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Preparing the 21st Century Principal

The American public school is changing, and with it, the job description of its leader.
Twentieth century schools were urban and large (3,000 students), comprehensive in curriculum, bureaucratic, and slow to change. Their leaders underwent a lengthy induction, taking on increasing administrative responsibilities while earning a non-selective, part-time master’s degree in school administration.   
 
The 21st century school is smaller (typically 500–750 students); far less comprehensive but much more academically focused; home to a more diverse student population that includes many immigrant children from Africa and Asia; and led by someone half the age of his or her predecessor and often of color or multi-racial and ethnic identity.  
 
The 21st century principal more likely has 10 or fewer years of teaching experience rather than 20 or more; is highly idealistic and energetic; has strong social entrepreneurial instincts and a facility with technology; and is comfortable with collaborative decision-making when is its helpful, and decisive when it is not. He or she also embraces change, responding to a new ethos of accountability and an inner urgency to improve children’s life chances.   
 
The Summer Principals Academy (SPA) at Teachers College ideally models how to prepare these new leaders for their jobs and has begun working closely with the Cahn Fellows Program to foster a bridge between expert and novice principals.  
 
After a rigorous recruitment process, each new cohort bonds during an intensive orientation led by Outward Bound.  
 
Through lectures, reading, role playing and simulations, SPA students learn about law and ethics, data-driven leadership, budgeting, conflict resolution, team-building and self-awareness. Between summers, they fulfill a 450-hour internship supervised by experienced school leaders who visit them at their schools and consult with their supervisors and faculty at TC.   
 
Summer Two culminates with SPA students presenting detailed proposals for new schools, taking New York State’s eight-hour building certificate exam (last year, 96 percent passed on the first take), and heading off for leadership positions in cities around the nation.  
 
Finally, we invite them back—as doctoral candidates, guest lecturers and faculty—to share what they have learned. The circle is complete.
 
Craig Richards is Professor of Education and founder of the Teachers College Summer Principals Academy.
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