Priming the pump

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Probation and reconstitution for low-scoring schools. No promotion for low-scoring students. These get-tough prescriptions to remedy educational failure have thrust the Chicago public schools into a national spotlight and generated hope at home.

However, a little-known project by an obscure non-profit organization holds more promise for improving Chicago’s schools. Called the Partnership to Encourage the Next Century’s Urban Leaders, the project is aimed at getting Chicago schools the best principals possible.

Principals are pivotal in school improvement. Without good ones, highly skilled teachers are frustrated, clock-watching teachers fester, and the resources of parents and community members go untapped. Even an outstanding superintendent can’t get very far without principals who motivate, support and push their staffs.

While supported by the school system and the principals’ association, Urban Leaders is the work of the Financial Research and Advisory Committee (FRAC), an arm of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. FRAC’s mission is to help local governments improve their financial and management operations.

To increase the chances that every Chicago school will get a good principal, FRAC has set to work in four areas: identifying candidates who have the right stuff, showing aspiring principals what skills they need to work on, helping local school councils pick the best candidates for their schools and recruiting outstanding principals from outside the Chicago public school system.

FRAC’s efforts are in response to a disturbing trend in Chicago school reform: Some 90 percent of today’s principals worked as assistant principals, counselors or teachers in the schools they now lead. Promoting from within is commonplace both inside and outside education; it often yields fine results. However, it’s extremely difficult for someone who is part of a particular workplace culture to change that culture. In many Chicago schools, cultural change is precisely what’s needed.

It’s not surprising that local school councils turn to familiar faces when choosing principals. They’ve received little help or training in assessing candidates. Here’s how that’s about to change.

FRAC is establishing a principal assessment center for individuals who have met state and city requirements to become a principal. The candidates would run a kind of administrative obstacle course that simulates the trials and tribulations of being a principal, and then get a detailed report on their strengths and weaknesses. Strong candidates will be entered into a database that local school councils can consult.

For both participants and councils, participation is voluntary. That’s a huge plus because it requires a personal commitment that mandates tend to squelch. Already, 600 aspiring principals have requested applications.

FRAC also has arranged for a human resources consulting firm to write training materials for councils and to provide one-on-one assistance to about 100 councils, roughly half the number that will consider principal contract renewals next year.

Meanwhile, a recruitment firm is seeking principals in suburban, parochial and private schools who are up to the challenge of a Chicago public school.

All of these activities will center around nine “critical competencies,” or skills, deemed necessary for effective leadership of a Chicago public school. (The list appears on page 13.)

Another important aspect of the project is that it is being done outside the school system, thus steering clear of the perpetual suspicion that central office politics will intrude. Funding is coming from outside the system, too, with philanthropic foundations footing the bill.

Opinions vary widely on whether Chicago’s principal corps is better than it was eight years ago, when local school councils were first elected. There are anecdotes to support both sides of the argument. To some extent, though, the question is moot because the job has changed, expectations have risen, and candidate pool, following two rounds of early-retirement enticements, is less experienced.

Seeing some councils make bad choices, schools chief Paul Vallas last year quietly got the Illinois General Assembly to lift a prohibition barring Chicago from adopting requirements beyond those imposed by the state.

The prohibition was part of the original Chicago School Reform Act; it was put there by advocates who saw the school system’s city residency requirement as a deterrent to attracting new blood from outside the system. The advocates also wanted to block the return of testing requirements that not only worked against outsiders, but also, they believed, had barred good candidates from within, especially among racial minority groups.

As it turned out, principals continued to come overwhelmingly from inside the system—95 percent, according to the board. But the percentage of minority principals soared, rising from 40 percent to 66 percent. So too did the percentage of female principals, which rose from 44 percent to 61 percent.

Once the extra-requirements prohibition was scrapped, the mayor’s School Board reimposed one of the mayor’s pet personnel policies, city residency, on principal candidates. That won’t help the quest for the best and the brightest.

It also imposed modest training and experience requirements. The training can only help, but the requirement that candidates have some administrative or supervisory experience could stand in the way of talented people.

For example, at least one of the 14 Chicago principals who won “master principal” designation in 1996—Diane Maciejewski at Edgebrook Elementary School—would not have met this requirement had it been in force when she became a principal. As a teacher, Maciejewksi applied for assistant principal positions but always lost out to in-house candidates. “Yes, there were things I had to learn to do,” she says, “but I came with an understanding of how children learn.”