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Preparing the Next Generation of Urban School Leaders

In an effort to deepen the pool of qualified urban principal candidates, the Institute for the Mentorship of Urban School Leaders at Lehigh University was established to give proven school leaders the training and support needed to be effective administrators. Included: A description of a focused, hands-on training program.

An intensive, hands-on heavy principal preparation program is putting trained administrators into Philadelphia schools in fewer than two years.

Called the Philadelphia Principals Project, the program is a collaboration of the School District of Philadelphia, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and the Lehigh University College of Education. The program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The goal of the program is to provide the Philadelphia schools -- and possibly other urban districts -- with badly needed administrators who are trained to work in urban schools.

LEARNING ON THE JOB

The critical components of the 16-month-long training program are residencies and mentoring, according to George Roesser, the program director and a professor of practice in Lehigh's College of Education.

"Practice is stressed from the beginning of the program," Roesser told Education World. After two weeks of classroom study and some practical work, candidates are assigned to schools with host principals. There they work with administrative leadership teams, who provide tasks, guidance, and support.

The trainees spend four days a week working in a school, and then meet one day a week, usually in Philadelphia, for a class or lecture and the chance to discuss issues they are confronting on the job. Candidates are able to collect their salaries while they are in the program.

Issues faced by urban principals also are stressed. Time is devoted to discussions of multicultural issues, problems of urban students, motivators for urban students and minority children, and how those motivators differ from those for other students.

Once candidates complete the program, they are placed in full-time positions, and work with a mentor principal for at least a year. NAESP members have trained Mentor principals and host principals. Several years ago, NAESP developed the National Principals Mentoring Certification Program, a training program for administrator mentors.

"We want them [new administrators] to have the knowledge they are being supported," said Fred Brown, NAESP's associate executive director. "When we survey members, they want to talk to those who walked the walk."

And NAESP wants the mentoring experience to be valuable for all the parties. "Some mentors say after the training, 'I didn't know what I didn't know,'" Brown said. "There's a lot more to mentoring than creating a clone of yourself. The expectation is that through their own strengths and effectiveness, they will help them [new administrators] find their own style."

ADDING DIVERSITY TO THE RANKS

So far, eight out of the 11 people who completed the first program cycle are full-time administrators; six are assistant principals and two are principals. All 11 passed the state's certification test. "There is just a desperate need for administrators," Roesser said.

Ten are in training now, selected from among 40 applicants. The majority of the participants in both groups are minorities.

While the program was opened to educators from across the country, this year all of the trainees are from Philadelphia, according to Roesser.

Applicants are carefully evaluated. "There is a shortage of highly-qualified folks," Roesser added. "We want to select people who we know will be successful."

LOOKING FOR LEADERS

As part of that thinking, the program is not open to people with administrative certification. Rather, organizers seek out teachers who were leaders in their schools.

"These are the people leading change in the school buildings," said Roesser. "They ran many of the major program initiatives in their schools. These are education experts in professional development, curriculum, child developmentwho worked with other teachers. We realized there is where the real positive changes take place in teaching."

Many of the minority candidates also express a desire to help urban students. "They are very much aware that many are the first ones in their families to go to college," noted Roesser. "They view their jobs as a calling. They feel responsible for helping these students."

Among those former teacher leaders are Nicole Lee, an assistant principal at Samuel Fels High School and Roger Jackson, principal of Paul Robeson High School.

Lee, who taught for nine years in elementary and middle schools, was working as a literacy leader when she first heard about the training program.

"I had been attending a lot of teacher meetings, trying to implement curriculum changes, but as the literacy leader, I had no authority to get teachers to do what I was asking," Lee told Education World. "I was trained in reading and writing strategies and trained other teachers. The problem was getting teachers to buy in. I had no authority. Many middle school teachers have secondary school training -- they thought it was elementary to teach reading.

"I thought at this level [as an administrator], I would have the ability to implement things."

Seeing some programs put in place that she supported while a literacy leader also is satisfying.

"This is part of the job now -- curriculum -- so now they [teachers] have to listen," she told Education World. "But I try to give suggestions and recommendations rather than saying, 'you must' do something."

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

Jackson, who had worked as the district's director of college and career awareness, said the Lehigh program gave him a chance to explore an area that long interested him.

"I had been a teacher and served as a lead teacher and interim principal, and being a principal always interested me," Jackson told Education World.

Lee said she had not considered being an administrator until she heard about the Lehigh program. Her former middle school principal now is her mentor, which has helped her make the transition.

"It's exhausting but very rewarding; I like going in to see all the kids and getting to know kids at all grade levels," she said of her new job. "It's sad because you know you can't help all the kids, but you can impact a few."

Jackson also is enjoying having more contact with students. "In my other job, I did things that have a fairly long-term impact; I didn't get to see day-to-day victories," Jackson said. "Now I interact with students on a daily basis I can see the impact monthly, weekly, even sometimes daily."

BENEFITING FROM OTHER'S EXPERIENCES

Both Lee and Jackson said the practical experience and mentoring provided by the Lehigh program made the training especially valuable.

"The best thing about the program is that you are in school every day and you see what the principal and vice principal do on a daily basis," according to Lee. "I also liked the professionalism; going to conferences, hearing speakers, and talking to other people in the program. There was lots of hands-on work and we talked about how to get teachers to buy in to what we were doing."

The number of knowledgeable educators involved with the program also impressed Jackson. "I liked the design of the Lehigh program and the number of experienced school district personnel who were serving as instructors and mentors," he said, adding that a number of topics were woven into class discussions, so trainees could talk about different issues and see how they were related. "And the internship let you put theory into practice."

The relationship with his mentor principal has been very important, Jackson said, and in his second year as an administrator, he still calls on his mentor periodically for feedback or to discuss ideas.

Nothing, though, can prepare someone completely for the pace of an administrator's day. "The biggest difference between learning and practice is the intensity of every day and the constant decision-making at every turn," Jackson told Education World. "You can't pass off the decision-making authority -- even when you want to. Students, teachers, parents don't want you to. Decisions have to be made minute-by-minute. You can't really prepare for that and you couldn't imagine it would be that way."

Lee noted that life in her new job is hectic as well, but thinks she is well-prepared for this new chapter of her career as an educator.

"I think I'll be a better administrator than I was a teacher," she said.

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