Special Report
School & District Management

Maryland Grooms Assistant Principals to Take Schools’ Top Jobs

By Corey Mitchell — January 21, 2015 7 min read
Jennifer Schrecongost, an assistant principal in Stevensville, Md., views a peer’s mock news conference as part of a state effort to prepare more principals.

The Maryland education department is immersed in a yearlong endeavor aimed at developing a model program to provide support, networking, and practical training for assistant principals who want to become principals.

Through the Governor’s Promising Principals Academy, officials will train nearly 48 assistant principals this academic year, selecting two of the best and brightest from each of the state’s 24 districts.

Education leaders say Maryland’s initiative represents one of the most ambitious statewide efforts undertaken to upgrade school leadership ranks and is distinctive for its deliberate tapping of the state’s assistant-principal workforce as the main source of promising talent.

The yearlong academy was designed to help construct a key piece of the principal pipeline at a critical time, when the success of school improvement initiatives—from the implementation of the Common Core State Standards to conducting meaningful teacher evaluations—depends largely on the political, managerial, and instructional-leadership skills of principals.

It is also a response to a widespread concern expressed by district executives: Too many new principals—even those who have served as assistant principals—face a steep learning curve, said Tom DeHart, a leadership-development specialist with the Maryland education department.

‘A Learning Process’

The participants—primarily assistant principals chosen by their district superintendents—gathered for multiday retreats in July, September, and December. A final in-person session is scheduled for March. Each cohort of aspiring principals is paired with a coach, a former principal who serves as a mentor. In between the sessions, the groups gather online with their state-provided iPads to complete exercises and network under the guidance of their mentors.

“They’re very eager to bounce ideas off each other,” said coach John R. Nori, a retired principal and assistant principal in the 154,000-student Montgomery County district and a former director of program development for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Maryland is using $440,000 in federal Race to the Top funds to underwrite the effort. The participants are in line to take top jobs at schools during the 2015-16 school year.

At least one participant has already climbed the career ladder. Rochelle Archelus opted to remain in the academy even after leaders in the Baltimore County system appointed her as acting principal at Woodlawn Middle School in September, shortly after the start of classes.

Assistant principals in Maryland watch their recorded test emergency press conferences to get feedback from peers during a quarterly retreat for the Governors Promising Principals Academy in Maryland, at the Sheraton in Annapolis, MD on Dec. 9, 2014. The academy is a yearlong training program that prepares assistant principals to run their own schools.

“Every moment is still a learning process,” she said.

Faced with a four-month conception-to-inception timeline, Maryland education officials scrambled to assemble the syllabus for the Promising Principals Academy.

To promote diversity of thought and experience, the program organizers gave all the participants behavioral assessments and ensured that each group had members from urban, suburban, and rural districts.

In December, the two-day retreat centered on communication, including sessions focused on managing and leveraging social and digital media and responding to queries from reporters—common issues that principals must be prepared to deal with to be successful.

During one breakout session, the aspiring principals used their iPads to record mock on-camera interviews in response to a campus crisis, such as students exchanging sexually explicit text messages and images and school shootings. The participants had one minute to read and digest the scenarios before their colleagues peppered them with questions.

By recording the interviews to review later, the exercise provided the opportunity for peer reflection and critique that have become the program’s hallmarks, the education department’s Mr. DeHart said.

“Much of this work is about adaptive leadership, and emotional intelligence is necessary,” said academy coach Nakia Nicholson, an educational consultant and former principal in the 127,500-student Prince George’s County, Md., school system.

The range of topics the participants tackle, including managing staff, instructional leadership, and using teacher evaluations to improve students’ performance, allows them to determine if the daily demands of being a principal is a good fit, said Ms. Nicholson, who also worked as a principal manager in the Baltimore district.

“It’s like spinning a bunch of plates at one time,” she said.

Waiting in the Wings

Demand for principal preparation has spiked over the past decade to the point where most districts have some sort of training for aspiring school leaders, said Mary Martin, an associate professor of education at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Most of the preparation now focuses on expanding the responsibilities of assistant principals, who traditionally were given a limited range of responsibilities for school discipline and operations, such as buses and food services.

To attract the best prospects, districts must offer a broader view of the job, including training that prepares aspiring principals to become instructional leaders, Ms. Martin said.

Doug Anthony, the executive director of the office of talent development for the Prince George’s County school system, has seen the shift.

“The vice principal’s role was to handle grunt work—busing, behavioral challenges, cafeteria,” Mr. Anthony said. “The assistant principal has to be well-rounded and understand instruction well enough” to prod teachers to foster better results in the classroom.

Assistant principals Lindsey McCormick, center, of Lockerman Middle School, writes down her team's solutions that were posted on the conference room walls during a quarterly retreat for the Governors Promising Principals Academy in Maryland, at the Sheraton in Annapolis, MD on Dec. 9, 2014. The academy is a yearlong training program that prepares assistant principals to run their own schools.

The modern demands of the job require that districts build a bench to ensure that schools will have effective leaders waiting in the wings when vacancies occur, Ms. Martin said.

She points to the Wallace Foundation’s “Principal Pipeline” initiative as a bellwether for districts and states looking for models on how to construct that bench.

“Principals need their own professional learning communities,” said Ms. Martin, a retired elementary principal. “In turn, the aspiring leaders have to be willing to grow and learn.”

In 2011, Prince George’s County was among the districts that landed a five-year, $12.5 million grant from the New York City-based foundation to measure the impact of recruiting the most highly qualified and trained principals into every school. (The Wallace Foundation also supports coverage of school leadership, arts education, and extended- and expanded-learning time in Education Week.)

Similar efforts are underway in the districts in New York City; Denver; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Gwinnett County, Ga.

Wallace embarked on the five-year, $75 million investment across the six school systems to support strategies to identify, train, evaluate, and support principals.

Continuous Improvement

The key components of the initiative are role definition of the principal and assistant principal; high-quality training for aspiring leaders; employment of only well-trained candidates; and constant evaluation and on-the-job support.

In the past, when vacancies arose, it was common practice for districts to bump assistant principals into the top job by default with little thought of training or preparation, said Jody Spiro, the director of educational leadership for the Wallace Foundation.

The participating districts have set up systems to track the career paths of aspiring principals. Prior to the grants, most districts did not differentiate between assistant principals who had aspirations to lead a school from those were satisfied in their current roles.

“Being an assistant principal is not the career end,” said Ms. Martin. “It’s now a training opportunity.”

To avoid bottlenecks in the promotion process, the districts also project principal vacancies by grade level, lining up aspiring leaders who may take on the top jobs five years down the road. Wallace Foundation leaders see the climb from assistant principal to principal as a three- to five-year process, though some high-fliers are exceptions.

The initiative also involves a new principal-evaluation system, bonus pay for principals who meet district performance goals, and the use of outside coaches to help full-fledged principals get even better.

In many districts, the training doesn’t end when assistant principals make the move up: The Wallace Foundation grant also provides aid to new principals navigating new territory. “The majority of folks need time,” Mr. Anthony said. “When I became an assistant principal, I found out how much I don’t know.”

That’s why Ms. Archelus, the acting principal in Maryland’s Promising Principals Academy, decided to stick with the program even after being bumped into the top job.

“If we want students and schools to succeed, it’s necessary to keep building capacity in teachers and leaders,” Ms. Archelus said. “It would be a disservice to myself and the community I serve if I just stopped.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. 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 Deepening the Bench of School leaders

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