Change and Growth for TC's Cahn Fellows Program | Teachers College Columbia University

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Change and Growth for TC's Cahn Fellows Program

A program for stellar principals is expanding westward under a new director
A program for stellar principals is expanding westward under a new director 

TC’s Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished Principals has a new director and is expanding to include participants from Chicago, adding to its base in New York City and Newark. 

Krista Dunbar, who has led the Cahn Fellows Program for the past six years, will leave in late July to become Senior Director of Recruitment in the Office of New Schools of the New York City Department of Education. Dunbar will be succeeded by Nora Heaphy, who previously spent seven years at the Colin Powell Center for Leadership and Service at the City College of New York, serving as Director of Service Learning and then as Deputy Director. In both of these roles, Heaphy led the launch of several new leadership fellowship programs for City College students, and worked with dozens of faculty to improve student learning outcomes through service-learning.

“Krista Dunbar has led six cohorts of extraordinary principals through their time with the Cahn Fellows Program, guiding them at every turn, from our Welcome Reception and Summer Leadership Institute to our Fall Retreat and final presentation, and helping them to meet mentoring and leadership challenges,” said program founder and benefactor Chuck Cahn. “She has served with grace, authority, resourcefulness, hard work and pure dedication, carrying the program to new heights.”

Under Dunbar, the 15-month program, which was founded in 2002, has grown to count more than 12 percent of New York City’s public school principals as alumni. Graduation rates in Cahn Fellow schools are nearly 20 percent higher than the city average, and Cahn Fellow alums stay in their job four years longer than the average city principal. In addition, in 2010, an independent study jointly authored by researchers at the University of Florida, the RAND Corporation and the Columbia Business School found that schools perform better when they are run by experienced principals, and that the positive impact of a Cahn Fellowship on student math scores is “roughly the same as the effect of a first-year principal acquiring five years of experience.”

Last year, the Cahn Fellows Program enrolled its first Fellows from Newark, and the 2012 cohort, which meets for its Summer Leadership Institute July 16th-27th, will include two Chicago principals—Alan Mather of Lindblom Math & Science Academy and Tara Shelton of South Loop Elementary School.

“Chicago and New York City have many similar issues,” Dunbar said. “And Chicago is experiencing a lot of reform with a focus on leadership—on principals and superintendents.”

With support from Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, a partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and the Chicago Public Education Fund, Dunbar said, the hope is to establish, in time, a standalone Cahn Fellows program in the Windy City.

That project and all other Cahn Fellows activities will soon be in the hands of Heaphy, who has spent her career working at the intersection of education and leadership development from almost every angle. Initially a special education teacher in Berkeley, California, Heaphy has also served as Executive Director at Refugee Transitions a San Francisco Based non-profit that provides ESL services to refugee and immigrant families, and an ESL and science teacher in the Peace Corps in Lesotho.
“I was looking for a way to marry all these interests,” Heaphy said. “When I saw the Cahn Fellows position, bells went off!”

Heaphy said that she was drawn by the program’s clear focus and proven track record in making direct, positive change in city schools.

“The Cahn Fellows Program focuses specifically on helping a key group of influential people in the public school system,” Heaphy said. “I was really taken by how well thought-out and impactful the model is.” 

For her part, Dunbar called it “a natural transition” to go from working closely with so many top principals in New York City to helping the city identify and recruit the best new principals for its newest schools.

“I know what great leadership looks like,” she said.

Published Friday, Jul. 13, 2012


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