New twist on internship needs airing

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While Chicago’s top school officials showed their appreciation of local school councils by tossing a party for them recently in the winter garden of the Harold Washington Library, a far different attitude was apparent in behind-the-scenes plans to change the rules for LSCs’ selection of principals. According to a new “Requirements for the Principalship” brochure, aspiring principals not only will have to complete a six-week internship under a principal but also will have to “pass” it. If any school officials have talked publicly about this new pass-fail component, they’ve done it to a very small, closed-mouth group. As Sheila Castillo told Catalyst’s Lisa Lewis, “As far as I know, nobody has seen any of this stuff yet.” Castillo, coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, served on the task force that drew up new requirements for becoming a principal, including an internship.

Some councils have made good choices for principal, some haven’t. With the latter, it’s unclear where the fault lies—with the councils or the pool of candidates or both. The principal is pivotal to school improvement, so the administration is right not to sit idly by and hope for the best. It’s taking a stab at the supply side through a partnership with Northwestern University a program called LAUNCH will provide special training to a select few. It’s taking a stab at the demand side through a partnership with the Financial Research and Advisory Committee; a program called PENCUL is providing consultants to help LSCs identify their priorities and choose well. PENCUL also is running assessment centers to help candidates identify their strengths and weaknesses, and candidates may enter the results into a database for LSCs to consult.

Now though, the administration appears to be turning current principals into gatekeepers. The notion of peer review is appealing, and the rules allow a candidate to go through a second internship under a different mentor principal if he fails the first. However, giving current principals life-and-death power over someone’s professional future raises serious questions. What steps are being taken to ensure that mentor principals use the same yardstick in the same way? Since full-time assistant principals are exempt from internships, they won’t face this external scrutiny. Is that fair to the other contenders or to LSCs? Will mentor principals have the nerve to tell someone, “No, you can’t go on”? If they’re nervous about doing that, they may give inflated marks, which would do more harm than good. Why not go the route of PENCUL and let the mentor principal’s marks simply speak for themselves?

Local school council members deserve a full explanation and an opportunity to say what they think.

News on the teacher front is more encouraging. As Catalyst contributor Rick Asa reports, a number of well-thought-out efforts are underway to recruit and retain good teachers. Mentor teachers are being trained to help new teachers survive their first year. The Golden Apple Foundation is working to retool career-changers with backgrounds in math and science, thus helping the school system meet teacher shortages in these critical areas. This alternative certification program is experimental, but it’s an experiment worth doing. The Financial Research and Advisory Committee is building a database on new teachers to help principals find what they’re looking for. FRAC also is pushing for early job guarantee for top recruits so that they don’t slip away to the suburbs while enrollment at city schools settles during the summer and early fall. The School Board itself has stepped up its recruiting profile. Meanwhile, Teachers for Chicago, another program for career-changers, continues to serve the city well. Eighty-five percent of the more than 700 teachers it has turned out in the past seven years remain in the system.

Catalyst ON THE AIR Teacher recruitment and retention will be the topic of the March 8 edition of “City Voices” on WNUA-FM, 95.5. Dominic Belmonte, director of teacher preparation at the Golden Apple Foundation, will be among my guests. The program is broadcast from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.