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Helping the Best Get Better

Four former TC Cahn Fellow principals describe the challenges they've faced in transforming their schools into some of New York City's best -- and the program's founder explains his vision. One of them - Lily Woo, pictured at left, is the focus of a chapter in the recently published book Leading Outside the Lines, by Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan. Leading Outside the Lines, Chaper Seven
Four former TC Cahn Fellow principals describe the challenges they've faced in transforming their schools into some of New York City's best – and the program’s founder explains his vision.

Twenty-five years into his career as investment research director, Chuck Cahn took on an assignment that would change not only his own life but that of hundreds of educators and thousands of New York City schoolchildren. His company was merging with a larger one, and the directors wanted advice on where to focus the efforts of their charitable foundation.

“Our directive was that it had to be New York City-based and associated with education,” recalls Cahn.

The final result was an excellent center, based at a business school, that focused on leadership and ethics. But along the way, through a conversation with an officer at a major charitable trust, Cahn came across an idea that he found much more compelling.

“She said that if you found a good public school, it was sure to have a good principal, and if you found a bad one, it was certain that the principal was bad, too,” Cahn says. “She said there were a great number of principal training programs, because New York City needs upwards of 300 new principals per year. But when I asked her about programs for very good principals, she said there were none.”

Cahn became so taken with the idea that his wife suggested he create such a program himself.

“I had always believed, as a manager, that it’s better to leave positions open than to hire someone who isn’t effective,” he says.

He did a lot of research and became convinced TC was the place to make it happen. And so, in 2003, the Cahn Fellows Program was born, with the unique mission of strengthening the New York City school system by investing in its most effective leaders.

Since then, 197 principals, grouped in annual cohorts of between 20 and 30 members, have participated in the 15-month Cahn Fellowships. Each group spends two weeks together, usually at the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, and then meets throughout the year to work with TC faculty—and each other—on challenges in their own schools. Cahn Fellows also mentor aspiring principals from within their schools with an eye towards grooming their successors and the next generation of urban school leaders. To date, more than 15 percent of New York City principals, who work with a total of 200,000 school children, have participated in the Cahn Fellows Program.

The program emphasizes distributive leadership—the idea that, as Cahn puts it, “you’ve got to have good people, give them responsibility and hold them accountable.”

It’s a concept that Krista Dunbar, current director of the Cahn Fellows program, says that Cahn himself practices as well as preaches.

“Chuck stays strongly connected to the program, giving us the benefit of his passion and energy as well as his philanthropic support,” Dunbar says. “But he also allows each cohort to evolve in its own unique direction, and for new lessons to emerge. That’s as rare as it is wonderful.” • In the following stories, TC Today profiles four long-serving New York City principals who are former Cahn Fellows.


DuchLearning by Community
Steven Duch, Hillcrest High

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It’s one thing to tweak a successful model to keep things fresh. Stephen Duch essentially threw the whole model out the window.

Four years ago, Hillcrest High in Queens, where Duch had served as principal since 1996, boasted an above average four-year graduation rate—58 percent compared to less than 50 percent citywide. But that still left close to four in 10 Hillcrest students who didn’t graduate within four years, which Duch found unacceptable.

So Duch split the school’s 3,400 students into seven small learning communities, each with a theme-based program: pre-med, health careers, theatre, public service and law, business tech, humanities, and pre-teaching. Each community is led by a teacher director and guidance counselor, and Duch oversees the operation.

Duch hatched the concept during his year in the Cahn Fellows program at Teachers College, a time when he also worked with educators from New Visions for Public Schools and the New York City Leadership Academy. A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding to train teachers to lead the small learning communities within the sprawling high school complex that serves a diverse student population that’s about 42 percent African American, 30 percent Asian, 23 percent Hispanic and 5 percent white.

“The Cahn program opened my eyes to begin looking at education in a different way,” he says. “And it helped move our school to a very, very different place than what our neighboring schools have been able to achieve over the years.”

Duch sees his model of separate-but-conjoined learning communities as preferable to reform efforts at other comprehensive high schools, where formerly monolithic institutions have been divided into stand-alone small schools within a broader campus. The latter approach, he says, can lead to feuding among principals for supplies and building space.

The small learning communities at Hillcrest, in contrast, retain an esprit de corps, with students from all the communities participating together in a broad range of athletic and extracurricular programs. The school also offers a vast array of AP and early college courses. And Duch remains in charge, able to serve as the “tie-breaker” when tough decisions must be made. “I’ve moved from being the captain of the ship to becoming an admiral of the fleet because there is a fleet of small schools within the building, and ultimately I’m the one who is navigating them through the course,” he says.

Duch believes the learning communities have empowered his teaching and administrative staffs, most of whom are people he has hired during his 14-year tenure. (Duch is a Queens native, and 22 of his 180 teachers are Hillcrest graduates.) Each day the teachers have common planning time, which is led by teachers and supported by Duch and the school’s assistant principals. Duch says the teachers have become more involved in the day-to-day operation of the school, making them more concerned with the school’s overall progress.

Duch sees their growing involvement as a way to guard against what he calls the “curdle factor”—when teachers turn sour and become cynical and bitter.

“The Cahn program provided me the opportunity to be reflective on what the role of the teachers should look like,” says Duch. “It let me work on what needs to be in place to sustain teachers to be successful in schools.”


freemanLeadership under Fire
Barbara Freeman, P.s. 161

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In 1999, when Barbara Freeman became principal of P.S. 161 on West 133rd Street in Harlem, the school had been languishing for six years on the state’s list of Schools Under Registration Review (SURR). Just 24 percent of its mostly Latino students were proficient in math and only 11 percent in English Language Arts.

Freeman, who is African American, didn’t speak much Spanish, but the city, which was jumpstarting reform in SURR schools, tapped her for her experience working as an assistant principal at struggling schools in the South Bronx and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Tough and smart, she also has an easy laugh and the ability to listen to others’ concerns.

Freeman made good headway at 161, but a year into her efforts, she knew there was a still a long way to go. Then the city proposed turning the school into a charter, to be managed by Edison Schools, a private company. Freeman convened the school community to discuss the impending change, but stayed publicly impartial so parents could decide what would be best for their kids.

The result was gratifying. The school community mobilized itself to keep 161 in city hands and under Freeman’s leadership. Parents organized to fight the plan and became involved in school issues. Teachers began tutoring kids during cooperation periods and at lunch.

When it came to a vote, parents rejected the Edison takeover. Better still, they stayed committed to all the new efforts they had set in motion.

Today, 86 percent of students at the school—officially known as P.S./M.S. 161 Pedro Albizu Campos—are proficient in math, and 70 percent are proficient in English.

“That incident hastened reform by five years,” says, Freeman, who is now pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at TC.

Since then, she has implemented reforms focused on accountability, teacher quality, and development of the school’s transitional bilingual program to increase the focus on learning English. The latter priority has required particular diplomacy.

“The last thing I wanted parents and teachers to think was that an African-American principal is coming in, not really validating their culture and their instructional way of their kids, and dismantling a lot of things,” she says. “However, the programs weren’t working. So it was my job to show them how they were not working.”

During 2006, Freeman honed her leadership skills in the Cahn Fellows program, focusing on the adjustments that 161 has needed to make as it has added grade 7 and planned for the addition of grade 8.

“How strategically you use your leadership became a big eye-opener for me,” says Freeman. Now she’s working to improve her school at a time when test scores are up, and pressures for change aren’t coming from downtown. By studying at TC while continuing to lead at P.S. 161, she’s able to see how theory plays out in practice several blocks north of campus on West 133rd Street.

“I’m happy with my school and the progress that it’s making,” says Freeman. “It’s ever-evolving, which keeps it fresh.”


wooA Voice (and Appreciator) of Experience
Lily Woo, P.S. 130

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At P.S. 130 in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, Principal Lily Woo schedules Parents Association meetings at the start of the school day. School concerts, too.

That’s because Woo, who grew up in Chinatown after her family emigrated from China to New York City when she was a child, knows from firsthand experience that many parents in the neighborhood work long evening hours.

“When we have parent meetings in the morning, we get up to 300 people,” says Woo, whose mother worked in a laundry and father worked in restaurants. “Knowing how the community ticks, and then having that understanding of what kids need, has really made a difference in the school.”

Woo has served since 1990 as principal of P.S. 130, where about 90 percent of the students are Asian and 81 percent come from low-income families. When she first arrived, about 38 percent of the students were reading on grade level. Today, even though a majority of the students come to the school not speaking English, 93 percent are reading at or above grade level, 99 percent are proficient in math, and 98 percent proficient in science and social studies.

Yet despite her Chinatown roots, Woo won her principalship at 130 amid great controversy. Parents and teachers were backing a beloved assistant principal, but the city administration turned to Woo, who had experience with programming for English Language Learners. After she got the job, the district superintendent offered to transfer the assistant principal in order to ease Woo’s transition, but Woo declined, choosing to work with the entire staff she had inherited.

Twenty years, later that same assistant principal still works collaboratively with Woo at P.S. 130.

“He’s a wonderful person and has become a great friend,” she says. “I felt that if I could bring him in and convince him to support the initiatives, then others would go along with it as well.”

Woo was among the first cohort of principals participating in TC’s Cahn Fellows program in 2003. After 13 years of leading P.S. 130, she was finding it lonely at the top without peers to give her feedback on new initiatives or thorny issues. She was mentoring other principals around the city, but her own professional development was at a standstill.

The program gave her the peer contact and support she craved. She also enjoyed being back in school, even though the Cahn Fellows study a lot of history—a subject she had never liked because “it was always about memorizing dates and places.” However, when the Cahn Fellows visited the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg and read about the decision-making of the generals, history came sharply alive.

“It opened my eyes,” she says. And her ears—for one of the harsh realities of Gettysburg is that, in many instances, hundreds and even thousands of lives could have been saved if commanders had listened to their subordinates.

“It shows that you really have to be a good listener,” she says. “You really have to take people’s input into account and weigh all options. You can’t just say, ‘We are doing it my way because I said so.’”



zazaEmpowering the School Community
Joseph Zaza, Leon Goldstein High School

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Talk about trial by fire. Joseph Zaza’s first week on the job in 2001 as principal of Leon Goldstein High School coincided with the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The school, located in Brooklyn on the campus of Kingsborough Community College, was never in danger, but during those first terrible hours, no one really knew what was going on. To make matters worse, the school’s students and teachers were at that time scattered across several buildings on campus. That meant that Zaza, even as he dashed from building to building himself, was forced to rely on a staff he’d only just met.

In retrospect, the experience was an object lesson in a precept Zaza has since come to value highly: distributive leadership, the notion of getting people to take ownership for their piece of the total system. That idea is also one of the key philosophies imparted by the TC Cahn Fellows program, in which Zaza participated in 2005. Zaza had entered the program with the goal of moving the Goldstein school, which was already one of the city’s better performing institutions, “from good to great.”

To do that, Zaza created a committee made up of teachers, parents, social workers, guidance counselors, and the school’s pupil personnel team, and empowered them to meet regularly and come to him with their own ideas.

“All these other voices created a dialogue around what the school needed to reach every child,” says Zaza. “And those voices had been silent for many years because they weren’t at the table.”

One issue put forward by the committee concerned the school’s student-activity hour, which was set aside for student clubs and was not being used to its full potential. Today, students still get involved in clubs during that hour. But now the time also is used for tutorials for students who need extra help, or for community service, as part of the school’s new requirement that students devote 40 hours each year to community service.

“The committee didn’t ask me if their proposal was a good idea,” Zaza recalls. “They came to me and said: ‘This is the idea —will you support it?’ And we were able to remove some difficulties so they could make the program successful.”

One critically important element of a successful school —parental involvement—had proven especially difficult to develop at Goldstein because students live all over the city, with some traveling up to two hours by public transportation each day. After hearing suggestions about how to improve Goldstein’s school store, which had been a glorified storage room, Zaza encouraged the school’s Parents Association to take charge. Today, several parents are involved in the venture, which opens for business every day, selling school supplies and Goldstein’s own clothing line, which includes t-shirts in 64 different colors.

The parents also proposed a carnival that has since become a regular end-of-year event at the school.

Of course, even the principal needs a sense of community, and for Zaza, the Cahn program has provided it. Zaza and members of his cohort have created and maintained a group called the Alumni Network of Cahn Fellows for Distinguished New York City Principals. In February, the alumni met at Teachers College to hear WNYC radio host Beth Fertig talk about her new book, Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read: Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools to the Test.

“I valued the ability to call upon a wider array of principals who led different types of schools—from elementary to high school, and from relatively low-performing to very high-performing,” says Zaza, now in his ninth year at Goldstein. “I’ve learned, not only from my own challenges and how I’ve tried to overcome them, but by hearing about the lessons my colleagues have learned as they continually improve their schools.” k

Published Thursday, May. 13, 2010


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