After years of working in isolation, a group of Milwaukee principals decided to collaborate rather than compete. Principals create yearlong themes, share problems and strategies, and advocate for all students. Included: Descriptions of the group's programs.
For years, Milwaukee Public Schools' middle school principals competed against each other for jobs, resources, and accolades.
Then seven years ago, feeling pressure from central administration, one principal made a simple suggestion: why don't we work together?
So they formed the Milwaukee Public Schools Middle School Principals' Collaborative, a support network that has become an agent for change, not just in their schools, but in the whole district.
"We are the district -- and I say that with great pride and humility," said Dr. Rogers E. Onick, principal of Samuel Morse Middle School and one of two original collaborative members. "We've helped shape reform in this district."
CUSTOMIZED PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Twenty-two principals representing 17,000 middle school students now make up the collaborative, and they meet monthly over lunch.
"I don't miss a meeting unless I'm out of town," said Robin Kitzrow, who is in her second year as principal of Gustav A. Fritsche Middle School, a charter school. "It's a priority for me. I like the support and it's very professional. It's not a gripe session."
During meetings, members "check in," talking about problems on the job, while other members offer strategies that might help them. The principals also discuss the group's vision and theme for the year. This year's theme is, "Every child reading, writing, and counting at grade level."
As the group's convener, Onick said it is his job to keep that theme in front of the members, as well as facilitate meetings. Principals discuss the best practices they are using in their schools to execute the theme. A professional development committee schedules workshops related to the yearly theme.
Originally funded by a grant from the Danforth Foundation, the collaborative now supports itself with budget funding; each school chips in $2 for each student enrolled. A staff member keeps records and takes care of paperwork, and the collaborative has developed extensive archives, according to Onick.
The group also hosts guest speakers periodically, and schedules a Saturday retreat once a month and a two-day retreat in the summer.
"We are building and sustaining positive relationships," said Onick. "We are turning to one another. We can't work in isolation. We had to break down the walls of competition. When we work as a team, we work with more energy and more creativity."
Programs also evolve around members' needs. Kitzrow said that she and some other newer principals had questions about creating budgets, and collaborative members set up a workshop with a district administrator to ensure they were putting their budgets together correctly.
"These things would not happen without the collaborative," Kitzrow told Education World.
MORE THAN MEETINGS
But while the collarborative's meetings and workshops are valuable, members talked about the invaluable aspect of the collaborative: the confidence and security they get from having a peer support network.
"This is a tough chair to sit in," said Dr. Robert Wenner, principal of Sarah A. Scott Middle School for the Health Sciences, and the other original collaborative member. "When I'm pinned in this chair, wondering what to do next, I can call on a network who will be here to support me. It's a godsend when things get tough."
The collaborative even sends members cards or flowers to celebrate good news or provide condolences when there is illness or death in a family.
"This has built a level of trust among the principals in the district," added Onick. "We're not ashamed to call one another and can be critical of each other, and ask deep, probing questions. We're trying to have solid, sound professional conversations."
Although the collaborative does not have a formal support program for new principals, members distribute sheets listing their names, phone numbers, and areas of expertise so less experienced principals know who they can call on in a hurry.
"The day I became a principal, I got seven phone calls from other principals, congratulating me and offering help," said Kitzrow. "It's always good to have other people around who do the things you do every day and can talk about it."
GAINING A LOUDER VOICE
While working together certainly makes sense, it took pressure from the central administration to help the principals see the benefits of a collective voice.
Middle school administrators were edgy in 1996 after some colleagues were demoted to assistant principal, with little or no warning. At the same time, they started questioning the lack of communication among principals and the rivalry for the best scores and evaluations.
The principals meet three times a year to review test scores, said Wenner, and he compared the past meeting to a poker game: everyone sat in a room, keeping the sheet with their test scores close to their faces, and did not want to let on what they had until they knew they were not last.
"There was a lot of competition," Wenner told Education World. "Then one principal suggested we all take responsibility for all of the middle school kids, and have our own staff development."
"As a group, our voice becomes louder," Kitzrow added. "We don't work against each other; we work together."
COLLABORATING FOR CHANGE
Collaborative initiatives have spread throughout the district. "They really have influenced district policy," said superintendent of schools William Andrekopoulos, a former middle school principal and also an original member of the collaborative. The middle school principals helped set promotion and retention standards and also proficiency requirements, Andrekopoulos told Education World.
The collaborative members also created leadership teams in their schools-- a core group of teachers who talk about rubrics, standards, teaching, and learning -- and now all the district schools have them, Onick said.
This year, the board of education voted to require schools to determine how their education plans tie in with their budget, and the collaborative received a grant to pilot that initiative.
Elementary and high school principals are interested in working collaboratively as well, but have not formalized an organization yet.
District administrators are trying to build a support structure for principals into the district's infrastructure, Andrekopoulos said, using retired principals as coaches.
"The collaborative is a model," said Kitzrow. "Other groups in the district want to model it."
The future of the collaborative, and middle schools in the district, are another issue on the table for the group. Milwaukee officials are discussing converting to K-8 schools
"We need to be proactive about letting the community know what we [middle schools] have to offer," according to Onick, and members are investigating the best way to market middle schools.
Other issues challenging collaborative members this year include: how to lead in standards-based era; how to lead so people are comfortable with change; and closing the achievement gap, he said.
Onick urged administrators in other districts to develop their own networks. "Just get together every month," he said. "But don't get together to complain. Talk about teaching and learning.
"This has helped me in a number of ways; I feel like I am part of a team and I know I have support and can give support."