School & District Management

D.C. Program Promises Principals Freedom

By Jeff Archer — February 12, 2003 3 min read
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An effort to recruit and train the next generation of school leaders in the District of Columbia comes with a new deal for principals: Prove your competence, and we’ll cut you some slack.

The plan will give highly skilled principals who graduate from a new training program more discretion in how they run their schools, by letting them seek waivers from school district rules in such areas as spending, hiring, and curriculum.

“In our experience, when you’ve got a great principal, you want to just let them be a great principal,” said Steven G. Seleznow, who helped devise the plan before recently retiring as the chief of staff for the school system. “You don’t want to do anything to interfere with them in doing what it is that’s letting them get great results.”

Mr. Seleznow and other local education leaders in Washington outlined the plan to exchange autonomy for performance last week as part of a new partnership with New Leaders for New Schools. The nonprofit group has pilot-tested ways of apprenticing principals in New York City, where it is based, and in Chicago. (“Urban Principals’ Program Debuts,” Sept. 5, 2001.)

Central to the group’s regimen is a full-time, paid residency in which the administrators-in-training are assigned to schools for one year to learn under the tutelage of seasoned principals.

In the nation’s capital, New Leaders has agreed to use the same basic model to recruit and train 40 principals over the next four years, a sizable number in a system with 146 schools and 68,000 students.

In a key change, though, participants will be paid as assistant principals during their residencies, giving them a higher salary than in the other pilot cities. They will also fully assume the principalships of the schools where they do their residencies for two months at the end of the school year.

Focus on Performance

The promise of greater flexibility for participants once they become principals also distinguishes the District of Columbia program. Although the waivers from school district rules were conceived as an incentive for principals who come out of the New Leaders program, Mr. Seleznow said the district would be open to considering similar waivers for other highly effective school leaders.

Jonathan Schnur, the chief executive officer of New Leaders for New Schools, said the arrangement addresses a longstanding question in the field over where most of the crucial decisionmaking authority should reside: at the schools, or in the central office.

“I think we’re getting beyond that debate to say that if somebody can demonstrate that they can perform ... they ought to have, with their teams at their schools, greater latitude,” he said.

To get that latitude, principals from the New Leaders program must show themselves to be highly capable during their residencies. Also, they must submit comprehensive improvement plans for the schools where they become principals, with detailed strategies for improving student performance and teacher training.

The superintendent’s office will decide which plans are approved, and which waivers are granted. Officials say it’s unlikely waivers will be given early in a principal’s first year on the job.

Even when granted, however, greater autonomy won’t mean free rein. Mr. Seleznow stressed that the teachers’ union contract, which sets rules for hiring and firing staff members, will remain in effect.

Still, he gave this example of how school leaders could get some flexibility on personnel matters: If the central human-resources office tried to fill a teaching position with someone the principal didn’t want, the principal could get a waiver to hire someone else. The onus would then likely be on the district office to find the rejected teacher another spot, based on the union’s labor agreement.

“The aim is not to waive contracts, as much as it is to look at institutional directives and procedures,” Mr. Seleznow said.

Veteran school administrators in Washington greeted the plan with a mixture of hope and skepticism last week.

Timothy L. Williams, the principal of Raymond Elementary School, said he was anxious to see how much latitude the school leaders would actually get.

“We are interested in seeing the proof in the pudding,” he said, adding he believes the idea of more autonomy is a good one. “My contention has always been: Let me select my staff and I’ll meet any target.”

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