School & District Management

Maryland Launches Academy to Help Assistant Principals Become Principals

By Denisa R. Superville — July 30, 2014 5 min read
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Solomons Island, Md.


The problem appears simple enough: A middle school student taking a state test desperately needs to use the bathroom, but state test rules prohibit students from using the restroom during testing. The teacher takes the student to the bathroom, leaving the proctor in charge. Another teacher learns of this incident and reports it to the principal.

As principal, how do you handle this? How is each of your school constituencies affected by this incident? Do you report it to the district office? And if you do, how will this affect the teacher, school, community? If you don’t report the incident, what are the impacts? Do you discipline the teacher? What steps do you take going forward? What principles are guiding your perspectives and decisions and those of the others involved?

Those were among the multitude of ethical questions based on real-life scenarios that aspiring principals from each of Maryland’s 24 school districts wrestled with this week during a three-day convening of the Governor’s Aspiring Principals Academy.

The sessions held here kicked off the yearlong academy aimed at developing a model program to provide support, networking, and practical training for assistant principals who want to become principals.

The Maryland Department of Education said in a press release that the Aspiring Principals Academy is a unique effort by the department to prepare a new cadre of principals in light of research showing that effective principals were key to developing successful schools.

The academy is meant to help build the principal pipeline at a critical time, when the success of contemporary school improvement efforts— from the implementation of the Common Core State Standards to principal and teacher evaluations—depend on the principalship. It is also meant to address a key component of what state officials were hearing from district superintendents—that for new principals there was a huge gap between theory and practice, said David Volrath, who is in charge of the principal and teacher evaluation programs at the Maryland Department of Education.

“Our superintendents were telling us that first-year principals who struggled, who had problems in running a school, invariably [the problems] had to do with their ability to execute the work, not what they knew about being a principal,” Volrath said. “So we said let’s build off of their interest so that whatever we provide for our folks this year can be transferable right back to the district and the work they are going to do as principals.”

The participants— primarily assistant or vice principals and chosen by their local superintendents— will reconvene for two-day sessions in September, December, and March, and will continue with online networking, courses, and simulations during the year. Each one of the cohorts is assigned a coach, who in most cases is a retired principal, and who will also serve as a mentor to each group.

A two-day gathering in September will focus on instructional leadership, but will also include discussions on setting student learning objectives and using teacher and principal evaluations to change the performance of both groups and improve students. In December, the group will deal with communication and building stakeholder capacity, along with fiscal management. In March, they will look at systems reform and management, Volrath said.

Each of the three days in this week’s sitting centered on a different leadership component. On Wednesday, the group focused on creating visions and goals for their communities, building on the previous two days’ activities. Tuesday’s sessions and situational exercises, led by Temple University Professor Steven Gross, were constructed around ethical leadership and making ethical decisions amid difficult circumstances. On Monday, the aspiring principals focused on team-building exercises.

“When they walk away this summer, the folks in here would have a command of the big issues,” that were not unique to their individual schools, Volrath said. “These are skills that are transportable, wherever you would go to work and that you need to be an effective principal, quite frankly.”

The entire cost of the program comes in under $300,000, Volrath said.

Participants said the academy was already helping them to build professional networks beyond their respective counties.

“We all work in the state of Maryland, but we all have counties that approach things differently,” said Lucy Lubin, an assistant principal from Howard County.

“I love coming and hearing how your county is approaching something,” Lubin said to Courtney Lewis, a principal from Wicomico County, " ... the things that we have in common— the new Maryland state disciplinary regulations, common core, principal evaluations. What does that look like in other counties and how are you all supporting your teachers? It’s not only the networking; now I know multiple people I can call for resources throughout the year.”

Waverly Powell, an education associate at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, said he found most of the sessions useful, particularly those on leadership styles and working within a team.

Elizabeth Marshall, an assistant principal at Princess Anne Elementary School, a 430-student, K-5 school in Somerset County, described the program as an “unbelievably amazing opportunity.”

“It’s exceeding my expectations,” she said after her group had spent nearly half an hour discussing their personal and professional codes and how those values may conflict with or guide the other.

Marshall, an assistant principal for two years, said that while she had great support in her home district from the principal with whom she worked, she appreciated the opportunity to delve deeper into ethical leadership, temperament, and the exercises geared at determining the kind of leader she would be.

“As an assistant principal, I can always go to my principal and say what do you think about this, and I always have that feedback from her,” she said, but as a principal, “you have to make those decisions yourself. And you have to be comfortable with those decisions, and if there is a [school board] board member or superintendent who questions your decisions, I think you should be able to defend them.”

[CORRECTION: The original post included an incorrect enrollment number for Princess Anne Elementary School in Somerset County. The correct enrollment is 430.]

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.