First Principals

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In his first few years as a high school principal, David Banks filled out so much paperwork that he heard the whir of the fax machine when he went to sleep at night. Every couple of weeks, a principals’ meeting would last all day. First he’d be lectured to for a few hours about policies and practices. Then he and the other grown men and women in the room might sit in small groups and solve high school math problems, as a training exercise. He would leave with a pile of papers to sort, fill out, file, fax and distribute.

“I know enough about the system to do what I need to do,” says Banks, who founded the much-admired Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, part of the Bronx County Courthouse complex. What he didn’t need was a bureaucracy piled on top of him. Even under the newly streamlined Department of Education, he still has to report to an instructional superintendent and a regional superintendent, who have the power to tell him what to do and how to do it.

This year, Banks opened a second public school in the same building, the Eagle Academy for Young Men. And this time around, he has been relieved of much of the bureaucratic baggage that plagued him in the past. Eagle Academy is one of 29 schools the Department of Education is cutting loose from the supervision of its management hierarchy.

They call it the “autonomy zone.” Eagle Academy will have greater administrative freedom than Bronx Law and the other schools in Region 1, in exchange for greater accountability for student performance. It’s Chancellor Joel Klein’s newest strategy to lure entrepreneurial leaders like Banks into the public school system.

Klein desperately needs new leadership talent. Over the last two years, 1,400 of the city’s principals, assistant principals and administrators have retired. (In the two previous years, just 375 did.) Today, half of the city’s 1,300 principals have less than three years’ experience on the job.

The city’s reorganization of large high schools into small, theme-based academies is only increasing the demand for skilled new leadership. Each big-school breakup calls for four or five principals to

replace one.

But as far as Klein is concerned, the small schools are at the heart of the solution. His department is pushing hard to recruit educational entrepreneurs–dynamic leaders who in the past might have spent their careers crusading for reform, set up their own little pockets of resistance, or just given up on teaching entirely. Klein wants these young idealists on his team, and the city’s new Leadership Academy is paying top dollar to hire and train them.

The enticements don’t stop there. These new principals are being encouraged to question almost everything about how New York City schools are run, and to come up with their own creative solutions. For the select cadre in the autonomy zone, the latitude, and responsibility, is even more extreme.

“There’s a growing recognition that if you want to find the best available educators, you have to create opportunities that attract those people,” says Eric Nadelstern, a former principal who’s in charge of this new wave of experimental schools. “If a principal is simply expected to implement the best thinking of the administration, we won’t attract people who want to exercise their own best thinking.”

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It used to take at least 20 years to become a school principal in New York City. Aspirants had to pass through the ranks of teacher, staff developer and assistant principal. And until now, teachers were promoted for being team players, strong organizational managers and

strict disciplinarians.

A typical principal of a large high school might have had as many as 10 assistant principals–one to do the scheduling and the budget, one in charge of guidance and discipline, and the rest supervising teachers in various subject areas. Decisions about curriculum, hiring and school procedures were made by people higher up in the administration. But because they were not involved in those important decisions, recalls Nadelstern, principals were not blamed for poor results. Their institutions simply continued to flounder. “Schools have the quality of leadership they are designed to attract,” Nadelstern declares.

The new regime is focused intensely on generating direct accountability. In order to hold principals responsible for their students’ success, Nadelstern maintains, they need to be given the power to make meaningful management decisions. The principal’s most important job now, according to Nadelstern and the Klein administration, is being the head teacher or, in the current lingo, “instructional leader.”

Many of the city’s newest principals come straight from the ranks of teachers. Marie Prendergast remembers always questioning the way her Brooklyn high school, Paul Robeson, was run. “Why is the guidance office so far away from the classrooms?” she asked herself. “Why do announcements take 12 minutes every day? Why are there fire drills during Regents exams?” A former playwright and poet, Prendergast was wired to think creatively. She envisioned not just a collection of classrooms but a think tank on educational issues.

Last year, she matriculated with 89 other aspiring principals in the first class at the New York City Leadership Academy. A highly competitive institution–there were 1,300 applicants for the second class–the academy is a privately financed nonprofit organization run by the former CEO of Covad Communications, Bob Knowling. Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons and former General Electric CEO Jack Welch sit on the advisory board, as does former schools chancellor Anthony Alvarado.

Behind the corporate logos, the educators responsible for training new principals are icons of progressive education in New York. They give their students a 15-month crash course in school leadership, emphasizing pedagogical philosophy more than bureaucratic procedure.

Leadership Academy instructor Jill Herman developed her own leadership skills working alongside principal Debbie Meier, who founded the pioneering experimental public school Central Park East. Herman remembers the 30 credits she took in educational supervision at Hunter College as mostly irrelevant to the job. “Thank God I wasn’t doing brain surgery,” she says, “because no one would have lived.”

Herman also found herself fighting the tide when she served as principal of East Side Community High School. It’s now regarded as a model for the new wave of small schools, with excellent college acceptance rates and a strong humanities curriculum, but back then in the 1990s she had to negotiate with her supervisors for more autonomy over student assessment and the hiring of teachers. When she could get away with it, she just evaded them entirely. “We really were the counter-culture,” Herman says. “Now small schools are the culture.”

At the academy, the principals-in-training focus on the battles that really matter: the endless series of trials that fill a school manager’s day. Four days a week, trainees assist a principal. On the fifth, they go through simulations, such as an “in-basket” assignment. Arriving at school at 7 a.m., they face 25 urgent situations at the same time: an irate parent waiting in the office, the teacher’s parking lot closing unexpectedly, a student who must be disciplined before he goes to class, and on and on. The student principals have to sort the tasks and explain their rationale.

Some of the lessons on management and systems analysis come straight from the business world. There are weekend retreats at Jack Welch’s estate. When media magnate Rupert Murdoch spoke at the academy over the summer, he compared his founding of the Fox television network to the creation of a new high school.

But though the casework in small teams is reminiscent of business school assignments, the Leadership Academy is actually modeled on medical training, explains Herman. Students spend most of their time in the field. They do not study the details of the school system’s regulations or educational law. They are taught to budget according to their philosophical beliefs. Trainees say it makes sense. “You can always look up rules,” says Nancy Gannon. She graduated in August and started her own school in September.

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Ninety-one new schools opened this fall, and each needed someone to run it. The Department of Education recruited 16 of the Leadership Academy principals to write proposals.

They were encouraged to dream. The principals-to-be drew pictures of their ideal schools. One had flat-screen monitors built into the walls. Big pillows were strewn about another. “Don’t just tweak your own experience,” Ken Baum remembers being told. He used his love of math to dream up the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science. Marie Prendergast’s interest in adolescent brain theory led to the High School for Youth and Community Development. And Nancy Gannon designed the School for Democracy and Leadership, emphasizing civic engagement.

Each small school needed an outside partner, such as a community organization or arts institution. At big meetings, open to the public, principals seeking an affiliation shopped around for partners. Marie Prendergast met Marie Louis of Community Counseling Mediation, a nonprofit located in Crown Heights. More than just a first name, they found they shared a belief that developing one-on-one relationships with young people is key to their emotional and intellectual development.

Louis has discovered that Prendergast’s lack of experience as an administrator is an advantage. “She comes straight out of the classroom, working with young people,” Louis explains. “She’s critical but not jaded by experience.” Previously, Louis had worked with principals who just accepted the rules whether or not they agreed with them.

Principals still have to be skilled and flexible managers. They not only need to supervise their own staffs but maintain a relationship with their partner organizations, which sometimes have full-time employees on the premises. The new principals typically share space with three or four other schools. Where there used to be a central authority in each school building, principals now engage in delicate negotiations over cafeteria space and gym time, and they split supervision of custodial and food services.

But because these new schools are so much smaller than the old–typically they have around 400 students each, and start out with 100 in their first class–the new leaders also have time to get to know young people individually. They also spend a lot of time with teachers, many of whom are brand new and require a lot of support. Prendergast prioritizes her role as “instructional leader,” ready to give a sample lesson or advice on curriculum and classroom management.

And what about the paperwork? Prendergast says she could do it all only if she hid behind her desk all the time. “Every day,” she boasts, “I celebrate the deadline of the day I blew off.”

The bureaucracy, however, has not let up. Regional supervisors have significant management power, and they each wield it differently. They might mandate a 90-minute math period or a standardized report card. They could train the teachers according to a different methodology than the one a principal prefers. All high school students now must take a battery of state Regents exams to graduate, and some regions have come up with detailed plans each school must follow to prepare their students.

Above all, regional supervisors always have to worry about the prime directive from local and federal government: At all but the top-performing schools, standardized test scores must consistently improve. Many of the regions have implemented sweeping policies to hike student performance. For the Leadership Academy principals who’ve spent a year perfecting schedules, grading systems and teaching methods at their fantasy schools, moving from a creative institution back into a bureaucratic one can be a rude awakening.

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Eric Nadelstern knows how easily bureaucracy can snuff out innovation. In the mid-1980s, he founded International High School, which immersed recent immigrant students in English and in creative academic projects that helped them learn the language. His school used portfolio evaluations instead of the Regents examinations to assess students’ qualifications to graduate. They had a strikingly good track record at getting into college, and International became the inspiration for several similar schools.

Nadelstern had to hustle for years to circumvent restrictive city and state requirements for testing and evaluation. By 1999, he’d had enough: He turned International High into a charter school, receiving funding directly from the state. Just two years later, he had to return to the Board of Ed when he found that state funding was inadequate and management demands too restrictive. Soon after, Nadelstern led a band of renegade principals in a lawsuit against the state education agency, seeking to permit portfolios as an alternative to the Regents exams.

They lost in court. But in the new Department of Education, the former foe of the system has been put in charge of reforming it. “Until the Klein administration,” Nadelstern says, “the way in which I exercised professional judgment and independence was to challenge if not

threaten people in the administration. The fact that I’ve been invited to serve in this administration is an acknowledgment of the kind of independent, entrepreneurial professionals that the chancellor wants to see, primarily as principals.”

As deputy superintendent in the Bronx, he facilitated the opening of 50 small schools. Last year, he became chief academic officer of the Office of New Schools, helping seed them citywide.

He was also put in charge of the autonomy zone. In this experiment in independent school management, principals will have far greater control over curriculum, schedules and teacher training than most schools have under regional supervision. In return, they will have to maintain high performance among their students: 90 percent attendance (the average is currently 89 percent), 80 percent graduation (53 percent systemwide complete high school in four years), and 80 percent of courses passed. And they can’t cherry-pick the best pupils–they must do it while including “a population that reflects the full range of students throughout the city.”

Since it is a voluntary experiment, the only repercussions for principals who fail to meet the goals will be leaving the zone. But this test run paves the way to greater consequences–bonuses and pay cuts, firing and hiring. The principals’ union, the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, is ready to fight those tooth and nail. “I think these are gutsy guys,” Nadelstern says. “Few, if any of us, have been held accountable.”

Some of the schools were nominated for the zone by their regional superintendents–in effect saying that these principals don’t need their supervision. The shining stars of the small-school movement in New York City are represented: Nadelstern’s own International High School, Urban Academy, Beacon High School and City As School. All have progressive curricula focused on students’ interests as well as excellent reputations, graduation rates and college acceptances. Graduates from the Leadership Academy who were designing new schools were also invited to join; a handful of them jumped right in.

Most of the schools have less than 500 students. Three are charter schools. The hiring of teachers is still subject to union rules, though some principals signed on with the hope that they will have more control over staffing decisions. How far the autonomy will extend has yet to be determined. Nadelstern and Klein are even considering giving principals the opportunity to choose food vendors and custodial services.

David Banks says he doesn’t need that much autonomy. He is happy just to be left alone. He does question, however, the inclusion of schools led by new principals.

“The newbies–I hope they don’t fall so much on their face that they blow up the whole zone,” Banks says. As a new principal, he read every piece of paper carefully. It’s easy to fall behind, he says, and regional supervisors and meetings are there to remind principals of what they need to do. Some of it is not meaningless drudgery. For instance, principals need to document that special education students and English language learners are receiving the extra services to which they are entitled. In the excitement over interesting activities and hands-on learning, some small-school principals fail to keep accurate records of their students’ grades.

But the Department of Education is committed, and staking a lot on the autonomy zone’s success. At the end of the year, more schools will be given a chance to apply to be in the zone. Nadelstern says there are no plans yet to expand the zone system-wide but that Klein will pay close attention to the results.

“It’s at the heart of the school system, part of the Chancellor’s planning initiative,” Nadelstern says. “The truth is, we’re in this to change the world. Anyone who has any lesser goal should not be here.”

Nancy Gannon is trying to change the world by spending as much time as she can with her students and teachers. In the autonomy zone, Gannon has been able to establish her own curriculum based on democracy and leadership, work with teachers she chose personally, and train them right in the school.

Marie Prendergast decided to hold off on entering the zone; she decided she needed the regular supervision. But next year, she plans to apply. So far, her school averages 94 percent attendance. She says she is ready to be judged by the performance of her students.

“There’s no excuses,” Prendergast says. “There’s no reason for me not to do this. I cannot put it on the kids. They’re showing up. It’s entirely up to me. This is absolutely radical.” •

Sylvia Maria Gross taught at a small public school in the Bronx. She is now a public radio reporter at KCUR-FM in Kansas City, Missouri.