Chicago, NY welcome new breed of principals

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Jennifer Henry, 28, has been working in schools as a tutor, teacher and program director since she was 15. She taught high school history for four years, founded and ran a non-profit program in California’s Bay Area and will graduate in May from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Confident, articulate and knowledgeable about curriculum standards and the needs of at-risk students, Henry is poised for an easy entry into philanthropy or the non-profit world. But that wouldn’t fulfill her desire to be with students. What Henry wants is to become a principal.

“I’ve done everything a principal does,” claims Henry, citing recruiting and supervising a team of 40 teachers at six different schools, designing a curriculum for the 200 students participating in her program, and working with a board of directors.

Despite her interest and strong background, however, Henry is not qualified to be a CPS principal. She lacks the requisites for the state’s so-called Type 75 certificate (a master’s degree in education and required courses in school administration), and she lacks additional requirements imposed by the Chicago Board of Education (including six years of teaching and/or administrative experience).

All that is about to change, however, with the debut of a new program called New Leaders for New Schools, which is setting up shop in Chicago and New York City to recruit, train and qualify non-traditional candidates to run schools.

In Chicago, New Leaders has forged a partnership with the Board of Education and National-Louis University. When Henry completes the year-long program here, she will have not only a Type 75 certificate, but also the experience of having worked for a year under the tutelage of one of Chicago’s leading principals.

New Leaders is starting small. About 15 to 20 individuals — 8 to 10 in Chicago and 8 to 10 in New York — will begin training in June. But it has big backers and big plans, both nationally and here in Chicago. National foundations, the Chicago Public Education Fund and CPS already have committed to fund the effort, which hopes to grow to 500 participants in 16 cities by 2006. And CPS has agreed to waive its requirement for six years of experience.

“We’re looking for a whole new kind of principal,” School Board President Gery Chico said at a March press conference announcing the program. “I am betting on Jennifer Henry.” Chico also cited the program as an example of ongoing CPS efforts to improve Chicago schools. “This program shows that the light bulb is still on.”

Aspiring principals who complete the program will be available for hiring by local school councils and for direct appointment by CPS where warranted, according to Chico. “Just 10 of these new principals can affect 10,000 students’ lives,” he notes. “They set the tone at their schools.”

Principals for America?

The idea of training non-educators to become principals through a full-time, year-long “residency” is the brainchild of Jonathan Schnur, former education adviser to former Vice President Al Gore, and a group of students and faculty members at Harvard University’s schools of education and business. To Schnur and his colleagues, the need to give aspiring principals more “real-world” training was clear, and the prospect of recruiting talented individuals from outside education was tantalizing.

Having graduated from Princeton University withTeach for America founder Wendy Kopp, Schnur saw that non-educators could become effective teachers. Then, his work with former Education Sec. Richard Riley, who advocated a national network of principal centers, convinced him of the need for improved training. Meanwhile, the school principalship was becoming a national focus. Rising school enrollments, combined with rising principal retirements, were starting to cause shortages. And school reform groups and foundations increasingly saw how principals could make or break efforts to improve public education.

With an appealing model and exquisite timing, Schnur has had little trouble attracting national foundation support for New Leaders, including funding from the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, Silicon Valley’s New Schools Venture Fund and the Boston-based venture philanthropy New Profit, Inc.

In addition to the residency experience, New Leaders will provide participants with:

Two months of full-time course work during the summer at National-Louis and at an as-yet-unnamed school of education in New York City.

A month of follow-up training after school ends in June 2002.

Job placement assistance.

Two years of ongoing support and training on the job.

CPS will pay participants a salary of at least $45,000 plus benefits during the residency. In return, participants must pledge to work at least three years in CPS.

To qualify, applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree and two years of teaching or “school-based professional experience,” such as running a non-profit education organization. As with Teach for America, they do not have to have state certification as a teacher or principal, nor a degree in education.

So far, about 330 individuals, roughly half from Chicago and half from New York, have applied, most of them after learning about the venture through word-of-mouth recruitment, according to Schnur. They include candidates from higher education, business and the military. CPS also will recruit candidates from inside the school system, according to its agreement with New Leaders. Applications both to go through the program and to serve as a mentor principal will be accepted through April 24.

Unusual welcome mat

While reform organizations outside Chicago generally see the city as hostile territory, New Leaders is getting a warm welcome.

Last November, schools CEO Paul Vallas was quoted in the Daily Southtown as supporting New Leaders and alternative certification for principals. “I can see two or three different alternative certification programs down the road,” he said.

Andy Wade, executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Development Cooperative, which works closely with local school councils and parent groups, says his group initially had some concerns about accountability and about adapting the model to accommodate Chicago’s LSC structure. “Was the quality of principals coming out of this program going to be the same or better than the traditional route?” asked Wade. “But they listened to our questions, and they answered them pretty well.”

In March, the Chicago Public Education Fund committed $600,000 over the next two years, a grant second only to the $1 million from the Broad Foundation. The Chicago money will help pay for the training, estimated to cost $36,000 per participant. The Chicago fund also supports LAUNCH, a similar but less extensive program aimed at CPS employees who already have their Type 75 certificates.

While New Leaders has influential backers, putting the pieces together has not been easy. It had some difficulty finding a university willing to take on an alternative training program that could compete with existing offerings. The application process has been extended twice as New Leaders looks for exceptional candidates. The local leadership spots have yet to be filled. And the benefits of the residency experience are still theoretical; actual benefits will depend on what schools allow participants to do and how participants are treated by assistant principals, local school councils, teachers and parents.

For teachers and administrators who have worked to meet current CPS requirements on their own time and with their own money, the creation of this expensive program—a total of $100,000 per candidate and the waiver of some CPS requirements—may come as an unwelcome surprise.

At a more fundamental level, some educators question whether someone without deep familiarity with academic standards and other issues can lead a school. “If you lack some of that knowledge, you will indeed have a clearer vision, but you may not know what you’re looking at,” says Barbara Radner, a DePaul University professor who has worked extensively in schools.

Mike Klonsky, executive director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, welcomes the program and has been working with it. “This is a whole different mode of principal leadership development,” he says. “It really focuses on leadership for school change, not just managing the status quo.”

Jennifer Henry, for one, is raring to go. “I am ready, personally and professionally, to do the job of a principal,” she said before the Chico press briefing. “But without this program, I was finding it hard to get back into public education.”

Additional information on New Leaders is online at www.nlns.org or from the main office in New York City (646) 424-0900.