Finding the principal within

With vacancies on the horizon, school systems try new tactics to get talented teachers into the top jobs

It's a hot Friday night in June, and the air conditioning in the old classroom at Saint John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., is not particularly effective. The students, clustered around three large tables, are sipping cold drinks and fanning themselves with scraps of paper.

But despite the less-than-ideal conditions, these 26 men and women - Rochester teachers who just hours before finished a week of teaching in their own classrooms - represent the brightest hope of their public school district.

This select group of talented teachers has come together in a program that addresses one of the district's most pressing needs: to fill principals' chairs.

All across America, in school systems large and small, there is a crisis in the making. According to estimates by the Department of Labor, 40 percent of the 93,200 principals in the United States will soon be retiring. Vacancies in principals' offices are expected to leap 10 to 20 percent by the end of 2005.

Yet the number of people interested in filling the jobs - particularly in urban areas like Rochester - has dwindled.

For one thing, principals' salaries have failed to keep pace with increases in teaching stipends, with principals often earning little more than top teachers. Pressures have also escalated in the form of greater behavioral problems among ever-younger children, burgeoning numbers of lawsuits, and larger non-English-speaking populations.

Add to that the growing tendency to judge schools and administrators by student test scores, and many talented educators no longer see any reason to jump into the principal track.

"It doesn't pay as well as it used to and you get dumped on all the time," says Thomas Sobol, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "Who needs it?"

The lack of interest is prompting districts around the country to take action.

Jefferson County in Louisville, Ky., has collaborated with local colleges to offer related classes. In Texas, parts of Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio have begun training at the district level. About a dozen states now also offer alternative certification routes for principals.

The team approach

In Rochester, the public school system and Saint John Fisher College have created a program to shape a new crop of principals for local schools. The course is tailored to fit the schedules of teachers - with Friday night and Saturday sessions over three semesters and one summer. For those who get through the rigorous screening process, tuition costs are reduced by 60 percent.

In return, the candidates are asked for a promise to work as a principal in Rochester for at least five years if they are successful in the program.

Time for an overhaul

Even apart from the numbers crunch, say observers, an overhaul of the entire process of training principals is long overdue. Newly minted programs like Rochester's offer a chance to rethink and retool.

The immediate advantages of a district-based program like Rochester's include:

*Training grounded in the daily realities of the job.

"The training programs as they were designed in earlier years were grossly inadequate," says Franklin Dean Grant, executive director of human resources for the DeKalb County school system in Georgia. "[Principals] need a course in public relations, a course in school law. They need a thorough understanding of budgeting and finance and accounting."

The Rochester program is taught not from a textbook but from a series of case studies. The instructors are both former principals who have gone on to work as superintendents - Sam Walton, superintendent of the Berkshire Union Free School District in Canaan, N.Y., and Fran Murphy, superintendent of New York's Rome City School District. The informality of the class sessions also allows for a fair amount of good-natured give-and-take between them and their students.

The two men are "relaxed practitioners who know what they're talking about," says Mary Thomas, one of the teachers participating in this year's program. "This is the hands-on stuff."

After 26 years in the classroom, Ms. Thomas says, "I've been on the job too long" for instruction that fails to be practical.

*Customization. Rather than training urban, suburban, and rural principals in the same fashion, district-level programs permit a specific focus.

"The examples given in class are situations you wouldn't see in a suburban setting. They're really preparing us," says Nancy Coddington, another of this year's participants.

*A sense of community. About 30 candidates a year are scheduled to move through the Rochester program over the course of three years, each group of 30 working closely as a team.

"We're training 90 principals in three years," Dr. Murphy says. "They will soon be the majority of principals in the system. They will share attitudes and orientations, and will have each other."

Typically, he points out, the job of principal can be very lonely. Training together can create a network to ease the solitary nature of the work.

*Better internships. Because the district is involved in organizing the training, it's easier to free these teachers for meaningful internships within the district.

"The internship has been around for a long time but has not been handled in a systematic, detailed way," says Michael Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. "The field elements of the program are getting at long last the kind of attention they really need."

A key part of the Rochester program is an internship directly linked to the course work that teachers do. The hope is that relationships created during the internship might endure as long-range mentoring.

*A more proactive selection process. In Rochester, principals were asked to name teachers in their schools whom they viewed as potential leaders. These candidates were then invited to apply for the program. "I never would have thought of [becoming a principal] if I hadn't been invited," says Victoria DiMatteo, one of this year's participants.

Leslie Fenwick, a visiting fellow at The Principals' Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass., warns, however, that offering places in the program by invitation can also become a narrow process that overlooks good candidates. That could mean failure to deal with another serious problem - the lack of gender and racial diversity among school principals.

Women, for instance, are 75 percent of the teaching force in this country but still only 35 percent of its school principals, Ms. Fenwick says. And African-American teachers tend to have higher credentials than their white peers, yet they still hold only 11 percent of the principals' positions. The Rochester program currently appears to include a good mix of women and men, minority and nonminority candidates.

Recognizing a drive to serve

But there's another group that Columbia's Dr. Sobol worries may have been overlooked in the scramble to fill jobs: the idealists. Too often, he says, teachers are offered only one incentive to become principals: a salary hike. "We're failing nationally to recognize that the drive to be of service to other people is an important motivational force," he says.

Instructors like Murphy and Mr. Walton, he points out, are well positioned to present the job of principal as a means of wielding genuine influence for good in a school community.

Sobol hopes these programs tell gifted teachers, "You are very good at what you do, but you have an even greater contribution to make."


(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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