SUPES training for principals under fire

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When the School Board hastily approved a $20 million contract for SUPES Academy in June, they said it needed to be done quickly to get the principal professional development program up and running. Within a month, principals were called to workshops.

But almost from the start, principals grumbled that the training was too elementary and a waste of their time. Heeding the criticism, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett now says principals can opt out if they don’t want to attend, has formed a committee to offer suggestions on how to make the training better and hired one of her former colleagues from Cleveland to oversee the training.

While some praise Byrd-Bennett for being willing and open to make changes, others are critical of the fact that the expensive program—easily the biggest no-bid contract CPS has approved in at least five years—needs so much fixing and that administrators are having to put so much time into overseeing it.

According to the contract, SUPES Academy does not have to show that its training leads to measurable school improvement. The contract states only that SUPES is responsible for “leading through change, developing effective practices, enhancing critical thinking and response and helping principals create work plans.”

SUPES Academy President Thomas Vranas declined to be interviewed via telephone. In an e-mail response to questions, he wrote that the company is “very pleased with how CELA is going” and maintains that qualitative and quantitative response has been “very positive.”

CELA, for the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy, is the name for the SUPES professional development initiative.

But CPS officials admit they are hearing a steady chorus of complaints. Board member Carlos Azcoitia says that he has heard both negative and positive reviews, but that “it is what one would expect with staff development.”

Azcoitia notes that the three-year SUPES contract will be re-evaluated each year and that he will be looking to see that they have adjusted based on criticisms.

Byrd-Bennett says that she thinks the workshops and one-on-one coaching are “going well.” During school visits, she says some principals thank her for investing in them.

Other principals, she concedes, provide “feedback” for how it could be more useful. Based on that input, as well as input from the evaluations, Byrd-Bennett says she is meeting with SUPES officials in mid-December to discuss how the program can be “tweaked.”

Byrd-Bennett turned former colleague Rosemary Herpel, whom she worked with in Ohio and Detroit, to improve the initiative. While Byrd-Bennett was chief academic and accountability officer for Detroit Public Schools, Herpel worked as a consultant making $11,000 a month.

In CPS, Herpel will earn $140,000 as the executive director of executive leadership, and will also managing the Chicago Leadership Collaborative, the district’s principal preparation initiative.

CPS also has a second job posted related to SUPES, for a Senior Leadership Development Program Manager, who will “drive the establishment and ongoing refinement of all relevant, standardized curriculums for the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy.” According to the October 1 CPS employee roster, the position will pay $94,000.

Questions of participation

Principals have told Catalyst Chicago that the workshop sessions are not well-attended and that attendance has declined over time. CPS did not respond to Catalyst’s Freedom of Information Act request requesting attendance data for each session, one of the “deliverables” required in the SUPES contract.

The CPS Office of Communications said the district only has data on “average attendance,” which ranges from 68 percent to 80 percent, according to CPS.

Clarice Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, says principals have been calling her office to see if it is true that they can get out of the training. One principal told Catalyst that she feared opting out.

“Got to be a gutsy principal to put it in writing and say, ‘No, I won’t go anymore,’ ” she says. “Some network chiefs will take it out on you if you don’t go.”

And even though Byrd-Bennett says she has no problem with principals turning the training down, she emphasizes in a Nov. 22 letter that she thinks it is valuable.

“I strongly believe this opportunity not only exposes our leaders to experts in the field, but also provides each principal with a coach who has experience and success in leading urban schools.” she writes. “However, please know, should you chose not to take advantage of this opportunity you will still be held to the same high standards for measured success in school achievement, community relations and culture building with teachers and other staff at the school as the principals who do participate in the sessions.”

Questions of quality

Though often critical of the district, Berry praised Byrd-Bennett for being willing to let principals out of the training, as well as for being willing to alter it based on their input.

“She was very open,” says Berry. “I never before had a situation in which I complained to central office and they totally listened to us. I was bowled over.”

Berry gave voice to some of the complaints in her organization’s October newsletter, writing that principals “in large numbers, are expressing dissatisfaction with the caliber of the `SUPES’ Academy.” Some principals said the workshop leaders were not knowledgeable about how to lead a large urban school district. One did not even know that Chicago schools have local school councils, according to a principal who talked to Catalyst.

Principals also said they wanted training to be differentiated based on their experience and the type of school they manage, according to the newsletter. (SUPES divides principals into separate groups, including groups for new principals, principals with higher performance ratings and principals of schools where academic performance is stagnant or declining.)

CPS responded to a FOIA request for evaluations with a database of “all feedback” as well as a summary report. Though several of the workshops got high overall scores, in many cases, few participants filled out evaluations.

The sessions for the new principals got some of the highest marks, but principals with higher performance ratings scored some of the sessions the harshest. Though 220 principals are supposed to be participating, after many workshops fewer than 10 evaluations were turned in—some with two or less.

One question asks what the principal found to be least useful about the session; one attendee wrote “All of CELA.”

Coaching by email

In addition to the workshops, each principal is supposed to receive one-on-one coaching. The coaches receive several thousand dollars for each principal they coach, yet according to coaching logs obtained by Catalyst, two-thirds of the contacts were only by email.

One principal told Catalyst that some email conversations are only brief check-ins. Another principal reported that her coach heads a charter school in a small town and his experiences are foreign to her, since she leads an elementary school in a poor, rough neighborhood.

Some of the coaches are leaders of relatively big school districts. Catalyst could not find background information on others, suggesting that they are not all that prominent.

Still, some principals said their coaching has been valuable. One is Hanson Park Elementary School Principal David Belanger, whose coach, Margaret Longo, is a retired superintendent from Forest Ridge Elementary School District 142.

Longo is not from Chicago, so Belanger says she can’t help him navigate the system. Still, he likes that she brings an outsider’s perspective to the work.

“When you are frustrated about the changes in CPS or you have so many things coming toward you because of new initiatives and you are trying to prioritize, it is nice to have someone sit and visit with you,” Belanger says. “Whatever weaknesses you might have, you can address without fear of having an evaluation lowered.”