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For first time, new principal academy CEO was once a principal

The head of the city’s principal training academy has an unprecedented line on her resume: she has worked as a principal before.

Irma Zardoya, who was principal of The Bilingual School in the Bronx for nine years in the 1980s and served as a district leader for many years after that, replaced Sandra Stein as CEO of the city’s Leadership Academy last month.

Stein, who had led the academy since 2005, came to the position from Baruch College, where she wrote about principal training and created its Aspiring Leaders Program. Stein’s predecessor, Robert Knowling, came from the corporate world.

In an interview at the Leadership Academy’s headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, Zardoya said that she doesn’t have immediate plans to change the content or aim of the academy. But she is zeroing in on one goal that might separate her from her predecessors. She wants to work on building new principals’ relationships with other administrators in their districts.

“Everyone needs to be responsible for a [new principal’s] success, so that when the person is placed they are not lonely, so that the superintendent is aware of who this person is,” she said.

The Bloomberg administration created the New York City Leadership Academy and its Aspiring Principals Program in 2003 to train administrators for service under former Chancellor Joel Klein. The original idea of the academy, which had former General Electric C.E.O. Jack Welch on its original advisory board, was to apply leadership principles from the corporate world to education.

The academy’s most recent graduating class made up 23 percent of first-year principals this school year.

A study by New York University researchers found that academy graduates yield student English score gains higher than the average starting principal, but did not show a difference in math performance. Meanwhile, some graduates of the program have come under fire for creating dysfunctional work environments in their pursuit of student gains.

Zardoya said that she is making the integration of new principals one of her primary goals in her first year as leader of the academy. Her proposal: to put more emphasis on reaching out to district supervisors and veteran principals in the recruitment process. In her plan, more superintendents and existing principals will be asked to recommend applicants to the Leadership Academy.

“We will look at who’s giving us that information, the clusters, the network leaders, or principals themselves,” Zardoya said. “And therefore when we do select them, people will say okay, can you help and support them as they under go this process, so that eventually when they do get integrated, then there will be a support there.”

If she does decide to increase the role of district administrators in the application process, she will be copying a strategy that she herself implemented as the superintendent of District 10 in the Bronx from 1994-2003.

“That’s exactly what she did,” said Ken Grover, the Director of the Principals Institute at Bank Street, who worked with Zardoya when she ran District 10. “She picked people from within who could move a school in the direction she felt they needed to go. They sought out candidates, they helped in the selection process.”

Before leading District 10, Zardoya was a principal for nine years and a deputy superintendent in Manhattan. When District 10 was combined with District 9 into Region 1 in the city’s 2007 reorganization, she was tapped to lead.

Those who have worked with her characterize Zardoya as someone who can emphasize the practical, experiential aspect of principal training. “She certainly has the ability and the foresight to change direction and make a stronger connection between the practitioner and the theory,” Grover said.

Peter Heaney, who worked with Zardoya as a superintendent of Region 9 from 2003 until 2007, agreed: “She will be able to tell what’s too theoretical, and what’s not practical enough.”

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