School & District Management

Joining Forces

By Alyson Klein — September 11, 2007 9 min read
Teri Tilson, at left, an administrator with the Greeneville city district, and Larry Neas, center, go over budget information with interns including Andrew Tolley, right.

For decades, educators in this rapidly developing corner of Appalachia who have wanted to become school administrators have enrolled at East Tennessee State University, which offers one of just a handful of educational leadership programs available nearby. Both of the local school districts in the area, in turn, have hired many of their principals from the university’s program.

But despite what seemed to be a mutually beneficial relationship with the university, neither the Greeneville City nor the Kingsport school system traditionally had significant say over which employees got into the program, or how they were prepared. That began to change two years ago, when district officials entered into a collaborative partnership to help East Tennessee State revamp its educational leadership program.

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September 12, 2007
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The overhaul at the university is part of a broader effort aimed at reshaping the process for credentialing principals statewide. Tennessee plans to require all its universities to begin revamping their programs or to stop credentialing new principals. The state board of education was expected to review as early as next year an outline of the standards programs will have to adopt. The Southern Regional Education Board is advising the state, and helping to pay for the overhaul, through a three-year, $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The Atlanta-based organization tapped two universities on opposite ends of the state, East Tennessee and the University of Memphis, to pilot new programs that give districts considerable input into how prospective leaders are chosen and trained.

“Credentials mean a lot in education, but credentials don’t always translate into genuine skills,” says Robinette Mitchell, the director of the professional-development center for the 2,700-student Greeneville school district. “We’re very clearly looking for folks who are prepared to be instructional leaders. … They [should understand] theory and current research, but know how to put it into practice.”

The two universities were asked to create an “experimental cohort”: a group of prospective principals handpicked with the help of district officials. Students in the cohort take all of their classes together, in a sequence designed with help from their districts. Districts coordinate internship opportunities for the students with a mentor principal.

Mentors meet regularly with district officials and representatives of East Tennessee State, located here in Johnson City, to discuss students’ progress and the redesign generally. Eric S. Glover, the coordinator of the administrator-training program at the university, readily acknowledges that the districts and the university are still finding their way through a process of trial and error.

“It’s an emergent design,” he says. “We’re redefining it as we go.”

The university’s leadership program already had many features widely considered best practices, including a requirement that all students go through the program in cohorts. But part of what sets the “Greene-King” cohort apart from others is an effort to deliberately select field experiences to reflect the two districts’ needs.

Each district allows the students two days a month of release time from their regular jobs. They typically spend that time at their mentors’ schools, first watching them in action, then eventually taking on leadership roles themselves.

The release time helps students fulfill a statewide requirement that every educator seeking an administrative endorsement, as the principal’s credential is called in Tennessee, complete an internship. At East Tennessee State, that means logging 540 internship hours, to be roughly evenly divided among elementary, middle, and high schools. The time must also include work in the district’s central office and doing outreach in the community.

For many prospective principals, internship hours are usually squeezed in during the summer, evenings, or weekends, to accommodate their full-time teaching positions. Students can wind up with a hodgepodge of different activities that may or may not help them.

Neas, Ford, and Tolley make the rounds of the school, where the women shadow Neas two days a month.

“I was really on my own in finding internship opportunities. You do what you can when you can,” recalls Vicki Kirk, Greeneville’s assistant director for instruction, of her experience earning a doctorate from East Tennessee in 2003. “These folks are getting a much better range of experiences.”

It’s partly up to the mentor principals to make sure those hours are meaningful preparation, not just entries on a log. Mentors aim to coordinate internship opportunities that will help prospective administrators fill in the gaps in their backgrounds, as shown on a self-assessment they complete at the beginning of the program.

For instance, Kelly Ford, who teaches 4thand 5th graders at Highland Elementary School in Greeneville, felt she needed more experience in designing programs to serve the district’s increasingly diverse population. Her mentor, Larry G. Neas, who is also her principal, helped her participate on a community and district panel aimed at improving efforts to reach out to students from different backgrounds.

Neas and other mentor principals borrowed a motto from the Southern Regional Education Board—“observe, participate, lead”—to guide their work. For the past year, Ford and Andrea Tolley, whom Neas also mentors, have watched his daily routine of checking in with each classroom in his school. He often stops to ask individual students what they’re learning to see if they understand the purpose behind their assignments.

This school year, when the results of state tests are released, Ford and Tolley will help Neas analyze the school’s data. Then they’ll work with him on putting together a presentation for Highland’s staff, explaining which areas need improvement.

But the time that students in the program spend away from their regular jobs is no small sacrifice, especially since most of them work as classroom teachers.

“It’s less work to be there [in the classroom] than it is not to be there,” says Tolley, who teaches 7th grade language arts at Greeneville Middle School, referring to the time she spends crafting substitute lesson plans. Sometimes other teachers from the school cover her classes, but often the school must pay for a substitute, at a cost of about $65 a day.

Sustaining the program will require more money from the state, educators say.

The release time also allows the aspiring administrators to get more mileage out of their mandatory stints in the district office. For instance, Jennifer Arblaster, who teaches a class of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at Washington Elementary School in Kingsport, began a series of brochures for parents explaining in accessible language the district’s curriculum for each grade.

But while such projects are meaningful, they’re also time-consuming, says Nancy Wagner, who until recently served as the assistant superintendent for instruction in the 6,500-student Kingsport district. It’s unlikely that she would have suggested a similar project to a student who didn’t get release time, she said, simply because he or she might not have had the opportunity to work on it consistently.

Even with the help of the mentors, 540 hours is a lot to complete, however, and the use of a few filler activities can be tempting, says Kathy O’Neill, who directs leadership initiatives at the SREB and is advising East Tennessee State on its redesign. She’s encouraged the university to consider gearing the internship hours toward mastering specific skills, instead of simply reaching a set number of hours.

The federal grant provided the university with about $190,000 over three years, some of which was used to pay the faculty and district leaders for their role in the redesign process. Mentors will receive about $4,500 over the three years. The grant also paid for training district officials, East Tennessee staff members, and mentors on the SREB’s approach to leadership development.

The grant money covers the bulk of students’ tuition costs for the spring and fall semesters, about $4,800 per student annually. Students pay $1,000 for summer courses and also cover the cost of books and transportation.

Perhaps lured by the promise of discounted tuition, more than 60 prospective students across both districts attended the initial information sessions. But many chose not to apply, partly because they were told the program would be geared to educators who actually intend to work as principals, says Wagner, the former Kingsport assistant superintendent.

The applicants were put through a rigorous interview process that included a writing sample, four recommendations, and an extensive interview, conducted by a panel of representatives from their respective district and the university. In selecting candidates, district officials looked for educators who had already taken on leadership roles in their schools or the profession, such as assistant principals and teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

“It had to be somebody [who] as a school system, we wanted to invest our time and money on,” says the Greeneville district’s Mitchell. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is this a person we would want to hire?’ ”

About 25 educators across both districts applied to the program, which accepted 12 students. Two have since dropped out.

Students applying for the traditional program at East Tennessee must face an interview panel, typically made up of at least two representatives from the university. When possible, an official from a local district also participates, although not necessarily someone from the district the candidate works in, says Glover, the university’s coordinator for administrator training.

Directly involving leaders from an applicant’s home district in the selection process has resulted in a strong cohort, Glover says, but he might not necessarily continue that system once the formal collaboration ends.

Greeneville and Kingsport are high-performing districts, he says, but “many students [in administrator training] come to us from weaker districts, and we can give them experiences outside [of that context]. … It’s especially important for students from the smaller, more isolated districts.”

The program’s coursework is designed to complement the work in the internship. Mentor principals helped rework the order of courses and topics into what Glover calls a “just in time” format, meaning that topics are addressed in classes at around the same time, or right before, students encounter them in their internships.

For instance, at the districts’ recommendation, the university moved a course in instructional leadership from the fourth to the second slot in the sequence. “It made sense for us to really get into the curriculum, instruction, and assessment, since we believe that is the foundation for being an instructional leader,” Wagner says.

Students have also suggested changes. For example, at the Greene-King cohort’s urging, Pamela H. Scott, a former principal and assistant superintendent, will lead or co-teach each of their courses. The students thought it would be helpful to have one person guiding them who knows their experience, strengths, and weaknesses, says Arblaster, the Washington Elementary teacher.

It’s too soon to tell which of the changes will last after the grant funding dries up. State action is needed to keep some of the new features in place at East Tennessee State—and to spur similar change statewide, says O’Neill of the SREB.

“The sustainability of any of these programs is hit or miss,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons that we’re trying to work at the state level, so that when all this goes forward, there will be legislative funding to support some of those activities.”

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as Joining Forces

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