Essential Staff for Essential Schools: Horace Interviews Misha Lesley

Misha Lesley, founding principal of Empowerment College Preparatory High School in Houston, Texas, currently serves on the CES National Executive Board and is a Program Director at Prepared 4 Life, a Houston-based organization that develops asset-based experiential after-school programs for middle school students. Through participation in the CES Small Schools Network, Misha has worked with many new and veteran CES schools that, like Empowerment, consider the issue of building teachers’ pedagogical skills to be critically important to a school’s success and to the overall success of the CES Small Schools Network. Misha shared her thoughts on staff development in a recent interview with Horace editor Jill Davidson.

Horace: In your experience of helping educators to do their best work in Essential schools, what’s your sense of the biggest challenges that they face?

Misha Lesley: You must have staff members who believe that all children can learn, especially when you have a wide range of diversity among students. And you must have teachers who possess the pedagogy to go along with that belief. In my experience, and from what I’ve learned from talking with others in the CES network, many teachers have the will, but they are frustrated. They want to teach at high levels to help students learn to use their minds well, but they don’t have all the specific skills and techniques that would help them do their best work. For staff development to lend itself to this dilemma, schools must have a clear mission and vision of what they want to achieve in the lives of students, and staff development, along with everything else a school takes on, has to be aligned to the mission.

Horace: How has this played out at Empowerment? What’s an example of the kind of staff development that supports teachers to develop these skills?

Misha Lesley: Empowerment’s mission is to equip students to become socially conscious problem-solvers who make a positive impact on the community, and its vision is to have kids graduate from four-year colleges. These are clear goals. Through a partnership with Houston Community College, students will complete 18 college credit hours before graduating. In order for this strategy to work and for students to succeed, we have created specific staff development that supports teachers working with kids on college level English, sociology, and other writing. As high school teachers, they need to be able to get kids over the freshman hump. Vocabulary usage is a significant concern. We don’t discredit the language experience that our children have – many are from homes in which English is not spoken – but we help our students to transfer experiences they do have into college-level written work.

Horace: What’s another challenge that the school is dealing with now?

Misha Lesley: Here in Texas, our kids have traditionally struggled with math and science and have often been underserved when they enter high school. The statewide, and I would imagine nationwide, shortage of skilled math and science teachers poses problems for staffing and professional development. Often, teachers’ math knowledge is disconnected from their ability to transfer that to students in a student-centered environment. Knowing how to take everyday student experiences and connect those to math concepts – for example, how to take linear equations and make them real for students – is an ongoing challenge for CES teachers and our schools. Getting kids to believe in themselves as capable mathematicians has also been an important aspect of staff development at Empowerment. Most of our ninth graders are taking algebra for the first time, and there is real phobia in our community in math; it’s more prevalent in girls, but it’s also present in our young men. Instilling the belief among teachers and kids that all children can learn to use their minds well is key to getting students to believe in themselves as capable learners.

Horace: So, what are the skills that teachers need to bring forth capable learning, and what do you do at Empowerment to develop those skills?

Misha Lesley: It really is a matter of less is more. We don’t bring in a lot of outside consultants or experts. We use the knowledge that is in the building. People have great experiences as teachers, and it’s important that they can come together with a group of colleagues to be transparent with their practice and get critical feedback. We don’t disregard research, but we get more out of using and analyzing our practices in ways that are authentic. The idea that guides our professional development is to use a few things that work well. Critical Friends Groups (CFGs) at our campus often use consultancy protocols for questions that have to do with the affective domain, such as, “How do I get my kids to believe in themselves as learners?” For the cognitive domain, we look at student work using the tuning protocol, which is most effective for building on expertise among staff. We don’t use a lot of protocols, but we use the consultancy and tuning ones quite a bit.

I am thinking in particular about how CFG work benefited one of our newer teachers who initially came to us as an undergraduate teaching assistant, and then joined the staff full time. This teacher knows how to be around children in a real, authentic, meaningful way; she believes kids can learn and she’s committed to the Common Principles. So from that basic threshold, she benefits from the CFG protocols and the ongoing support she gets from more experienced educators.

Horace: What advice do you have for other educators starting new small schools? In addition to creating a professional learning community that supports the school mission, what else can they do to create success?

Misha Lesley: Hiring is very important. When you have such a lofty mission and such diversity among students, a few novice teachers are okay, but not a lot. Sustainability comes from the hiring process, which is rigorous. The reality is that in some fields, especially math or science, there is such a shortage that it’s truly difficult to get good people in. That becomes a dilemma, so our response has been to “grow our own.” We have had success with college students who work in our school. They become acclimated to the culture of the school, and to the mission that has worked well from us.

I do worry about teacher preparation for CES schools. We are trying to live up to the Common Principles, but that is difficult to do if people are not adequately prepared to teach. Teachers must have basic pedagogy in place. As the CES Small Schools Project starts these new schools, we need to understand the ways that we are going to attract people to areas of the country such as Texas that progressive educators aren’t customarily attracted to. As I go onto the CES website’s jobs area, I’ve noticed that teachers who post resumes and are committed to this work don’t want to come to Texas. If we’re going to sustain this work and make it into a truly nationwide movement for the 21st century, we need to address that.

In other words, we have created a network of Essential schools, but do we have essential staff? I really want the Coalition to look into a teacher preparation program to create a cadre of Essential school teachers that we can tap into that would benefit not just regional pockets, but the whole network. It would benefit all of our kids. My fear is that we have such a strong commitment to the Small Schools Project and we are growing these schools, but if they don’t have a strong staff to match their strong missions, the schools won’t be successful.

The Consultancy and Tuning Protocols were developed within CES and further adapted as part of work of the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF). For more on NSRF and Critical Friends Groups, see “Where to Go for More” on page 29.

A Consultancy Protocol is a structured process that helps an individual or team think through a particular, concrete dilemma. For more on the Consultancy Protocol, see

A Tuning Protocol is a facilitated process that supports educators to share their students’ work with colleagues and reflect on the lessons that emerge in order to design and refine their assessment systems and support higher quality student performance. For more on the Tuning Protocol, see

Protocols are most powerful and effective when used within an ongoing professional learning community such as a Critical Friends Group and facilitated by a skilled coach. To learn more about professional learning communities and seminars for new or experienced coaches, please visit the NSRF website at

Many happy Essential school matches have been made on the CES Jobs Board, available at The CES Jobs Board offers job seekers a place to post resumes and CES schools a place to post openings.

Empowerment College Preparatory High School is a public high school in Houston, Texas serving 130 ninth through 12th graders. Founded in 2004, Empowerment has partnered with Quest High School in Humble, Texas as participants in the CES Small Schools Project. For more on Empowerment, view the CES EssentialVisions DVD Disc 2, “Student Achievement,” available