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Principals' Group Creates Alternative-Certification Program

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By Lynn Olson

Acting in response to new state regulations, a group that represents elementary-school principals in Massachusetts has become the first professional organization in the nation to create its own alternative-certification program for principals.

The program, which began this summer, reflects rules allowing both university- and non-university-based groups to create innovative training programs that do not meet existing state requirements.

The new regulations are not scheduled to take effect until 1994. But Margaret L. Cassidy, state coordinator for teacher preparation and program approval, said she was confident "the program is going to be approved."

Three other non-university-based proposals are on the drawing board, she said. But none is as far along as that of the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association Inc., which already has 12 students and expects to enroll 30 more next year.

The association is currently offering its program in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, so that its students can be certified between now and 1994.

Wedding Theory and Practice

Nadya Aswad Higgins, the executive director of MESPA, described the program as designed to provide budding administrators with a heavy dose of clinical training in addition to a solid grounding in theory.

Too often, "people feel overwhelmed when they get into a building," she said. "They have a lot of theory, but they don't know how to apply it." MESPA's program was designed by practitioners, "who took a look at the kinds of things we live with every day," in addition to the research, said Kenneth Chapman, the program's facilitator and a practicing principal in Amherst.

"Mentor principals," who are drawn from among the best in the state, sit in on classes with the principals-in-training and can draw immediate links between theory and practice, Mr. Chapman explained.

Just last week, Mr. Chapman said, he was trying to draft a letter to parents about snow days.

"I've got 28 different languages spoken in my school," he noted. "I have an entire population of children and parents whose primary language is Mandarin Chinese. There's no course presented in a college that talks about that."

The same cadre of"on line" practitioners will work with students out in the field, as they participate in internships later this year.

'Principal School'

Those who qualify for the program begin it together and take all of their courses as a group. The goal is to help them build a support network that will sustain them as principals, Ms. Higgins said.

Classes take place at MESPA's headquarters in Marlborough, during intensive, marathon sessions on weekends and during the summer, instead of at the end of a busy school day or in the evening.

In traditional programs, future administrators can often select from a diverse array of courses taken in no particular order. But in MESPA's program, all of the teaching modules are organized around the themes of leadership, group processes, and communications skills, and follow a specified sequence.

Much of the content is drawn from the National Association of Elementary School Principals' proficiencies for K-8 principals, as well as from that organization's publication, "Principals for 21st-Century Schools."

As the program's facilitator, Mr. Chapman teaches several courses on leadership skills. He also sits in on the students' other classes, "so that he can pull it all together for students and fit it into the conceptual framework," Ms. Higgins said. 'It's not left up to the student to flounder and try to make sense of the program."

Karen Branscombe, the program coordinator for an alternative middle school in Lowell and a student in the new course of study, said, "I felt very reluctant to participate in a traditional program .... I need practical skills, as well as theory."

"There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not using specific things from what I call 'principal school,'" she said.

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