Nonprofit Group Aims To Groom New Breed of Leaders

By Darcia Harris Bowman — September 20, 2000 4 min read
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A former Clinton administration official is trying to drum up $4 million to finance a nonprofit organization aimed at putting first-class principals in urban schools.

Much like the Teach For America program, started 10 years ago to send recent college graduates into classrooms in high-need districts, New Leaders for New Schools plans to recruit experienced teachers, along with high fliers from outside education, and groom them for school leadership.

The project is the brainchild of Jonathan H. Schnur, a 34-year-old former public school teacher who spent seven years working for the Clinton administration as the associate director of education policy at the White House and Vice President Al Gore’s senior adviser on education, among other jobs. He now informally advises Mr. Gore’s presidential campaign.

“I’ve met so many young, talented people who are just the kind of people you’d want leading our schools, but they’re not becoming principals,” said Mr. Schnur, the chief executive officer of New Leaders. “Given that the principalship is such a critical leverage point for improving our schools, this country should be able to find a way to prepare and recruit people to replace 2,000 retiring principals a year. This is a solvable problem.”

Mr. Schnur said his interest in school leadership was sparked by visits to numerous urban schools during his tenure in the White House.

The successful schools had strong principals who united teachers, students, and communities around a common vision, he said, while the struggling schools lacked that kind of leadership.

Shortages Reported

Roughly half of 400 district administrators polled nationwide in 1998 reported a shortage of well-qualified people to fill vacant principalships in their schools, according to a survey by the Educational Research Service in Arlington, Va., conducted for the two national associations of elementary and secondary school principals.

Yet just 27 percent of the districts surveyed had their own systems for recruiting and training candidates for principals’ jobs. Half the urban districts polled reported having such programs.

Enter New Leaders for New Schools, founded this summer by Mr. Schnur and four fellow graduate students at Harvard University. The Boston-based group hopes to have up to 15 aspiring principals taking classes next year in summer institutes in two cities, followed by one-year, corporate-sponsored fellowships with experienced administrators as mentors. New Leaders envisions training 500 principals annually in 16 cities within a decade.

But the group’s plan to recruit managers from outside education has raised concerns among some experts.

“I think the principalship, unlike the superintendency, is not a position that lends itself well to people who have not had extensive experience in classroom instruction,” Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Arlington, Va., said last week.

Dick A. Flanary, a senior administrator with the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va., agreed. “They use the words ‘extraordinarily talented teachers’ as the kind of educators they’re hoping to attract to the principalship,” he said. “If that’s a prerequisite, how do they hope to develop that [experience] in leaders from outside education?”

Mr. Schnur said the managers recruited from outside the field would either have had classroom experience earlier in their careers or would be paired with experienced educators.

Broad Powers

New Leaders’ founders are proposing a new breed of principal “with the leadership and management skills needed to run reform-minded schools with real authority for decisionmaking.”

In addition to charging a placement fee for its principals, New Leaders would require schools and districts to give their administrators authority over hiring and budgets.

While that requirement would appear most readily suited to charter schools, which get public funding but generally operate independently of district rules, the group wants to place at least half its principals in regular public schools.

“We’re very interested in being advocates for giving all school principals that kind of autonomy,” said Monique M. Burns, the organization’s president and chief curriculum officer. “It is a chicken-and-egg problem. What comes first—budget and hiring authority, or having the right person in place? We’re hoping our people will allow districts to at least try [school-based management] in pilot programs.”

Mr. Ferrandino agreed that principals need more authority to effect changes in their schools. But he cautioned that the job also requires knowledge that comes only with having taught in a classroom.

“If you asked most of the principals in public schools today about their job, they would say their role is instructional leader,” he said. “Without having an experiential understanding of how students learn, it’s difficult to serve effectively as a principal.”

New Leaders’ founding officers were in California’s Silicon Valley last week raising some of the $4 million they need to prepare a curriculum and run their first 15-trainee pilot program. They hope to secure another $5.7 million by 2002 to cover the costs of starting up in two new cities each year through 2005.

To be successful in the long term, some observers say, New Leaders needs to spend as much time building ties in the public education world as it does in wooing the private sector.

“So many of these efforts are brilliantly conceived, but when the soft money goes, the initiative disappears because they made virtually no effort to interact with the traditional system,” said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership. “I think if this can be a blend of public money as well as private and corporate contributions, it would help to get a public-sector buy-in and sustain this venture.”

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