‘Speed dating’ for new principals breaks down hiring barriers

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Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

You wouldn’t call it a love connection, but then again, something must have happened between Erick Pruitt and O’Toole Elementary’s local school council on a winter evening this past February. That’s when the district and school reform group Designs for Change co-sponsored the Leaders to Leaders conference, an annual matchmaking event to hook up new aspiring principals with LSCs looking to hire someone in their schools’ top leadership spot.

Pruitt was among 45 candidates who attended and had their pick of 18 schools that were in the market for a principal. Recruited from the city’s premier training programs, they had seven minutes to make their pitch. “It’s like speed dating,” says Pruitt, 33, a former teacher who served eight years in the Marine Corps. “You go around and talk to schools that you’re interested in.”

Apparently, something clicked. A couple months later, Pruitt, who by then had nearly completed principal training with New Leaders for New Schools, got a callback from O’Toole to come in for an interview. By May, he had been awarded a four-year contract. Two others in Pruitt’s training class who participated in the event got principal contracts, too.

Likely, there were others who were hired as a result of connections made at the conference, but unfortunately, Chicago Public Schools does not keep track. That’s too bad because the most often cited barrier to getting talented leaders in schools is local school councils. Comprised mostly of non-educators, LSCs get blamed for casting too narrow a net in the principal selection process and for basing hiring decisions on politics.

Whether or not these assertions are true, council-candidate matchmaking events can overcome both hurdles, and help CPS stay a step ahead of a growing challenge: how to replace hundreds of principals who are expected to retire over the next several years. “Everyone in urban districts is struggling with this now,” says Nancy Laho, who oversees principal development for CPS.

This year, 107 schools have new principals; 62 replaced someone who retired. Laho says it is not yet clear how many more will retire by next June. (Principals have until March to make a decision.)

Things got tough on the supply side a few years ago when the pool of eligible principal candidates shrunk after the district increased standards, aiming for what it sees as the best. Three non-traditional training programs are doing their part, adding some 45 qualified people to the pool each year. But their success rates for getting them jobs, according to a Catalyst analysis, ranges from 42 percent to 61 percent. A high-profile principal training academy in New York City was under scrutiny a year ago for, among other reasons, having a placement rate of only 77 percent.

Time to step up the game, Chicago.

ABOUT US Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher, who wrote this month’s cover story, is leaving Catalyst Chicago to return to her professional roots in the classroom. During her eight years here, she kept an astute eye trained on new schools and high schools, and in 2004, won a national award from the Society of Professional Journalists for a report on the shortage of high school guidance counselors. In her new post at the School for Social Justice at Little Village Campus, she will teach English, journalism and a course in street law. It won’t take long for Maureen’s new colleagues to find out what we’ve known for a long time: She walks her talk, knows her stuff, and has an infectious—and very loud—laugh. Good luck, Maureen. We’re going to miss you.