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Big, But Not Always Easy

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Will Schneider

Will Schneider

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When Hurricane Katrina demolished Will Schneider’s home town of Chalmette, a suburb of New Orleans, it knocked Schneider’s budding acting career for a loop, as well. So Schneider decided to put his degree in biology to work while he waited for his star to rise. He signed on to teach Earth Science at his alma mater, Chalmette High School, thinking he’d stay “for a year or so, just to get some money in my pocket.”

Just days after his job interview, he found himself “thrown to the wolves,” teaching out of a trailer, with full responsibility for a class of eighth graders – and, improbably, completely happy. “I literally fell in love with it that first week,” he says.

Recently, Schneider’s school has tapped him for an administrative leadership role -- which means he needs to get a master’s degree. When a colleague told him about the Summer Principals Academy (SPA) at Teachers College, Schneider did some research and fell in love again. “It’s a program that is like none else,” he says. “I could get my master’s from a prestigious university while I was still working. But what really got me was the self-awareness training. You have to learn about yourself before you can teach other adults.”

Created in 2005, SPA seeks to prepare a new kind of principal who, as the program’s founder, TC Professor of Education Craig Richards, has written, is “highly idealistic and energetic; has strong social entrepreneurial instincts and a facility with technology…is comfortable with collaborative decision-making when is its helpful, and decisive when it is not....” and who “embraces change, responding to a new ethos of accountability and an inner urgency to improve children’s life chances.”   

SPA provides an intensive two-summer experience that brackets a 450-hour on-the-job internship. The course offerings include law and ethics, data-driven leadership, budgeting, conflict resolution, team-building and self-awareness. The program culminates in a capstone project in which students develop proposals for new schools and submit them for juried review. Graduates also sit for an eight-hour New York building certificate exam, with 96 percent passing on the first try.

With those bona fides, SPA has quickly become the nation’s largest program for aspiring principals. In spring 2011, Richards launched a sister program, based at Tulane University, called SPA in New Orleans (SPA NOLA). The program’s most obvious selling point is that it is timed to the Southern school calendar, serving teachers whose classes end in May and who must return from vacation in July for professional development and to ready for the new semester in August. Yet while SPA NOLA provides virtually the same experience as its New York City counterpart, there is a sense that its offerings are even more relevant in the South, where, poverty is more prevalent and where, since Katrina, many communities have rebuilt their education systems almost entirely around charter schools.

“Our graduates end up working not only in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, but also the Rio Grande area of West Texas, from Brownsville up to San Antonio,” Richards says. “These are some of the poorest areas in the country, with populations that are up to 90 percent black and Latino, and almost all the schools are charters, where principals really need to be able to handle autonomy and accountability and function as leaders on every level.  Just as important, these schools need people who are committed to staying in the region. We’re providing a lot of the leadership development for them.”

The SPA program is particularly well suited to deal with the high number of young, Teach for America students that Southern charter schools are attracting, says Juliette de Wolfe, the program’s assistant director.

“We’re trying to get our students to be self-aware, self-understanding leaders who are able to take a comprehensive look at the really tough decisions they’re going to have to make — be it about scheduling or an issue with a child’s parents — and to be able to apply those soft skills,” de Wolfe says. She adds that the program’s extensive courses in adult supervision and adult development are especially helpful to graduates who end up working for charter networks that often move them into positions of leadership after one or two years.  ”While many of the schools have young faculty, in general we find that a lot of our students will come into situations where they are mentoring or supervising faculty who are 10 years older than they are,” she says.   

As the new school in town, SPA NOLA has been forging connections in the new landscape and providing experiences that draw on local culture. The students of the 2012 cohort took a Mississippi River boat tour to build camaraderie, attended a float building session at Mardi Gras World to learn about the history of Mardi Gras krewes, and took in an instructive jazz performance to learn leadership works in local bands.

Richards and de Wolfe have conducted information sessions at Renew and First Line Networks and made contact with the Charter School Growth Fund and with 4.0 Schools, an organization which focuses on helping people in schools to develop their innovative ideas. 

“It could be anything from trying to align a transportation model for their schools that currently is quite weak to coming up with a behavior plan for a certain population of students in their schools,” de Wolfe says. “4.0 Schools participants are people who want to explore their innovative ideas and vet them through a process of approval.”

SPA is also making every effort to connect with potential participants – not only those in the attractive charter groups such as those in the distant rural schools, but also others in traditional public schools. “What we’d like to do is to be able to encourage the growth of leaders who can work effectively in either environment,” de Wolfe says.

On another front, de Wolfe says the Louisiana Department of Education recently contacted her about a grants program the department is starting to support graduate training for administrators working in rural districts. “This is something we’re really excited about,” de Wolfe says. “These aspiring principals would otherwise not ever have the means to attend the program. We’re hoping to be able to cultivate similar scenarios in places like the Rio Grande Valley or the Mississippi Delta.”

SPA NOLA is looking to create a similarly diverse panel to judge the southern version of its annual school design challenge. “There will be panelists local to New Orleans,” de Wolfe says. “We’re going to see if we can also find representatives from Texas or Mississippi. We’ll of course have representatives of charters, but we also want representatives from traditional schools, which may include officials from the Department of Education who regularly vet these proposals.”

Ultimately, de Wolfe says, SPA NOLA is all about providing strong customer service – not only to its students, but to alumni and the schools they lead. “The students in our program are working full time and they really are aspiring to do amazing things,” she says. “So we work with them throughout their internship to make sure that we can cater to their individual needs and the needs of their schools.”

Will Schneider, for one, is counting on those assurances.  “My actual title in Chalmette right now is Coordinator of School Support Services,” Schneider says. “What I’m hoping for is that, on July 6th, when I finish with SPA, I’ll let all the people know, and then next year, I’ll have the assistant principalship. That would be nice.”

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