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Cultivating The Next Generation Of School Leaders

One of the Bloomberg administration’s first big education policy moves was to create a fast-track principal training program that in its early years recruited heavily from outside the school system. Now, in the administration’s final year, that program — which drew fierce criticism and produced mixed results — is smaller and the Department of Education is investing in programs to develop potential principals from within the city’s teaching corps. Here, the department’s chief academic officer explains why the department is looking inside itself for future school leaders.

On a Wednesday afternoon late last month, Serapha Cruz, the principal of the Bronx School of Young Leaders, was in her building on Tremont Avenue, meeting with teacher teams and preparing for the following day.

And yet, in a way, she was also at West Prep Academy, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; Bronx Park Middle School, in Bronxwood; and the Urban Assembly School of Civic Engagement, in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx. The leaders of these three other schools all served as staff members or principals-in-training under Cruz — a dynamic principal who has worked relentlessly with her team to turn around her school — before becoming principals themselves.

Throughout New York City’s public schools, many more prospective principals are in the leadership pipeline. They come from Cruz’s school — she has an aspiring principal interning this year with her, and I met two of Cruz’s current teachers that Wednesday afternoon at the kick-off event for the inaugural cohort of the Teacher Leadership Program — and from schools across the city.

In recognition of the critical role the school leader plays in determining a school’s success, the department has long offered potential school leaders several options for principal preparation programs, which typically provide intensive support in the year immediately before an apprentice becomes a principal. More recently, in order to increase the supply of high-quality candidates for the roughly 150 principal positions we must fill each year, the department has launched several initiatives aimed at developing the leadership capacity of our most effective teachers. By engaging strong educators early in their careers, we can cultivate their leadership skills as they take their first steps toward school leadership.

Take TLP as an example. The program is targeted at teachers already serving in leadership roles — such as department chair — and convening them regularly through a series of workshops led by strong principals and other leaders. Between sessions, back in their schools, teacher leaders will practice observing classrooms and providing feedback to improve their colleagues’ practice. They will evaluate instructional materials for alignment to the Common Core standards. And they will lead teams of fellow teachers to examine their students’ work, guiding discussions about how to adjust teaching in response to student needs.

The fact that the 250 teachers in TLP this year represent just a quarter of our nearly 1,000 applicants is a testament to our teachers’ widespread interest in developing these leadership skills.

We know that many TLP participants may decide to continue in their teacher leadership roles, now strengthened by the skills they have gained in the program, for years to come. But our hope is that some successful graduates will go on to become the next generation of excellent New York City school leaders by moving on to one of our key principal preparation programs next year or in the future. This year, with support from the Wallace Foundation, our expanding group of partner programs includes not just the Leadership Academy, LEAP (the Leaders in Education Apprenticeship Program), and New Leaders’ Aspiring Principal Program, but also three university-based education leadership programs — Bank Street Principals Institute, Teachers College Summer Principals Academy, and CUNY’s Baruch College — whose leaders have committed to grounding their work in partnerships with our schools. Across all of these partner programs, this year nearly 150 assistant principals and teacher leaders are in training to become New York City principals.

Our work to develop a strong leadership pipeline dates to 2003, when the NYC Leadership Academy launched and began to lay the foundation to address the city’s longstanding need to better recruit, prepare, and support principals. The Leadership Academy created that foundation, particularly for the system’s highest-need schools; today, nearly one in six principals in the city is a graduate of the academy’s Aspiring Principals Program, which now serves as a national model for school leader preparation and has been replicated in a number of other districts. It also continues to serve as a critical partner in our leadership work providing training to teacher leaders, aspiring principals and sitting principals across the system.

While principals are never eager to see some of their strongest educators leave their school, they understand that these leadership development programs can be mutually beneficial and ultimately serve the greater good. Principal Cruz says that her current staff members have been inspired by the development of their former colleagues, and many educators are now discussing possible leadership roles during their regular goal-setting conversations. Plus, Cruz is in touch often with Dillon Prime, the new principal at Bronx Park, and Roberto Padilla, the principal at West Prep. For the Nov. 6 professional development day, the three principals shared resources on providing quality feedback to students and collecting assessment data.

“I believe in developing people to work in other places, and it ends up making all of our jobs easier if we’re putting quality people in these positions,” Cruz told me. “Dillon and Roberto are getting fresh ideas from other people and other places and bringing them back to our conversations, so their development benefits me, too.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.