Two Heads > One

50 pairs of first-year principals and APs to take over struggling schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
P.S. 13 Assistant Principal Latishia Towles (left) and Principal Maxine Cameron were paired and trained by the NYC Leadership Academy, which sends leadership teams to turn around struggling schools.

When aspiring principal Maxine Cameron visited administrator-in-training Latishia Towles at her Queens school earlier this year, it was the professional equivalent of a first date.

The two had already met through the NYC Leadership Academy, which launched a program this year that pairs up first-year principals and assistant principals and sends the teams into struggling schools in the hopes of turning them around. Now Cameron was headed to P.S. 160 to observe Towles in classrooms and meetings to decide if the two had a future together.

Cameron sought someone with expertise in math and special education who had talents beyond school administration. Towles, it turned out, was a math whiz with an advanced degree in special education and training as an opera singer.

The two agreed to team up, and last month Cameron started as principal of Brooklyn’s P.S. 13 with Towles as her assistant principal and “thought partner,” as Cameron puts it. They are one of 50 new principal-assistant principal pairs who will take over low-performing city schools over the next three years through the academy’s new “teaming” program, which is bankrolled by a $3 million federal grant and $450,000 in private funding.

“We all call it a marriage in the making,” quipped Cameron, who spent nearly two decades as a teacher, trainer, and assistant principal before deciding to become a school leader.

Each pair will receive training, three years of coaching, and help creating school-improvement plans from the NYC Leadership Academy, a fast-track principal training institute founded by the Bloomberg administration that operates independently of the city. The city Department of Education will help the teams find struggling schools with principal vacancies.

The program draws on an influential school-improvement model in North Carolina that sends squads of veteran principals, administrators, and teachers to take over troubled schools. Student test scores increased in most of the schools that were part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district’s “Strategic Staffing Initiative,” which began in 2008.

Mayor Bill de Blasio also borrowed from the North Carolina model, proposing a “Strategic Staffing Initiative” as part of his campaign-trail plan to turn around low-performing schools by inserting experienced principals and teachers. His administration floated a similar idea more recently in a federal grant application, and this month Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña tapped the longtime leader of a successful Brooklyn school to take over one of the city’s lowest-ranked high schools.

Towles and Cameron have taken several steps to improve P.S. 13 since taking over this summer, from digging into student data to painting classroom doors a bright green.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Towles and Cameron have taken several steps to improve P.S. 13 since taking over this summer, from digging into student data to painting classroom doors a bright green.

The NYC Leadership Academy’s school-turnaround program, however, relies on first-time principals and assistant principals. While that means its teams don’t have experience running schools, it also helps the program avoid a weakness of the North Carolina model: A limited number of successful principals are willing to leave their schools to take over low-performing ones. In fact, just two years after the Charlotte-Mecklenburg program started, officials there floated the idea of recruiting principals and administrators from training programs instead of schools.

Still, the idea of dispatching newly trained pairs of leaders to rescue troubled schools strikes some critics as misguided. Geraldine Maione, a retired principal who helped turn around William Grady Career & Technical High School in Brooklyn, said such schools — like sick patients — require the care of seasoned practitioners.

“We have a chronic illness in the schools,” she said. “We need to seek out the best people with proven records.”

Back in East New York, Cameron and Towles face a tough assignment at P.S. 13.

When Cameron was hired in June, she became the school’s third new principal since its longtime leader retired in 2011. Consistently listed among the state’s lowest-performing schools, last year just 15 percent of P.S. 13 students passed the state math exams, compared to about 30 percent of students citywide.

One of Cameron’s first moves was to invite staffers — everyone from teachers to secretaries to school-safety officers — to meet her over the summer to talk about the school. Many mentioned concerns about school culture and discipline, including “runners” — children who fled their classrooms throughout the day. Third-grade teacher Laureen Trim said the building was loud and often felt unsafe.

To improve morale, the new leaders posted staff photos in a newly repaired display case in the lobby and painted classroom doors a bright green. They also reached out to families, inviting parents to sit in on students’ classes each month and asking one of the school’s longtime administrators to head up “public relations.” To restore order, they crafted a school handbook that covers everything from the school’s mission to proper bulletin board layouts, instituted a school-wide discipline policy, and launched a character-education program.

“You walk through the halls now, and everything is just so calm and quiet,” said Trim, who has taught at the school for 13 years. “It feels like a building where learning is taking place all over again.”

The pair took on the school’s academics too. Towles set up an online database for teachers to post student test scores, and the team dug into the data with their leadership coach, a former principal and superintendent. To help catch students up, they set aside time for teachers to work with small groups of lagging students, and they hosted lunchtime training workshops for faculty.

Cameron said that having Towles as a planning partner over the summer and a sounding board during the year helped her consider different ideas and actually enact the ones she chose.

“I think being a team was the best choice I could have made,” she said.

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

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”