School & District Management

Business Lessons Guide Training for Charter Leaders

By Dakarai I. Aarons — December 02, 2008 4 min read
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A new program in Minnesota to prepare leaders for charter and alternative schools aims to use lessons offered by business executives.

The Minnesota Leadership Academy for Charter and Alternative Public Schools pairs practicing and aspiring principals and other school administrators with business leaders, in an effort to give school leaders better training on how to manage their employees and get better results.

“The premise was that there’s a lot of disappointment with the training going on for administrators,” said Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the program’s leader. “We feel like the training programs for administrators need rethinking.”

The academy, launched this past summer, was born out of research conducted by the university’s Center for School Change, which Mr. Nathan leads. Talks are under way, he said, to set up a similar program in Missouri, and he hopes the program can be replicated to help other states train principals more effectively. It is paid for by a five-year federal grant that supports school choice, in partnership with the Minnesota education department.

The center spent 18 months researching leadership-preparation programs and interviewing 24 chief executive officers and presidents of corporations of all sizes, including three global corporations based in the state: Target Corp., Cargill Inc., and General Mills Inc.

Business Strategies

The business executives were asked about how they had spurred growth and innovation in their business, along with strategies used to develop leaders and maintain quality.

Among the findings:

• School leaders should make sure new employees understand their role in accomplishing the goals and priorities of the school and district.

• Assessment should be viewed as valuable and done on a regular basis to show progress.

• School directors, principals, and superintendents should view the development of their replacements as a critical responsibility.

• Leaders must have integrity—a trait that can’t be taught.

• Aspiring leaders should be given projects that will help them develop the skills needed and help their supervisors to determine if those people are ready for more leadership responsibility.

• Effective leaders encourage and inspire people, giving positive feedback. Managing through fear will diminish achievement.

• Administrators should be trained in cohorts.

The program pairs its participants with two mentors: a business executive and a veteran education leader who meet at least monthly with the trainees. The first cohort, which includes 17 participants, will meet over a one-year basis.

In addition to the mentoring relationships, the academy participants also hear from speakers who provide hands-on training.

Speakers have included Dacia Toll, the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Achievement First, which operates 15 charter schools serving some 3,700 students in New York City and Connecticut.

In a recent training session conducted by executives from Target, a national retail chain, the participants learned how to have management conversations with their employees, using role playing and receiving feedback from trainers.

Such practical lessons are often missing from leadership training for education leaders, Mr. Nathan said.

“The training is not saying everything that business is doing, you educators should do,” he said. “We thought it would be valuable to have mentors who include outstanding educators and outstanding business people.”

Participants who are employed in education also work with their mentors on a project to help them apply management principles to their schools.

Steve Waters, a principal consultant with NewLevel Consulting, a Minneapolis-based business, said he loved the opportunity to work with his mentee, Julie Guy, the director of Sojourner Truth Academy, a North Minneapolis charter school.

“It’s really gratifying, and I feel like I’m making a contribution to this school,” he said. One of the areas Mr. Waters has helped with is thinking about succession planning, a key finding in the center’s report.

“The whole concept of building a management team who can step in should there be some unknown occurrence happen is really important, so that the life and the vitality of the school continues,” he said.

Mr. Waters also showed his mentee how to use an instrument called a SWOT—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—analysis to help her evaluate some initiatives the school undertook last year.

For her part, Ms. Guy said the academy program has expanded her thinking about her duties. She was thrust into her role as the director of the 290-student school eight years ago with no formal training, and said having the help of the business and education leaders has been invaluable.

“I thought it would be beneficial to set aside that time to learn from other leaders. I think it has really forced me to think of myself as a leader and not just a manager running the day to day issues of the school,” she said. “I think more about leading the staff, parents, and students.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Business Lessons Guide Training for Charter Leaders

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