Basic Principals

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen — February 01, 2002 10 min read
While other principal hopefuls spend a year or two studying in university classrooms, New Leaders fellows almost immediately hit the field.

Eric Redwine cuts a snazzy figure. His neatly knotted tie is tucked into a brown, five-button vest, which he wears over a white dress shirt, and his plaid pants break perfectly over funky leather shoes. The six-foot-six-inch 32-year- old easily could be mistaken for the manager of some chic haberdashery on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. But Redwine works in the Bronx, and as he strides down a long hallway, his bald head grazes paper pumpkins dangling from the ceiling of Middle School 368.

It’s just after 7 on a windy November morning, and Redwine is one of the first people to arrive. He ducks into the crowded office he shares with several colleagues. Dodging overflowing book carts and filing cabinets, he quickly checks his schedule, which is jampacked. First, he has to greet school buses and help monitor 175 6th graders as they wait in the cafeteria to start their day. Later, he’ll observe and assess a teacher’s work, attend several meetings, and do back-to-back lunchroom duty. Through it all, he’ll continue to learn the ins and outs of running a school with help from the principal at M.S. 368—a highly regarded, veteran leader who has agreed to mentor Redwine for nine months.

Already, Redwine knows how to keep kids in check. In the cafeteria, they’re energetic, but he maintains order with a gently commanding manner. One boy, who’s wearing a baseball cap, catches Redwine’s eye. He leans over, taps the youngster on the shoulder, then silently points at his head. The hat comes off. After a few more such reminders, Redwine sees the kids out of the lunchroom and heads back to his office. He’s ready to tackle the rest of his day, which won’t end until well after 9 p.m.

Redwine is one of 15 fellows participating in the fast-track, principal- preparation program “New Leaders for New Schools.” The nonprofit effort, launched last July, takes an unusually practical approach. While other principal hopefuls spend a year or two studying in university classrooms, New Leaders fellows almost immediately hit the field, where they get hands-on experience while working with mentors. The goal, according to the program’s creator and chief executive officer, Jonathan Schnur, is to recruit, train, and retain a cadre of talented leaders who will reinvigorate urban schools and plug gaps left by a growing principal shortage.

Trainee Eric Redwine passed up a lucrative job to enroll in “New Leaders for New Schools,” which focuses on urban districts.
—Emile Wamsteker

Because fellows are expected to run their own schools after just one year, New Leaders crams that time with intensive training. This past summer, Redwine and his peers plunged into strenuous seven-week courses in New York City and Chicago. Now, in addition to serving internships, they’re writing theses, attending weekly meetings, and working closely with “residency directors.”

Schnur, an education adviser in the Clinton administration, developed the alternative program because experience convinced him that leadership is the key to improving education. “I saw lots of different types of curricula and strategies that work in education reform,” he notes. “But most outstanding schools had an outstanding principal.”

And Schnur plans to pump out 2,000 such principals over the next 10 years. His goal is to have New Leaders operate in more than a dozen cities, where, he claims, his principals will drastically improve the education of more than 1 million students.

But some observers have raised concerns. “In addition to the great question of ‘Will it work?’ is the equally great question of ‘If it works, can it be implemented on a large scale?’ ” says David Bloomfield, acting chair of educational administration at Brooklyn College. Others worry about Schnur’s future plans to draw candidates from fields outside of education. And, though each New Leader fellow commits to working in an urban district for an average of three years, he or she may find the challenges of a city school too daunting in the long run.

Even Redwine has expressed doubts. Before enrolling in the New York City program, he was aggressively courted for an assistant principalship in an affluent district outside Detroit. Redwine, who’d been teaching in a city school, was tempted at first. “I was in anguish,” he recalls. “I prayed about [the decision].” But soon he realized: “I’m in education to work in an urban community, with African American kids, the kids that I know. My kids.”

After morning lunchroom duty, Redwine sits at the back of a class, observing an ESL teacher. He looks serious as he takes notes for the evaluation, which he’ll share with the principal and then the teacher. He brightens, however, as he takes a moment to help a student with a writing exercise. “Working hands-on with kids is the best job in the world,” he says later. “The first day of classes, I was a little jealous of the teachers who got to go into the classrooms with them.”

As much as he misses classroom work, Redwine believes in a principal’s ability to influence an entire school. In fact, he was inspired by an administrator to get into education. Before teaching, Redwine was a radio talk show host in Detroit, and one day, his job took him to Paul Robeson Academy, where students were gathered for an assembly. “The principal stood in front of the almost 200 students, held up one finger, and the place went dead silent,” Redwine recalls. “I was dumbstruck. [Seeing] the power that exists in being able to help children changed my whole perspective. I asked for a job the same day and, the next day, had one, as a substitute teacher.”

Because fellows are expected to run their own schools after just one year, New Leaders crams that time with intensive training.

Redwine has come far since then. He’s acting as an assistant principal at M.S. 368, and the district, in signing on with New Leaders, has agreed to pay him as such. (Schools in Chicago and Stockton, California, have made similar arrangements with New Leaders candidates.) So Redwine is helping principal Rose Fairweather-Clunie run a start-up magnet school, which is temporarily housed in an apartment building as plans to construct a new facility proceed. Although mentoring Redwine cuts into her time, Fairweather-Clunie believes she’s benefiting from the deal. “There’s a lot of reciprocity here,” she says. “He is receiving the most recent training in strategies and methodologies and brings that to the table.”

Redwine will head up a school after just a year, so now he’s honing skills such as assessing teachers.
—Emile Wamsteker

Redwine has received a lot of help from New Leaders’ classes and staff. Schnur and co-founders Monique Burns and Benjamin Fenton—both Harvard MBAs—brought together a mix of businesspeople and academics this past summer to teach courses in education theory, data analysis, education law, and other subjects. In addition, Redwine’s residency director works with him throughout the New Leaders process, which includes keeping a journal and a portfolio, attending seminars, and writing research papers.

But Redwine’s most valuable tool is his internship. After observing the teacher, he’s off to a meeting in the principal’s sardine can of an office. Sporting long nails and lots of jewelry, Fairweather-Clunie is at times warm but always impeccably businesslike. The meeting’s participants include a district official and a representative of the local parents’ association. They’re tackling a problem involving students’ laptop computers: The power cords break easily, and the school doesn’t have money for new ones. Neither do the parents, most of whom are working-class Latinos and African Americans. After considering several options, the group decides to try to wrangle money from the district’s discretionary fund.

Redwine, whose energy rarely lags, heads back to his office. He balances his own laptop on a tall filing cabinet and stands next to it. There’s no room on his desk, which is covered with reams of memos, and his chair is occupied by a carton of the canned beans, soup, and tuna that students recently donated for needy families. Redwine spends a few moments checking his schedule, then moves on to lunchroom duty, which means he won’t get to eat until much later.

On the way, he stops in the hall to talk with the teacher he observed earlier. The young woman seems anxious, but Redwine speaks gently and encouragingly. He said earlier today that he’s determined to have teachers view him as an ally, not an enemy. “I want them to know that I’m on their side,” he explained.

Because he was teaching just last year, Redwine doesn’t have a problem relating to staff members. But that won’t necessarily be true for future New Leaders fellows. Although this year’s recruits are former teachers, the program’s director, Jonathan Schnur, says he plans to accept candidates from outside the education field. Among various reasons, he—as well as others running district- and state-sponsored alternative training programs— points to a growing crisis: Even as the number of public school students increases nationwide, 40 percent of existing principals are expected to retire over the next decade.

And, though requirements vary from state to state, the bureaucratic red tape involved in obtaining principal certification is considered a turnoff. New Leaders, which works with local universities to provide formal certification, helps fellows deal with the paperwork. Schnur also addresses the common complaint that rookie principals don’t get enough support. New Leaders, he says, will provide continuing supervision even after fellows get certified.

Jonathan Schnur, an education adviser in the Clinton administration, developed the alternative program because experience convinced him that leadership is the key to improving education.

Schnur’s plan—advertised in print and on Web sites and via education networks nationwide—obviously has appeal. Last year, more than 1,000 candidates requested information, and 200 applied for New Leaders’ first 15 spots. “There’s a widespread perception that people don’t want to become principals today,” he says. “But there’s been no systematic effort to identify and nurture people who can become outstanding principals.”

Signing up fellows without a background in education, however, concerns some observers. “An ideal principal has to have teaching experience to have credibility with teachers,” argues Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, says principals must understand what constitutes good teaching. “You can’t be thoughtful about educational leadership if you don’t know how people learn,” she explains. “There are too many principals in schools now who don’t know enough about [classroom] instruction.”

Others worry about the expenses and logistics involved in expanding such a program. So far, the nonprofit has raised a respectable $3.7 million from donors such as the San Francisco-based New Schools Venture Fund and the Chicago Public Education Fund. But New Leaders is still in its infancy. “While 15 people in a program is a start, it just scratches the surface of a very complex problem,” says Tirozzi. He’s impressed with what New Leaders has done until now, but he questions the fast-track approach. “I’m always concerned about quick-fix solutions,” he explains. “We could end up with a deluge of people in schools with no knowledge of what has to happen to make a school work well.”

Regardless of expert opinions, this year’s New Leaders’ fellows are ear-deep in a demanding program. Redwine, for one, has gotten used to a bruising schedule. Tonight, after he’s done at M.S. 368, he’ll drive to Manhattan for his weekly New Leaders meeting, then work on a research paper after he gets home.

But he finds the effort worthwhile. “Before, I was just responsible for a handful of kids,” he says. “In the role of leader, you’re responsible for staff and community, also. It’s a huge bump in the amount of work and a huge bump in the satisfaction you get from the job.” He’s glad he chose Schnur’s program. “I definitely feel I made the right decision to be in New Leaders,” he says. “I’m in the right place to learn.”

Redwine is clearly a good learner. During lunchroom duty this afternoon, the teachers working with him raise their voices to get the kids to settle down. But, taking a cue from the principal he admired years ago at Paul Robeson Academy, Redwine just holds his hand high. Soon, the students seated around him are quiet.