Dr. Michael H. Robinson’s 28-year career as an instructional leader has been defined by his desire to promote equity and build a sense of unity among stakeholders. He has served many communities including public and private schools in several roles, including Special Education teacher, Head Basketball Coach, Assistant Principal, Principal, and Executive Director of School Turnaround. When Dr. Robinson took the principal position at Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts (MESSA) in 2014, it was transitioning from a magnet program to a new arts-infused Title I, 9-12 grade magnet high school. The school enrolls talented performing arts students living at or below the poverty line from across the county. He came in as a new principal, from outside of the county, in a newly forming school. He understood that the first order of business was to foster a school identity. His approach was to build and reciprocate trust through collaborative leadership.
Under Principal Robinson’s leadership, MESSA not only developed a program designed to achieve high academic and artistic performance, it created a unified school that has excelled in the arts and academics. With a total minority enrollment of 98 percent and 100 percent enrollment of students who are economically disadvantaged, MESSA needed a unique leader to bring the school’s mission to life. Principal Robinson clearly articulated the mission and goals for the school and instilled in the school community his philosophy that all students can be successful when the support is there. He created two administrative teams to support the school mission: an Administrative Team to focus on teacher quality and student outcomes, and a Leadership Team to provide resources and support for the school community to carry out the mission and meet goals. Through these teams as the school’s visionary leader, Principal Robinson cultivated leadership among staff to ensure the whole school community committed to the vision and supported an instructional climate purposefully designed to ensure student success.
Infusing high performing arts education and academic excellence has been a hallmark of Principal Robinson’s leadership at MESSA. Principal Robinson believed that an arts-infused framework provides students with a deeper understanding of core concepts. He created a collaborative effort between the art and academic teachers and instituted cross-curricular English Language Arts initiatives. Teachers received specialized professional learning on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) best practices. He created opportunities for teachers to strengthen instructional rigor and relevance in everyday practice. As a result, students have achieved on the local, national, and international levels in arts and academics.
Principal Robinson instituted an open collaboration process in the school to ensure all voices were heard, so he could gain a deeper understanding about what was needed to strengthen the school achievement. One of the cornerstones of this collaboration is called Stilwell’s Leadership Retreat. Each year prior to the school opening, students, parents, staff, and several community organizations work with the Administrative Team to reflect on the school’s vision and goals. Using a collaborative process, all stakeholders engage in decision-making to impact the comprehensive school improvement plan and set the tone for the MESSA school community. Principal Robinson noted that when all stakeholders are engaged in setting the mission, vision, and goals in a collaborative way, it solidifies a shared and united culture “where students can learn, teachers can teach, and parents can be involved.”
Principal Robinson believed that creating a professional culture with a high level of reciprocal communication at MESSA was part of creating a culture of success. While many leaders talk about having an open-door policy, he ensured that it was put into practice. He communicated to students, parents, faculty, and staff that when his door is open, they can share ideas, accolades, and concerns of any type. He practiced a down-to-earth approach through his compassionate interactions with students, families, and staff, while emulating consistent messages about expectations and discipline.
Under Principal Robinson’s leadership, MESSA’s arts-infused educational approach flourished. Through collaboration, equitable opportunity, and unifying communication, he strengthened the school’s capacity to develop an instructional framework that bridges the arts and core curriculum. But it is his passion for student success that set the school in motion and led to its success.
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