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Ready to Enter the Building

TC's Summer Principals Academy is breaking new ground in preparing 21st century school leaders

TC’s Summer Principals Academy is breaking new ground in preparing 21st century school leaders

By David McKay Wilson

Two years ago, when Heather Haines (M.A., ’09) was named principal of a troubled charter school on Chicago’s South Side, she faced problems on every front, including student discipline, classroom rigor and student achievement.

It was a formidable challenge, even for a veteran administrator—and Haines, who was just 29, had never run a school before. Still, she considered herself well prepared for the job. A year earlier, Haines had completed TC’s highly regarded Summer Principals Academy (SPA), where she learned strategies specifically designed for the arduous process of turning around high-need schools in crisis.

Over 14 months that included two five-week summers in residence at TC, Haines and her cohort focused on everything from rethinking a school’s mission to rebuilding curricula aimed at preparing students for success in higher education and the work force. She has channeled lessons from all of those areas into her daily management of her school, even renaming the institution the Perspective Leadership Academy.

“We learned about having a vision and managing change,” Haines says. “There were students and staff upset about the change, so I had to help manage those emotions.”

Since its founding in 2004, SPA has grown to include more than 90 students per cohort and by the end of this summer will have nearly 400 alumni—over half in leadership roles at schools around the country.

“We believe SPA is modeling how to prepare leaders for 21st century schools, which typically are smaller, more academically focused, and more ethnically and culturally diverse,” says SPA founding Director Craig Richards, Professor of Education. “The principal’s job today demands idealism, energy, strong social and entrepreneurial instincts, a facility with technology, a comfort level with accountability and ongoing change, and above all, an inner urgency to improve children’s life chances.”

While many SPA students are in their 30s, two-thirds already have a master’s degree. Like Heather Haines, many have come to TC a few years after their experiences in Teach For America (TFA), a program that recruits non-education majors from universities across the country and trains them in urban and rural schools with high needs. Among this summer’s cohort of 92 admitted students, 30 were TFA corps members.

Courtney Russell (M.A.,’08) founding Principal of the Metropolitan Lighthouse Charter School in the Bronx, began her teaching career with TFA in Atlanta. After four years in the classroom, she enrolled in SPA to make the leap into educational leadership. Last year, Russell was tapped to be the founding principal of a Bronx start-up school launched by Lighthouse Academies, a TFA partner organization.

This summer’s incoming SPA cohort will include nine educators from Indianapolis, who will arrive in Morningside Heights through a partnership involving TFA, Indianapolis Public Schools and The Mind Trust, an Indiana nonprofit organization that supports education innovation and reform. 

Meanwhile, Richards is working to establish a SPA-South at Tulane University in New Orleans by 2012.

“We want to keep our home audience happy with highly qualified applications from New York City, but we’d also like to serve educators around the country,” he says. “The demand for SPA is outstripping our capacity to respond. We have a strong alumni base in the South, and public schools there are also on a different calendar, so having a SPA-South makes sense for us.” 

SPA’s learning framework breaks down leadership skills into four clusters: leadership competencies, managerial competencies, adult professional development, and curriculum and supervision.

Professional development can be a key element in school reform efforts, as teachers learn new ways to engage students.

“An adult’s world-view is already set, to a certain extent, so they are not as flexible or fluid as children,” says Cecilia Jackson (M.A., ’07), founding Principal at Pioneer Academy in Corona, Queens. “You need to understand that different people learn in different ways, and you have to figure out what motivates them.”

Indeed, Richards believes that, with issues ranging from transportation and nutrition to pedagogy and the well-being of hundreds of youngsters, running a school can be more complex than running a business. 

“While a good teacher counts the most, it’s good leadership that enables the teachers,” says Richards. “If you don’t have a system in place that holds the teachers and their students in a strong learning community, then the potential of the student and teacher is wasted.”

For each SPA cohort’s culminating project, teams of students design a new school—from vision and mission to staffing and accountability. The work is no mere exercise, having spawned several actual new schools—including Pioneer Academy, which Jackson proposed. Her assistant principal at the school is SPA classmate Stephen Early (M.A.,’07).

The presentations for the new schools are made in TC’s Cowin Conference center, in front of hundreds of TC students and faculty and a panel of expert judges.

Among the panelists for the past three years was Eric Nadelstern (M.A., ’73), then Deputy Chancellor for the New York City Department of Education’s Division of School Support and Instruction. Nadelstern retired this spring after 39 years in the city’s schools and will be teaching courses on curriculum and supervision at this summer’s SPA session.

“We found in New York City that it was much more productive to replace large, failed schools with new, small schools,” says Nadelstern.  “That’s precisely what SPA is training these educators to do.”

With all the responsibility heaped on a principal’s shoulders, SPA also provides self-awareness training, which teaches students how to use their self awareness to discern the right actions to take in any given moment. The key message: there are times when it’s important to look deeper than one’s intellect, and to reflect on one’s experience in the moment.

For Stephen Chiger (M.A., ’10), an instructional leader in English at Newark’s North Star Academy, that’s meant confronting his own tendency to avoid conflict, which reflects a belief that organizations run better if differences aren’t aired. Chiger says he has come to realize that a respectful discussion of opposing viewpoints can produce new pathways for progress.

“I’ve learned to approach conflict in new ways and be less afraid of it,” says Chiger. “Now I reframe it and see that conflict can be a place for organizational growth.”

Published Friday, May. 20, 2011