Lessons that experience taught

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Linda Calloway

photo by Christine Oliva

Linda Calloway

Selecting a principal is a local school council’s most significant—and most daunting—responsibility. Many council members put in long evening and weekend hours sifting through resumes, organizing community forums and interviewing candidates. Sometimes their hard work pays off; sometimes it does not. Parents on four local school councils shared with Catalyst the strategies that helped them pick a winner and the mistakes they hope other councils will avoid.

DeFrance Eiland

Parent member, vice chair

Wendell Smith Elementary, Pullman

Occupation: CTA bus driver

What worked: Written guidelines, interviewing all candidates, visiting finalists’ schools

The LSC elected at Wendell Smith in 2002 knew it was working in a fish bowl. The School Board had removed the previous principal and disbanded the LSC for, among other things, intractable conflicts between the two. “We knew there were lots of eyes on us,” says Pamela Davis-Holloway, a parent who was on the new LSC. “We had to do everything right.”

The new council wrote guidelines that included personality traits, such as integrity, as well as experience. It interviewed every candidate who applied, roughly 40. It invited the community to a public forum to hear the three finalists, and it went to the finalists’ schools and interviewed parents, teachers and children there.

“We wanted to make sure that he had positive interactions with students,” says DeFrance Eiland, a parent LSC member.

The council wound up making an unusual choice, someone who had not come up through the ranks of CPS. It picked, Jarvis Sanford, a newly certified principal who had spent time outside the system and went through the alternative principal training program called New Leaders for New Schools. In selecting Sanford, Smith became one of the first two neighborhood schools in Chicago to hire someone from New Leaders.

“[Sanford] just struck me to be the right one,” says Eiland. “He said he came by the neighborhood after the first interview and asked about the school. That told me that this is a guy who genuinely cares about the job.”

Linda Calloway

Community representative, former chair

Brennemann Elementary, Edgewater

Occupation: Assistant director, childcare center

What didn’t work: Time pressure, inadequate background check

When Linda Calloway began her service as an LSC member at Brennemann Elementary in July 2002, she quickly came to feel there was something wrong with Principal Steve Hara and how he had been selected.

Small things, like mailings, didn’t get done the way they should, she says. “It was always something,” she recalls. Rumors had it that Hara had been hired quickly and with very little community input.

“The new LSC members were very concerned,” she says, “and we spent most of the summer trying to get good information about [Hara].”

Calloway’s fears were largely confirmed by Clara Williams-Okoue, a former community representative who had voted for Hara in spring 2002. “We only knew about what he put on the resume,” says Williams-Okoue, who taught at Brennemann for many years before retiring and joining the LSC. “We didn’t know that he had been put out of a school, and no one checked to see what went on there.”

The School Board had removed Hara from Daley Academy in Back of the Yards, according to former Chief Accountability Officer Philip Hansen. Hara was working in central office when he applied for the Brennemann job. LSC members say they took his central office position as a sign that he was well-regarded.

Williams-Okoue blames lack of time for the oversights. The former LSC chair started the process late, she says, and the council feared that if it didn’t move quickly, the School Board would appoint an interim.

The new council explored the possibilities for challenging Hara’s contract, but the board’s Law Department said that proper procedure had been followed. The council and Hara have been at odds ever since, prompting a series of investigations by the School Board. A board spokesman says the situation is still under review.

Walter Paas

Parent member, chair

Jones High School, South Loop

Occupation: Vinyl record importer

What worked: A thorough search, the right contacts

When the principal of Jones High, an elite magnet school, won promotion to area instructional officer, the LSC didn’t rush to replace her. Instead, it followed her advice and that of two top district administrators to go slow.

“They emphasized that we should take our time and be very deliberate and get who we wanted,” says Walter Paas, the Jones LSC chair.

The council advertised locally in a school district bulletin, nationally on a principal association website and in the International Herald Tribune. This outreach brought in 49 applicants, one from England.

Since LSCs have no budget for principal selection, Paas charged about $250 on his credit card, and the school later agreed to reimburse him.

Typically, LSCs that want to spend money on principal selection hold bake sales or other fundraisers, according to William Rice of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

Only about 5 percent advertise beyond the district’s e-bulletin, he says, in part because it’s hard to place an ad sufficiently in advance of the application deadline.

Paas also reached beyond the LSC relations office for assistance on a variety of matters, calling Domingo Trujillo of the Office of Instruction and School Management, Carlos Azcoitia, then deputy chief education officer, and even Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan.

Those central office contacts helped the winning candidate, a recent doctoral graduate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, navigate the red tape of matching his out-of-state credentials with local requirements.

The search took five months, and Paas said it was worth the time. Under the new principal’s leadership, Jones has a state-of-the-art tutoring program and its highest attendance rate ever, he reports. “Things are going well.”

Vanessa Atkins

Parent member, chair

Deneen Elementary, Greater Grand Crossing

Occupation: Stay-at-home mom

What didn’t work: Insufficient training, too little research

In January 2003, the Deneen LSC began a principal search that by April had ended in deadlock. Unable to agree on a candidate, the LSC advertised the position again. By the time Vanessa Atkins, the LSC chair, thought to suggest more training for the LSC, the group was too exhausted to think about it, she says. “Everything we did was blind and on trial and error.”

Poor interviews were one problem, she says. The council stuck to a few basic questions, such as, Why do you want to be a principal? What do you want to do for Deneen? Atkins ventured a few generic ones she had learned as a billing department supervisor, such as, what are your three greatest strengths and weaknesses? But nobody knew how to question candidates specifically on the many facets of the principal’s role, she says.

The council’s school visits weren’t as productive as they could be either. The Office of Local School Council Relations had warned council members not to interrupt classes, but they thought that meant they shouldn’t speak to teachers at all. “Most of the people we talked to were at the front desk,” she recalls. “One parent [member] did talk with the lunchroom staff.”

In July, the council selected a principal Atkins now finds insufficiently experienced. She thinks the School Board ought to put all councils through mock candidate interviews as part of their basic training.

The board training that she and two other parents attended last January stuck to the mechanics of principal selection, such as placing an ad and deciding how many applicants to interview. “They spent 30 minutes talking about it, and that was it.”

Dion Miller Perez

Community member

Finkl Elementary, Lower West Side

Occupation: Coordinator, school reform group

What worked: Good training, thorough interviews

Four years ago, Finkl’s principal became the first to test a new law allowing principals who fail to get their contracts renewed to challenge the decision through arbitration. Although the principal lost the dispute, the stressful process could have hobbled the council in its search for her successor, says Dion Miller Perez, a community representative who was then LSC chair.

But with help from a program created by a business group in 1998 to guide LSCs through the selection process, the search went smoothly. Called PENCUL, for Partnership to Educate the Next Century’s Urban Leaders, the program provided knowledgeable consultants to advise LSCs on procedures.

First, it helped the Finkl council set criteria for judging applicants. That made the final selection more objective and less controversial, says Perez. “Instead of it being simply, ‘Do I like this candidate, it was ‘Does this candidate meet the criteria?”

The consultant also helped the council develop detailed interview questions. For instance, instead of asking candidates how they interacted with others, they broke that question into parts, and asked them to describe separately how they interacted with different groups, such as parents and teachers.

Candidates’ responses were telling. When asked to describe his management style, one assistant principal replied, “‘I was in the army, and when I say go, I expect people to go.'” Perez recalls. Another candidate said, “‘My style is to listen.’ Yes, but how do you act on that input? The person couldn’t tell us.’ “

This school year, PENCUL was discontinued for lack of funding. “It’s a huge loss,” says Perez.