School & District Management

Urban Principals’ Program Debuts

By Alan Richard — September 05, 2001 9 min read
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Alfredo Nambo is finally in a position to change the conditions that frustrated him as a child in the Chicago schools.

Mr. Nambo, who began his residency as a principal-in-training last month at Swift Elementary School on the city’s North Side, says his education wasn’t what it should have been. He arrived in Chicago from Mexico at age 8. His mother, a strong and vivacious woman, struggled to speak English and felt shut out of her children’s affairs at school when she could have been a crucial partner.

“As she came through the door, she became quiet and meek,” the former bilingual education teacher said recently. “I want to change that, to create a school where we can build upon these foundations that the parents and students already have.”

Mr. Nambo is getting his chance through New Leaders for New Schools, a program designed to provide high-quality, well-trained principals for urban schools. He is one of 15 candidates in Chicago and New York City who spent the summer immersed in intensive studies in preparation for a yearlong internship in a public school.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer Jon Schnur and his two partners have high hopes for the organization. They aim to expand to 16 cities within 10 years, training thousands of principals and serving up to 1 million students.

“We thought, ‘Why isn’t there more being done to cultivate outstanding principals?’” said Mr. Schnur, 35, a former policy adviser to President Clinton who started the nonprofit organization with fellow Harvard University graduate students Monique M. Burns and Benjamin J. Fenton.

Mr. Schnur believes New Leaders for New Schools is teaching the education field important lessons already. The presence of an alternative—and its anticipated growth in the next few years—could force traditional training programs for principals to shift their focus, he contends. Principals need a year of experience to prepare them for the job, he argues, and their training must be more practical and focused on helping schools improve.

“They just need to move in this direction, and they haven’t,” Mr. Schnur said of many university- and district-run programs. “If we need 2,000 outstanding new principals in urban schools, they’re there. But you’re not going to find them by chance or by luck.”

New Leaders for New Schools found no shortage of candidates interested in becoming urban principals. Thousands of people requested information or applications, and more than 200 people applied.

Yearlong Internships

When the 15 finalists were chosen, the size and scope of the field helped ensure their quality. Most of them have teaching backgrounds, several have run nonprofit organizations, and three want to work in charter schools. The fellows range in age from 27 to 52, divided evenly between women and men; most are white, and five are Hispanic or African-American.

Starting early in July, they spent a month in Chicago and another in New York City in six-day-a-week classes, studying the intricacies of school leadership. Now, they’ve taken their places in public schools in both cities for yearlong internships, to be spiced with seminars, to expose them to the demands of urban school leadership.

Mr. Schnur believes this full year of experience—along with the constant guidance of a New Leaders director in each city—will prepare school leaders able to hit the ground running.

Earlier this summer, the 15 fellows introduced themselves to a roomful of New Leaders for New Schools’ benefactors at a tony reception at the Field Museum here in Chicago. Their sense of enthusiasm and seriousness was palpable.

“I have been dreaming of this moment for six years. I have visualized my school. I know what it smells like; ... I know what the teachers are like,” declared Jennifer Henry, the former director of a nonprofit organization and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “I’m tired of blaming the kids for not achieving. I’m tired of blaming the parents.

“All of my kids will be working above grade level. All of my kids will graduate,” she continued. “That day’s coming, and we need your help.”

Grappling With Tests

One summer day, the fellows gathered in a fifth-floor classroom at National Louis University, in a downtown Chicago high-rise, to analyze student test data.

Laptops open, they used a real Chicago elementary school as a case study. The assignment was to analyze every number in preparation for a face-to-face meeting with the principal the following week. After spending an evening reading 100 pages of information about the school, the 15 brought their discussion—and all the issues of testing—to class.

“How many people are feeling angry and defensive?” asked instructor Karen Levesque, a California-based testing consultant. Several hands went up.

“This sounds to me like it’s a whole competition thing,” said Hector Calderon of Brooklyn, a former community organizer and co-founder of a school, complaining about the test-score culture. Michael Lupinacci, who taught high school in New York City, concurred: “It all just seems insidious to me.”

“Let’s really get at the heart of the matter—I want to know how my kids are doing,” added Rebecca Tatum, a science teacher from New York. “Let’s be creative in finding our own data. How do we answer our own questions?”

Ms. Henry said: “I understand your outrage. The reality is, our kids aren’t working at grade level.”

“You’re going to have to balance your anger and skepticism and the limitations of the test with what it can tell you about your kids,” Ms. Levesque advised.

Later, a bump emerged in the just-hatched training program. A computer lab where the fellows were to learn how to manipulate test data wasn’t available. So the group packed up, rode elevators down to the busy sidewalk, and walked several blocks under the roar of the Chicago Loop elevated trains to a bank willing to lend its computer-training room for the afternoon.

Among those poring over test scores was Ernest Peterson, a Teach For America corps member in New York City who wants to be a principal. Teach For America, launched in 1990, recruits talented liberal-arts graduates to work in inner-city and rural schools for two years—an effort that helped inspire the New Leaders initiative.

Mr. Peterson, 28, predicts he will relate well to his future students. He grew up in Oakland, Calif., the son of a single mother who worked as a receptionist. He has taught for five years at the Lab School in the Bronx, and says he wants to create a great school for students who grew up in similar circumstances.

To prepare Mr. Peterson and the others for the task, Ms. Burns, one of the program’s co-founders, prepared a summer of hard, hard work. A night’s reading was 250 pages; coursework included styles of leadership, teaching, law, and other essential topics.

“You’re sleeping four or five hours a night, but you’re not tired,” Mr. Peterson said. “It revitalizes you almost on the hour.”

Sylvia S. Gibson, who left behind her principal’s job to direct the Chicago program for New Leaders for New Schools, insists that the one-two punch of rigor and experience is exactly the type of training most urban principals need.

“I just saw that our training was not what we needed to be successful when we walked in on the very first day,” she said, referring to traditional programs for preparing principals. “Once a year, we have a meeting. We’re talked to. We’re presented to. Then it’s over.”

A New Venture

Inventing a vehicle that would help determined soon-to-be-principals thrive took considerable planning and money.

The idea was born in 1999, when Ms. Burns, who has assisted executives in the Philadelphia and District of Columbia school systems, met Mr. Fenton in a graduate-level business class at Harvard. They merged their ideas with Mr. Schnur’s plans for education and came up with a new idea: bringing public and private investors together to create a new kind of educational nonprofit.

The New York City-based organization runs on a $1.3 million budget, Mr. Fenton said. Much of the money comes from the Chicago and New York school districts, which hired the group to run alternative principal-training programs. Those resources were combined with start-up money and continuing support from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, the Cambridge, Mass.-based venture philanthropist Vanessa Kirsch and her New Profit Inc., the New Schools Venture Fund in San Francisco, and others.

“You have to essentially create some exemplars alongside the system,” said Dan Katzir, a vice president of the Broad Foundation, explaining his organization’s support. The foundation especially liked the idea of the yearlong internship.

“That’s one thing we feel was particularly lacking in traditional programs,” Mr. Katzir said.

New Leaders for New Schools also has found visible support from Chicago’s business community. The Chicago Public Education Fund, started three years ago to help raise money for the city’s school improvement efforts, has contributed heavily—mostly because business leaders were impressed with the thoroughness of Mr. Schnur’s plans and their timely focus on school leadership.

“Without great talent in schools, we can’t succeed on any of the other fronts. This is exactly the kind of innovative program that’s going to attract new talent,” said Scott Smith, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the president of the fund.

Experts in educational leadership say that regardless of good intentions, hard work, and strong support, New Leaders for New Schools still has a tough task ahead: to find good urban principals and train them well.

Joseph Murphy, a scholar of school leadership and the director of the Ohio Principals Leadership Academy, said he’s been impressed with the depth of the New Leaders program, which adheres carefully to standards for school administrators that Mr. Murphy wrote.

“If you believe in standards-based reforms ... these guys are using the standards,” Mr. Murphy said. He cautions, however, that New Leaders shouldn’t invite nontraditional candidates into the field without the experience they may need to be successful.

‘Barely Begun’

For his part, Mr. Schnur—who served as a special assistant to former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in addition to advising Mr. Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore on domestic policy—says he’s been amazed by the interest in the principalship from business leaders and private foundations.

“If I and the team wanted this to stop, we couldn’t stop,” he said. “In other ways, we have barely begun, barely begun. In some ways we haven’t really done the real work yet. We’re just beginning. We have to make this residency year work.”

So far, the 15 fellows who are the pioneers in the program express few doubts.

“It exceeds my expectations,” Mr. Nambo said eagerly as the program began. “I need my keys, I need my school.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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