Building a principal pipeline

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Principal Coralia Barraza is deeply committed to her school, Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary in Pilsen. Parents, community leaders and teachers praise her leadership. Since she took the helm at Orozco, test scores have improved.

But the work of running a high-poverty school has taken its toll, and Barraza plans to retire soon. That’s not surprising, after eight years on a job in which she’s expected to function as a CEO, instructional leader, and—out of necessity, given the scarcity of district resources—fundraiser.

“I have given a lot to the community, everything I had,” Barraza told writer Phuong Ly. (See story) “It’s time for me to go.”

How long can even the most dedicated principal be expected to juggle multiple hats and routinely put in 60 hours a week?

Waves of principal retirements have hit Chicago Public Schools in recent years, with no letup in sight.There will be more than 100 principal vacancies at the end of this school year, with more expected in 2011. These retirement waves have swept in a crop of new principals who are enthusiastic about their jobs, committed to education—and are not likely to stay at their schools for the long term. The era of the grizzled veteran is over.

Chicago isn’t the only district facing this turnover dilemma. Researchers who analyzed the career paths of principals in Texas, North Carolina and New York found that most of them left their schools around the six-year mark. Not surprisingly, low-income, minority schools had the highest principal turnover.

Setting up a pipeline of top-notch school leaders who can raise student achievement has never been more urgent. A Catalyst Chicago analysis found that 61 percent of the lowest-performing Chicago schools have had three or more principals since 2000. Meanwhile, the federal government is pouring billions into school improvement efforts, including principal development—one of the five “essential supports” that the Consortium on Chicago School Research identified for struggling schools.

Good leaders have a ripple effect, too. Without them, the best teachers aren’t likely to stick around. In a recent nationwide teacher survey, 68 percent said that supportive leadership is essential to retain effective teachers. (The survey was done by Scholastic Inc. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.) Leadership ranked highest of any retention factor, including higher salaries.

So what should the district do to recruit and retain the best principals?

It’s imperative to keep quality, not just quantity, in mind. The state has tackled the quality issue and is poised to enact much-needed changes that will make principal preparation programs and the licensing process more rigorous.  (See story)

CPS is taking steps in this direction, too. Last year, the district made it tougher to earn a slot on the district’s principal eligibility list. Most of the first crop of applicants failed the new selection process.  (See story on page 12.) But CPS can’t afford to let eager, aspiring principals fall by the wayside. Candidates can go through the process again, and CPS must give them specific feedback on their weaknesses so they can work to improve in those areas.

CPS plans to launch a new department to provide training for assistant principals, who had the lowest pass rates. The district has also won kudos for its principal mentoring program and should steer as many resources as it can spare into that initiative. As Principal Barraza notes, guidance from her mentor, who hand-picked her to be assistant principal and prepared her to lead the school, was far more valuable than any training she has received.

Outside training is also gearing up. The University of Chicago has just won approval from the state for a program that will focus on preparing candidates to lead large, comprehensive high schools. Chicago is also slated to begin a pilot of the new National Board certification program for principals, intended for accomplished school leaders who can show a track record of raising student achievement. But a secondary goal is to have the certification process function as a professional development tool for newer principals, notes Kathleen St. Louis of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which has committed $1 million to the initiative.

This fall, a select group of principals will field-test the assessments developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which will administer the principal program. Once it is formally launched, principals with at least three years of experience will be eligible to apply.

CPS pushed vigorously to get large numbers of teachers to go through National Board certification and is approaching critical mass on this front. National Board teachers make up at least 15 percent of the faculties at more than 50 Chicago schools.

Potentially, the principal program could have an even greater impact. A top-notch school leader can turn around an entire building—and help keep the best teachers on board.