Making Change: Fast Forward

Print More

Kate Garrison is having a great year–even though she works long hours and eats lunch when others are already thinking about dinner. Garrison, 31, is the first-year principal of South Brooklyn Community High School, a new alternative school serving about 150 troubled students. Not bad for someone who just two years ago was a frustrated English teacher in Indianapolis, with few formal qualifications to run a school and neither the money nor the patience to go get them.

“I knew what a good school should look like and I knew how to get kids reading,” she says. “I didn’t have time, and, frankly, I couldn’t afford to take on more student loans and go to grad school for a year and a half.” In New York City, as in most other cities, being a principal usually requires anywhere from two to five years of classroom teaching, graduate school and state certification, and some sort of supervisory experience.

Instead, Garrison and 14 other aspiring principals found and joined an innovative new principal training program called New Leaders for New Schools. Started just over two years ago in Chicago, New Leaders recruits candidates with or without all the necessary academic qualifications and puts them on a fast track to running schools. Two years of teaching experience, recent or long ago, is all you need to qualify.

Thus far, the program has attracted successful candidates from many different walks of life, including directors of nonprofits, business school grads and refugees from the private sector. Ranging from 26 to 56 years old, roughly half of the first cohort came to the program from outside education.

Once they are accepted, New Leaders puts the recruits through a full-time summer session of classes and simulations, followed by a 10-month school-based “residency” where they are mentored by an experienced principal and take on real-world leadership activities. Currently, trainees are working with schools in Chicago and New York.

There is little disagreement that a good principal can make or break a school. Over the past five years, finding a quality principal for as many schools as possible has become a priority for reformers, including Chancellor Joel Klein, who recently announced his own principal-training program. Klein hopes to recruit the best principals from around the country and train them using corporate-style leadership methods. He’s even offering extra pay to star principals who are willing to run struggling schools. And insiders say that the chancellor’s initiative will include key aspects of the New Leaders approach when it is rolled out later this spring.

_______

Often caricatured as incompetent and irrelevant to school life–wielding keys, a walkie-talkie or, at worst, a baseball bat–most principals are recruited haphazardly from the classroom, trained inadequately in ed school graduate courses, and then denied the time, autonomy and support they need to do what most acknowledge is a tremendously complex job. In many places, they can’t pick their own staff, shape their own budgets or, starting next year in New York City, even choose what teaching model to adopt.

All too often, the result is frustration and conflict. Operational and financial issues like bus schedules and lunch menus eclipse educational concerns. For the overwhelmed principal, the emphasis becomes surviving daily crises rather than long-term change. Burnout is common and the turnover rate is high; there are fewer candidates than ever for the available number of jobs.

All but a quarter of the city’s current principals have tenure. That fact, along with community district politics, has made it easier to transfer an ineffective principal to another school than to remove or retrain one. Since gaining authority to fire underperforming principals in 1998, the chancellor’s office had not dismissed a single one until Klein took over.

Among the small but growing crop of programs that try and address these problems, New Leaders is notable for its year-long residency and its effort to recruit talent from outside of education. Other programs can take years of part-time work or cost as much as $25,000 in tuition. Instead, New Leaders is full-time and actually pays candidates and their mentors to participate, charging no tuition. Candidates receive roughly $45,000, based on their teaching experience. Mentor principals get between $3,000 and $5,000 for time spent training and working with the candidates.

Districts carefully scrutinize the New Leaders’ training before agreeing to accept them. No one is guaranteed a job after finishing. And the application process is highly selective, with only one out of 10 candidates accepted for 50 training spots each year. So far, at least, the program is small but increasingly popular–it has already more than doubled in size. Next year, it will train 70 new participants and expand into Washington, D.C.

Competing against traditional candidates, all but two of the first year’s class of 15 were able to find a school leadership position of some kind. Seven were selected as principals of new and charter schools, and two, including Garrison, beat out more established candidates to get the top job at existing neighborhood schools.

_______

Despite these early successes, New Leaders also has its opponents, which include New York City’s principals’ union. “Fast-track programs for principals are unproven here in the city, and we are skeptical of their effectiveness,” says Jill Levy, president of the 5,500-member Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. “Why should we think someone would be an effective principal just because they were once a student?”

New Leaders represents a challenge to Levy’s members that is similar to the one that Teach For America and other alternative certification programs posed to teachers’ unions: The program brings in outside competition, potentially taking away jobs and calling into question training programs run by the union. This at a time when Chancellor Klein has taken up the theme of accountability for academic achievement, announcing plans to fire 50 of the lowest-performing principals in the city.

Given this environment, New Leaders’ most surprising success may be the trust and acceptance some of its members have won from teachers and other administrators at the schools where they train. “I was truly amazed,” remembers Patrick Bacillieri, who led a nonprofit that facilitates racial reconciliation programs for students before entering the program and who now runs an elementary school in Chicago. “Within a week of my arrival, I was being asked to co-chair a committee on racism.”

Gaining this sort of acceptance as an outsider is a delicate task. Even the most successful New Leaders report that being accepted and doing well in a challenging new environment is not easy. “There were tense moments,” remembers Bacillieri, who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his mentor principal. Sometimes he had to go slowly to avoid treading on teachers’ toes. “I had to navigate closely my relationships throughout the whole year,” he adds. To help with this process, New Leaders trains its candidates in non-threatening ways to gain “entry” into a new school environment.

There have been other challenges, to be sure. Making the residency training model work well is one. To be effective, the residency has to include meaningful responsibilities for the fellows and acceptance from faculty and parents. Finding and keeping effective mentors is also key. Even though mentors are paid, roughly half of those from the first year did not participate in the second year.

Keeping a good mix of schools is yet another issue. Only three of last year’s Chicago fellows trained in traditional neighborhood schools, and only one ended up heading a traditional neighborhood school.

And then there’s the most fundamental concern, which it’s simply too early to answer: Do the intensive training and the unique backgrounds of the New Leaders make a significant difference in the end? Are New Leaders any better, any more enlightened or any more likely to stay put than other would-be reformers?

_______

For now the program has to make sure that its graduates are getting jobs, period. Four of the first batch had to settle for assistant principal jobs or other types of educational work, at least in part due to district superintendents’ lack of familiarity with the New Leaders program.

In New York specifically, the program has to survive the politics of the intensifying school reform debate. The shift from 32 to 10 districts creates turmoil and change in the principal-hiring process. The ongoing contract negotiations between Klein and the principals’ union create additional friction. And the uniform curriculum mandate for all but 209 of the city’s 1,200 schools may make the job seem too powerless to be appealing.

Still, New Leaders’ leader is confident as the program expands into its third year. “When the city needs more than 500 principals in the next three years, we can’t afford to rely on the status quo,” says founder Jon Schnur. “We need new and effective ways to fnd and develop talented individuals–wherever they come from.”

The conflicts between Klein and the union have allowed New Leaders to fly under the radar for now. Later this spring, a new, even larger crop of fellows will be announced–almost two out of three coming from outside education. In the meantime, philanthropic support continues to be strong, including money from Vivendi and Carnegie Corporation, helping the program fund a $4 million budget for the coming fall.

Over at South Brooklyn Community High School, Garrison shares the program’s confidence. “It’s going really well,” she says, eating lunch and answering questions at roughly 4:30 in the afternoon. “It’s a lot of hard work and there’s a new challenge every day, but the faculty is great, the students are engaged, we haven’t had a fight yet this year, and we still have every student but one that we started with.”

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer.