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Helping the Best Learn from Each Other


Cahn Fellows

Cahn Fellows Cahn Fellows program director Krista Dunbar, Kathleen Hayes, and Kristin Jefferson

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The Cahn Fellows Program matches top NYC principals up with the best teachers: their peers

Most professional development programs—whether in education or any other field—market themselves as offering knowledge their enrollees lack, and are therefore willing to pay for.

The Teachers College Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished New York City Principals takes the opposite tack.

“We pay for our Fellows to come here, and the assumption is that they have all the knowledge,” says Krista Dunbar, Program Director. “Our role is to support them in sharing that knowledge with each other. We offer them guidance, but based on what they identify as their needs, rather than what we assume those needs to be.”

That makes a lot of sense when you consider that the Cahn Fellows are the best of the best—top New York City public school principals chosen for their track record of prior success and their commitment to improving their schools as well as their own effectiveness. Created in 2002 with funding from Charles and Jane Cahn, the 15-month program selects new Fellows every year in March, who, while continuing as principals, come together every other month at TC for study group sessions in which they work on challenges they have identified in their own schools. (During the initial summer, there also is a more intensive gathering at TC and a field trip to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.) At the end of the program, the Fellows present the interventions they have devised for their schools as a result of the challenge project at a one-day forum for practitioners, experts and policymakers.

Both the challenges and the approaches devised to meet them are wide-ranging. For example, Cahn Fellow Patricia Minaya, principal of the Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women, has implemented a “100 Percent Respect” campaign to address what she saw as a lack of basic politeness and mutual respect among both students and teachers at the school.

“We’re a new school, so it’s really important that we get that ethos in place in our culture,” Minaya says.

At the Millennium Art Academy, Principal Maxine Nodel has worked on setting and maintaining strong expectations—both academically and socially—for her students, who share with five other schools the building on the Adlai E. Stevenson Campus in the Bronx.“

Some of the other schools in the building have had performance and behavior issues with their students, and with no geographic boundary between them and us, it becomes especially important to set standards,” Nodel says. “That’s a growing issue around the city, as more and more campuses house multiple schools.”

At the Manhattan Village Academy High School, principal Hector Geager has worked to create an internal accountability system consisting of teaching teams that prevent teachers from “decoupling”—that is, from simply closing their doors and working alone, apart from coordinated school-wide efforts.
And Sana Nasser, principal of Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, has focused on increasing the number of students who get promoted from the ninth to the 10th grade.

“That’s a key age group, because it’s been shown that when students don’t earn enough credits coming out of the ninth grade, they’re much more likely to drop out later on,” Nasser says.

Cahn Fellows also select and mentor new principals, known as Cahn Allies—and many serve as mentors through other programs as well. (For example, nine of 10 mentors in a New York City principals’ union program for assistant principals are former Cahn Fellows.)

“One of the major premises of the Cahn Fellows Program is that principals need a safe space where they can come together and speak freely,” says Dunbar, who previously taught at Frederick Douglas Academy in Manhattan, after which she earned an M.B.A. from Baruch College and worked as a market research analyst. “And that’s as important for our alumni as for our current Fellows, because these are jobs where typically no one is going to pat you on the back, either above you or on your own staff.”

In fact, Dunbar has made the care and feeding of Cahn Fellows alumni one of her signature initiatives since she took over as head of the program this past fall. “Including the current cohort”—at 29, the program’s largest ever—“we now have 107 principals who have received the Fellowship. We definitely want to preserve the connection with them, because both they and we did a lot of hard work to bring them together. Our Fellows write six essays, get two recommendations and are screened by four different people, including representatives from TC’s faculty, from Replications and from New Leaders for New Schools [professional development organizations]. So even after they’ve finished the program, we bring them back for roundtables and presentations, and we try to continue support for their challenge research and implementation.”

Program coordinator Kristin Jefferson has taken on an initiative to help current and former Fellows recruit teachers by posting job listings in their schools on the program Web site. And in their efforts to build a sense of community among present and former Fellows, Dunbar and her team—Jefferson and graduate assistant Kathleen Hayes and—also are creating a database of the research projects conducted by Fellows during the program. Hayes, a doctoral student in TC’s Leadership, Policy and Politics program who previously taught high school English in Chicago, currently is cataloguing all past projects across five categories—school culture, professional development, parental involvement, curriculum and instruction, and distributed leadership.

“We want each new cohort to be able to learn from work that’s already been done,” Hayes says. “Because our Fellows really do have a huge amount of knowledge, so there’s no reason for anyone to reinvent the wheel.”

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