Education Funding

Leadership Grants Find Plenty of New Takers

By Mark Stricherz — December 12, 2001 3 min read
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Until this fall, the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition had never before trained school principals. But that changed when the organization won a $42,000 grant from the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds.

“We’ve done a lot for teachers, but we came to believe that good leadership really counts for a good school,” said Barbara L. Volpe, the executive director of the 16-year-old coalition, which advocates high standards for public school students. The nonprofit group will use the money to train more than 100 principals in the Denver area to be better instructional leaders.

Ms. Volpe’s is one of 50 nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities, and schools and districts that were awarded the grants this fall. The biggest awards are for $50,000.

While the amounts are small by foundation standards, the need for better professional development for principals and superintendents is often great. Too often, some education experts argue, administrators have been overlooked as policymakers and funders have concentrated on learning needs of teachers.

Districts are currently not required to spend any of the federal Title II money they receive for professional development on principals and assistant principals. An amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization now being ironed out by a House-Senate committee would require districts to show they are training such leaders, said Stephen DeWitt, a lobbyist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.(“Groups Pushing for Measures to Attract, Retain Principals,” July 11, 2001.)

‘Good Ideas’

Partly responding to such concerns, the New York City-based foundation may extend the $2.5 million Ventures in Leadership program another year. Mary Lee Fitzgerald, the director of education programs for the Wallace- Reader’s Digest Fund, said she would recommend to its board of directors, which was scheduled to meet Dec. 11, to spend another $2.5 million on the grants for 2002.

“There’s a lot of good ideas around the country, and we want to build from the ground up,” Ms. Fitzgerald said.

Foundation officials hope the grants, in addition to increasing opportunities for professional development, will help change the principalship and superintendency to focus on instructional leadership and help attract a broader pool of applicants to the jobs.

The grants are part of the foundation’s $150 million Leaders Count initiative, which will last for at least three more years, spokesman Lee Mitgang said.

Nonprofit organizations have received 41 percent of the grants awarded so far under Ventures in Leadership, school districts 28 percent, colleges and universities 19 percent, and schools 12 percent.

To relieve the cumbersome grant-application process, the philanthropy required, for the first time, that all applications be filled out entirely online.

Rachel B. Tompkins, the president of the Washington-based Rural School and Community Trust, expressed delight with the process.

“It was just four or five hours of my time,” Ms. Tompkins said. “It wasn’t three visits and a bunch of meetings. Their officer got right back to me, asked me a lot of questions, and that was it.”

The rural trust plans to use its $50,000 grant to provide workshops for principals and superintendents in predominantly black towns in four Southern states. School leaders will learn how to evaluate projects in which students work in their communities. In one such program, students in Alabama publish a newspaper in a town where the previous one had folded.

Ms. Tompkins’ advocacy organization had never trained school leaders before.

“We learned we had to work better with principals and superintendents,” she said. “There are some who are doing good work, but there are many who aren’t.”

The same was true of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J.

Marue E. Walizer, a senior consultant for school-university collaboration, said the foundation would spend its $41,000 grant on an academic program for principals that was once provided exclusively to teachers. Fifteen principals will take classes for a week or two at a major research university. In the past, topics have included Dante’s Inferno and Greek tragedy.

“The purpose is to give them experience as learners, as students,” Ms. Tompkins said of the principals. “It gives them the opportunity to be teachers, to learn.”

A pilot program will start in summer 2003, and the Wilson fellowship foundation plans to seek funding from other groups to enlarge it.

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Leadership Grants Find Plenty of New Takers

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