School & District Management

KIPP Charter Network Sees Succession Planning as Key to School Stability

By Lynn Olson — April 15, 2008 4 min read
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Susan Schaeffler was turning 30 when she founded the first Knowledge Is Power Program school in the District of Columbia. She knew she’d be getting married soon and starting a family. So from her first day on the job in 2001, she hired teachers with an eye to their leadership potential. The strategy paid off when teacher Sarah Hayes became the school’s vice principal and then its principal when Ms. Schaeffler gave birth a few years later.

Now the executive director of KIPP DC, a network of four charter schools in Washington, Ms. Schaeffler has applied that same thinking more broadly. Every one of her schools has two vice principals, so that if a principal leaves, someone is ready and willing to step in.

“All of my schools in this network are based on that philosophy of making sure that we have a really strong Plan B in place,” Ms. Schaeffler said. “That’s making sure our pipelines are strong, and making sure that people are trained to take over a school.”

Susan Schaeffler, the executive director of KIPP DC, poses with her children Sam, Jack, and Sarah Ettinger. Each of the four schools in the District of Columbia charter school network has two vice principals to make sure someone will be ready to move into the top job.

Nationally, the San Francisco-based KIPP Foundation has taken that same lesson to heart. Since 2000, the nonprofit organization’s Fisher Fellows program has provided a yearlong leadership-training program for individuals interested in starting and running a school based on the KIPP model.

The foundation expanded those efforts last summer, adding four new leadership “pathways” to ensure that KIPP has a steady stream of leaders moving forward.

“From the early days, I think there was a recognition that just as it’s important to have a great founder, it’s important to follow that up with great leadership,” said Darryl Cobb, the foundation’s chief learning officer.

About two years ago, he said, the organization realized that an increasing number of its Fisher Fellows—as many as 75 percent in one year—were already working in KIPP schools. Couple that with the average tenure of an urban principal, Mr. Cobb said, and the network knew it had to do something. Many KIPP principals lead a school for four to six years and then go on, like Ms. Schaeffler, to lead a network of schools or to join the foundation itself.

“Recognizing that this was going to happen as we have more schools, we decided we needed to systematically think about our own talent-development pipeline,” Mr. Cobb said.

In addition to the Fisher Fellows, the foundation’s Leadership Pathways Program now includes:

The Principal Prep Pathway, a yearlong program for individuals planning to assume leadership of an existing school within the next 18 months;

The Leadership Team Pathway, for people already serving or preparing to serve on a school’s leadership team as assistant principals, deans of instruction, deans of students, or directors;

The Teacher Leader Pathway, for teachers in more-junior leadership roles, such as department chairs or those running Saturday-school programs, who have been identified as having leadership potential; and The Miles Family Fellowship Pathway, designed to provide exceptionally strong KIPP teachers with a two-year pathway to founding a new KIPP school.

The cost of the programs ranges from $2,000 to $20,000 per participant for the latter, which includes a summer institute, ongoing professional development and coaching during the school year, and periodic retreats. Local KIPP schools cover about three-fourths of program costs, with the rest covered by philanthropic gifts.

‘Strong Pipeline’

The programs, said Mr. Cobb, “are going to give us an extremely strong pipeline of leadership that helps us sustain and continue to grow the KIPP network.” There are now 57 KIPP schools nationwide, a number that could grow to 100 in the next few years.

Mikelle L. Willis, the director of new-site development for the foundation, knows how important such planning is. As the founder of the KIPP Academy of Opportunity in Los Angeles, a 340-student middle school that last year ranked 12th among all Los Angeles middle schools on California’s accountability index, she began looking for her successor almost immediately. At the time, Ian Guidera was the school’s 5th grade mathematics teacher, who stepped forward to run its Saturday-school program.

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Cultivating a Taste for Leadership

“I was able to see 100 percent what his leadership ability was,” Ms. Willis said recently. So in the summer after the school’s second year, she sent Mr. Guidera off for what was then called KIPP’s Leader in Training program. When he returned, she slowly gave him more responsibilities, putting him in charge of professional development for teachers, asking him to observe teachers and provide feedback, and assigning him to lead meetings with parents. Ultimately, one of the more concrete steps she took was to give him her office—“in a very prominent place in the building,” she noted.

When Ms. Willis joined the foundation last December, “I was able to unplug from the school with a completely seamless transition,” she said.

According to Ms. Schaeffler, such advance planning is ultimately a “win-win, because we have so many great teachers that are interested in leadership. We actually, I think, attract higher-performing teachers because they see a career-path opportunity at KIPP.”

“I find charter schools really get themselves in trouble when they’re trying to expand, trying to re-staff,” she added. “If you don’t have the human-resource piece solid, then you’re probably not ready.”

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 April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as KIPP Charter Network Sees Succession Planning As Key to School Stability

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