We model collaboration in our daily work, vet important decisions multiple times, distribute instructional and operational duties, and even share the principal’s office. But we have different official titles, salaries, and opportunities for training and recognition.
That’s because the Department of Education doesn’t see us as co-principals, even though we operate that way.
This has been frustrating for us, but we’ve managed to pull off shared leadership nonetheless. We’re also concerned that without a formal mechanism for schools to have co-principals, others might not even know that sharing leadership can be possible. That’s why we have submitted a proposal asking for the recognition that our community has already given us — and for an official way for our colleagues to share the principal’s office, too.
The small schools movement led many schools with strong practices to open in the city over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, it has proven difficult for some of these same schools to sustain long-term success. Many times, the catalyst for decline has been when a dynamic leader transitions out of a growing school — which happens not only because it is normal for people to change jobs over time, but also because leading small schools, which often have very high-needs students and only limited resources, is a steep challenge. It is not the only reason, but too often the ensuing leadership vacuum can make it difficult for a school to maintain the vision that led to its initial success.
When we opened Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School six years ago, we were mindful of those leadership pitfalls. Inspired by successful models of co-principalship outside of the department, including in charter schools, we created a leadership model with a long-term plan for sustainability.
From the beginning, we have presented ourselves as equals in every sense. We alternate attending meetings with the superintendent, conferences with families, and conversations with teachers, and this work has supported the culture of collaboration that we have built in our school.
So far, we have much to celebrate. Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School is an unscreened school that serves an extremely diverse student body, and our founding grades have about 95 percent of students on track to graduate with a 99 percent college acceptance rate. Over 2,500 families listed our school on their high school and middle school applications this year, and we’re on track to continue our trend of a 90 percent or higher teacher retention rate.
We believe we couldn’t have gotten here without sharing leadership. As co-principals, we are not just asking teachers and students to engage in the challenging art of compromise but instead modeling it every day. In visiting our school, visitors are struck by the high levels of collaboration among both staff and students. And because of this model, we feel confident that the hard work of our staff, students, and families will continue after one of us transitions out because the co-principal model accounts for a plan for succession.
That’s why we are asking the department to create a formal co-principal model. We both want to continue on as co-leaders, but the city continues to expect us to do this without recognizing us both. Our proposal asks that the city officially recognize the two of us on principal lines in the budget system. While paying two principals’ salaries is an expense, shared leadership can reduce other costs. Our school currently has only two administrators for almost 900 students — making our model more cost-effective than most schools that embrace a more traditional leadership model.
Because of the difficulty and extra demands placed upon co-leaders, the proposal we submitted to the city has a number of prerequisites: that a school has demonstrated success over time, that they informally employ the model for years, and that the two leaders agree to be held accountable as a pair. However, by not granting official designation, the DOE cannot expect leaders to continue to sacrifice the impact on their personal lives, the difference in salary, and various opportunities for recognition only offered to “principals.”
The last time we asked the Department of Education to formally recognize us as co-principals, we were rebuffed.
Currently, we’re waiting to hear from the department about our proposal. We are hopeful that the city will follow the lead of New York State, which has realized that this innovative leadership model works for some schools and has added specific language regarding co-principals to state regulations.
Our model does not promise solutions to all problems, but it does show that innovation can lead to stronger schools — something that the department says it supports through its PROSE program. Now is the time for the city to use existing structures to showcase models that demonstrate that the system is not “one size fits all,” but a place where innovation is embraced. If the current administration claims to support innovation in the classroom, so too must they embrace and support new models of school leadership that help sustain that innovation.
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.