leadership prep

In quest for better leaders, charter sector program looks inward

Niomi Plotkin, center, talks to John Harrison and other charter school leaders during the ELF orientation.

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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede