, Landers is being duly recognized for his own achievements and the integral role he has played in transforming not only a school, but an entire community. NL