First Person

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.”

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.