Business group launches principal assessment center

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In an effort to help local school councils pick the best candidates for principal, a corporate-backed, non-profit organization is opening an assessment center to screen candidates in a number of areas deemed essential for successful school leadership.

Candidates who “pass” will be placed into a database that LSCs can consult.

“The gist of this is to be able to say to a principal candidate, ‘Now you are ready,'” explains Maureen Meisner, associate director of the Financial Research and Advisory Committee (FRAC), which is developing the center. An arm of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, FRAC works with local governments to improve their administrative operations.

Participation in the center will be optional, and local school councils will remain free to choose candidates who don’t participate, she adds. The center will be open to assistant principals and teachers who have met state and city requirements to become a principal.

Meisner says center staffers will judge candidates in 8 to 10 areas, including curriculum development, leadership and communications skills, by running them through a variety of activities, such as participating in group decision-making and dealing with a prototypical in- basket. At the conclusion, a participant will receive a written evaluation of 7 to 10 pages, and a center staff member will “be prepared to walk you through it,” says Meisner.

229 contracts up

The assessment center is opening as more than 229 principal contracts come up for renewal this school year, she notes.

FRAC’s assessment center will follow the model of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), based in Washington, D.C. (See Catalyst, February 1990.) Since the late 1970s, NASSP has run day-and-a-half assessment centers for prospective secondary and grammar-school principals. There are 60 centers across the country, sponsored either by school districts or groups of districts.

According to Dick Flannery, NASSP senior assessment administrator, 15,000 people have been assessed since 1978. Several states, including South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, New Jersey and Maryland, use assessment centers to help license principals. Only a smattering of large cities—San Diego, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Washington D.C.—have used them, says Flannery.

FRAC has tapped Aon Consulting to operate the center. Neal Schmitt, a Michigan State University psychology and management professor and former NASSP consultant, is project director.

FRAC also is employing Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a Glenview-based firm that specializes in recruiting school executives, to seek candidates from suburban, private and parochial schools.

Meisner says the effort grows from the practice of LSCs choosing insiders. Ninety-eight percent of new Chicago principals come from inside the system, and 90 percent come from the school they will lead. “If a school needs to go through a massive turnaround, it’s hard for an insider to do it,” says Meisner, who allows that outsider recruitment may be crimped by the requirement that Chicago principals reside within the city.

FRAC also is launching a short refresher course for LSCs on choosing a principal.

The three-pronged approach was fashioned under the guidance of a 11-member steering committee that included Cozette Buckney, the school system’s chief executive officer; Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association; business representatives and five LSC members. Money to mount the three projects, which Meisner pins at somewhere less than $1 million, will come from up to 16 private funders.

Julie Woestehoff, director of the reform group Parents United for Responsible Education, applauds the assessment center: “It’s great if they can pull it off, but their time frame is short.”

However, Sheila Castillo, director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, is concerned that an attempt eventually will be made to limit LSCs to candidates who pass muster in the center.

Meisner expects 100 principal candidates to go through the assessment center by December; the goal is to process 300 by June. Admission will require letters of reference and a modest tuition fee, yet to be determined. Fees charged by the NASSP run up to $500, says Flannery