School & District Management

TFA Teams With Districts to Groom Aspiring Principals

By Lynn Olson — September 27, 2007 4 min read
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If Teach For America has its way, Carolyn M. Eggert will be one in a long line of alumni who move smoothly from the classroom into the principal’s office.

Ms. Eggert, who has been a high school math teacher and department chair at the Hirsch Metropolitan High School of Communications in Chicago for the past four years, is one of the first participants in a partnership launched this fall by TFA-Chicago, the Chicago school system, and Harvard University’s graduate school of education to prepare leaders for schools facing some of the city’s toughest challenges.

A similar partnership involving the New York City-based TFA, the Newark, N.J., school district, and Rutgers University also got off the ground this fall. Another partnership involves the Gwinnett County school district, in Georgia.

TFA, which prepares outstanding college graduates to teach in high-need urban and rural schools, aims to have more than 800 alumni leading their own schools or districts by 2010, as part of a school leadership initiative launched last year, according to Heather M. Anichini, the organization’s managing director of teaching and school leadership. TFA now has about 270 alumni leading schools or districts, about half in traditional public schools.

“We’ve heard repeatedly from districts, charter-management organizations, and others that a key lever in making student achievement a priority is the principal leadership role,” Ms. Anichini said. “And so we feel a lot of urgency around helping our alumni access pipelines that will get them to that school leadership role.”

Targeted Effort

While TFA participants only commit to two years in the classroom, nearly two-thirds of its 12,000 alumni remain active in education. By strengthening existing partnerships with other entrepreneurial groups, such as the New York City-based New Leaders for New Schools and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter school network, reaching out to regional charter organizations, and partnering more closely with districts in which it works, TFA hopes to create a clearer and more seamless path toward the principalship.

In February, the Broad Foundation helped sponsor two days of meetings between TFA officials and 22 urban districts to talk about how to strengthen the principal pipeline and encourage high-quality teachers to become building leaders rather than leave the profession. Ms. Anichini said TFA is now in discussion with about half a dozen districts.

“The goal for those meetings was to understand where these districts were in their thinking about talent development,” said Frances A. McLaughlin, a senior director for the Los Angeles-based foundation. “TFA from our perspective has really taken the ball and run with it.”

The tuition-free Chicago program is designed specifically to prepare principals to lead schools in Chicago’s Area 14, one of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

To take part, TFA alumni must be accepted for the program by the district and TFA, and then be admitted to the School Leadership Program at Harvard’s education school. Candidates will take part in a summer institute at Harvard, followed by a yearlong master’s program that includes an internship in an urban public school.

Fellows will then spend one year as principals-in-training, or “resident principals,” in Area 14. In year three, they’ll be principals there, while receiving ongoing professional support from Harvard.

Fellows must commit to at least four years as principals in Chicago. The Chicago Public Education Fund and the Chicago-based Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation are supporting the program with initial grants of $310,000 and $115,000, respectively.

“The program is unique in that it is designed to meet the needs of a specific area in the city, and in that it is recruiting a pool of highly successful leaders to the principalship early in their careers,” Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 415,000-student district, said in a press release announcing the collaboration. “If we meet our goals with the program, there is clear potential for replication in other areas of the city and across the country.”

Provide a Pipeline

The program began with just two students this fall, though its organizers hope to recruit 10 more this school year, and have as many as 50 in the pipeline in five years. To put that in context, Chicago hired 150 new principals this school year for its 600-plus buildings.

Given those statistics, and the number of small schools cropping up, said Josh Anderson, the executive director of Teach For America-Chicago, “somebody has got to step up and provide a pipeline. We’re not all of that pipeline, but we see ourselves as a crucial piece of it.”

Ms. Eggert, who started classes the week of Sept. 17, said her work as department chair at the roughly 850-student Hirsch school in Chicago had given her “a taste of the fact that school leadership can affect the educational outcomes for a large number of students.”

“So the opportunity to lead an entire school and scale up that impact was attractive,” she said. Plus, she said, “it was hard to say no to a tuition fellowship to Harvard.”

Another program that is training TFA alumni for leadership jobs is the Summer Principal’s Academy at Teachers College, Columbia University. The program consists of two summer terms that bracket a yearlong, 450-hour internship in the student’s home school.

Thirteen of the students in the first two cohorts of the intensive program—about 15 percent—are TFA alumni. Among them are Aaron Cuny, a TFA alumni who taught English in the Oakland, Calif., district for five years, and now teaches in a private, bilingual school in Queretaro, Mexico.

But Mr. Cuny doesn’t want to rush in to anything. “In the high-need communities that I’m familiar with, the demand is so high for principals that I’ve seen very few obstacles for TFA alum,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Eventually, I’d like to lead a school. But I’m determined not to move into the principalship prematurely.”

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