For the city’s charter sector, the task of building better leaders begins with self-reflection.
The project of understanding what makes a good leader — particularly for charter schools, which have some of the highest principal turnover rates — is what consumes the 20-odd educators who gathered at the New York City Charter School Center this week to kick off the sixth year of its leadership training program.
When they return to their schools later this month, the educators will face diverse challenges. One pair comes from a school that has nearly doubled in size faster than expected due to make up a budget shortfall. Another is from a rare standalone school serving kindergarten through 12th graders, which will be preparing its first cohort of students to graduate and apply to college next year.
But on a recent morning, all of the participants were focused on the same question as Heidi Brooks, a professor from the Yale University School of Management, talked them through a platitude-heavy presentation about identifying leadership qualities.
“How would you describe yourself as a leader? How do you describe a great leader?” Brooks asked the group, then began taking down their answers until ink filled a sheet of poster paper.
“Positive,” “self-aware,” and “systems-aware” topped the list of traits.
Finding talented school leaders, and convincing them to stay at a school year after year, has been an ongoing challenge for city charter schools — and a problem that James Merriman, the charter center’s head, lamented at a recent state education reform commission meeting. The center is trying to chip away at this problem for a handful of independent charter schools that need well-trained, effective administrators at the helm as they grow to their full size, but don’t have the same recruiting resources as the large charter networks.
This year, the center has invited seven schools, including the New York Center for Autism Charter School in East Harlem and VOICE Charter School in Long Island City, to send one or two school leaders and teachers through its year-long leadership training program, called the Emerging Leaders Fellowship, with the goal of preparing the participants to become administrators at their schools.
ELF is designed for people who are already working in schools and want to stay there, said its director, Niomi Plotkin. She said those people are already familiar with their school’s cultural norms and can be more committed to its mission.
“It’s a different kind of sweat equity, because you’re already invested,” Plotkin said. “We find that makes for better leaders.”
Past fellows have gone on to create an online summer school and a data analysis system for tracking performance at their individual schools, and about 80 percent of fellows have become principals or administrators.
But the first lessons built into the program had little to do with school management. Instead, they focused on fostering conversations between participants and their mentors (most of whom are also their school supervisors) about leadership styles and the importance of self-reflection.
Plotkin said these questions will lay the groundwork for participants to consider what it means to be a leader as they move into more intensive lessons on how to foster strong school culture, recruit a top-notch staff, and manage student conflicts.
Liz Springer, the middle school director for Hunts Point’s Hyde Leadership Charter School, said she joined ELF program out of a desire to puzzle through those subjects within a network of other charter school administrators, which Hyde lacked. She applied to join the second cohort of the program in 2008, after she and colleagues realized they could use more help at the school, which has been expanding to span all grades. Since then, a half-dozen more Hyde teachers have completed the program, and Springer has returned to mentor more teachers in the program this summer.
“The job of being a principal is hard. We get a lot of awesome, type A, overachieving people in the charter sector, but even with that you can’t do it by yourself,” Springer said. “With autonomy comes responsibility. We have the chance to be completely innovative, but there’s a lot to think about.”
The list of a school leader’s concerns is long, she said, ranging from school culture and finance and budgeting to accountability and community engagement. ELF will cover each of these subjects in Wednesday evening sessions over the next several months. In between, the teachers have reams of photocopied lessons to read about character-building, effective team-coaching and conflict resolution.
Most of the educators who joined in the weeklong orientation said they wanted to grow professionally without leaving their schools.
John Harrison, the director of English and language arts programming at Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said his principal encouraged him to join the program to gain skills he would need to run a high school once Inwood Academy expands beyond its middle school. But first he wants to learn how to define the role of school leader so it isn’t overwhelming.
“I think for me the primary issue for the high turnover rate of charter school leaders and burnout comes from the fact that roles are more loosely defined in our schools because they’re so new,” Harrison said. “We have a lot of freedom, but it’s kind of a blessing and a curse. You sign on to a particular role and you don’t always know what you’re expected to do.”