Building a Principal From Start to Finish

The Denver public school system has made developing its own school leaders a priority for more than a decade. The district has more recently intensified its efforts to expand—and strengthen—its principal pipeline by focusing on how it trains, selects, and supports school leaders.

Building a Principal From Start to Finish

How Denver Does It

The Denver public school system has made developing its own school leaders a priority for more than a decade. About three years ago, backed with grant funding from the Wallace Foundation, the district intensified efforts to expand—and strengthen—the principal pipeline by focusing on how it trains, selects, and supports school leaders. The pipeline begins with teacher leadership. About 1 in 5 Denver teachers serve in leadership roles.

School Leader Preparation

Aspiring principals can earn their certification from three different university pathways. The district also runs an alternate-route program that caters to individuals who may already be assistant principals, or teacher-leaders, or have served in the private sector but have the skill sets to take on the principal’s job. Regardless of whether candidates complete a traditional university preparation program or the district’s program, they go through the following process:

First-Year Assistant Principals

First-year assistant principals must participating in the New Leaders Academy, where there is a continued focus on developing leadership skills.

Candidates have access to:

  • Coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Monthly meetings with other assistant principals in the program

Assistant Principal Leadership Cohort

Assistant principals must apply to be part of this group. They are placed in a school and are assigned a yearlong management project that addresses the school’s most immediate needs. They meet monthly with their peers and have access to principal coaches, most of whom are retired principals.

Assistant principals are responsible for:

  • Investigating a problem
  • Developing a response plan
  • Implementing the response plan

Principal Residency Program (Learn-to-Lead)

Assistant principals are placed as residents in schools and serve in a co-principal role. During “lead” weeks, aspiring principals or “principal residents” work as the schools’ main administrators. The assistant principals are evaluated at the end of the year on their competency and skills. Top performers are eligible to apply for principal positions.

Assessments include feedback from:

  • Mentors
  • Instructional superintendents (principal supervisors)
  • Supervising principals

Principal Selection Process

The selection process consists of:

  • Phone screen
  • One-on-one interview with the hiring manager
  • Group interview
  • Performance-based assessments
  • Problem-solving, coaching, and conflict-resolution role-playing scenarios

Aspiring principals who successfully complete this round are eligible to apply to individual schools with vacant principal positions. Once a vacancy arises, a second round of interviews is triggered. The school’s leadership, staff, parents, and community members provide feedback to the instructional superintendent, and a list of finalists is forwarded to the superintendent, who conducts the final interview.


First-year principals participate in the New Leaders Academy and have access to:

  • A mentor, who works with about six principals
  • Monthly meetings with other group members
  • An executive coach to help with challenges

Second-year principals have access to:

  • A coach
  • Leadership and management training
  • Professional-development opportunities

Succession Planning

The district plans for vacancies by tracking principals likely to move on because of retirements, performance, internal movement, or other professional opportunities. District officials review the backgrounds, skills, interests, and training of candidates enrolled in the preparation programs, assistant principals, and principals already on the job to determine the best fits for projected vacancies.

Reporting by Denisa R. Superville

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Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Building a Principal From Start to Finish: How Denver Does It