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At annual principals conference, talk is of difficult change ahead

A year ago, Department of Education officials gathered more than a thousand city principals in a hot auditorium for a speech by Common Core architect David Coleman. The energy in the room was “truly off the charts” according to Chancellor Dennis Walcott, and it set the tone for this school year.

This year’s principals’ leadership conference, held Saturday at Brooklyn Technical High School, took a lower-key tone, focusing not on big ideas but on the nitty-gritty of implementing existing ones. A series of workshops delved into the Common Core learning standards, evolving state tests, looming special education reforms, and observing teachers — all issues that have dominated the city’s policy agenda for more than a year.

Instead of Coleman, whose standards are new for New York, the principals heard from Robert Evans, a clinical and organizational psychologist, and received copies of his book, “The Human Side of Change.” Evans urged principals to give the Common Core a positive spin while rolling it out in their schools.

That’s exactly what Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky urged when he instructed principals to continue to communicate the importance of the Common Core, especially as the state transitions to assessments based on the standards.

“As principal, one of your biggest challenges is to create a sense of urgency around this work without creating a sense of panic or anxiety,” he said during a portion of the day that was open to reporters.

Polakow-Suransky assured the principals that the city would expand supports such as the Common Core Fellows program. And he stressed the flexibility of the special education reforms, which some are concerned will cause schools that do not bring more students with special needs into general education classrooms to be punished.

“The point of this reform is to create the stability to make better decisions for our kids’ needs, and we want you to make decisions as you implement it so it’s manageable within the context of your school,” he said. “Each school’s implementation will look a little bit different.”

The stakes are high, Evans said: If the transition is handled clumsily, teachers might feel devalued.

“If you introduce to someone a change they didn’t seek, the primary meaning is loss,” he told the principals.

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