Aspiring principals get onthejob training

It’s just after 11 on a steamy spring morning and principal-in-training Benadette Manning races from a difficult meeting at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School to her office down the hall. She’s hungry. She’s cranky. And the hook on the back of her blouse keeps coming undone.

She’d like to sit and think about the emotional debate she just came from–whether every course, regardless of level, should offer honors credit to kids who do extra work–or about a tense meeting earlier where teachers admitted they’re reluctant to contact parents of struggling students because they don’t know what to say. But before Manning even reaches her desk, her secretary has her take a call from a parent. Then one teacher grabs her, then another. And her secretary interrupts to say another parent is on hold.

Manning arrived at the sprawling public high school near Harvard Square three hours ago and she still hasn’t had a chance to check her appointment calendar or listen to her voice mail. She hides her face in her hands and lets out a mock sob, “It’s hard to get anything done!” Then she draws a breath, picks up the phone, and takes the call in the cheeriest voice she can muster.

Talk about on-the-job training. Manning is learning what it takes to be a school leader by way of an unusual principal-preparation program called the Principal Residency Network. Modeled on a medical residency, this program throws principal hopefuls in the deep end of school management, but under the tutelage of an experienced educational manager. The network turns on its head the traditional approach of university classes with an internship on the side. Here, the real-world experience comes first.

Participants are full-time administrators, or teachers tackling large administrative projects, at public schools. Each works under the guidance of a mentor principal–all considered masters in the field. Once a month, the 10 “aspiring” principals in the Boston area meet with six “distinguished” principals for seminars on topics ranging from school law to dealing with recalcitrant faculty. They discuss books, they vent frustrations, and they present dilemmas they’re facing in order to get feedback. In between, there are phone calls, e-mail messages, and visits to each other’s schools. By the end of the summer, after completing a final paper and a portfolio of their year’s highs and lows, most will earn certification from the state–and be ready to try the job on their own.

While working toward her principal’s certificate, Manning is head of one of Rindge and Latin’s five small “schools,” responsible for about 60 staff and the education of 400 teenagers. Energetic and enthusiastic, Manning says she thrives on the hectic pace; she relishes the challenge of raising expectations and improving instruction for all students. But she’s quick to admit she’d be lost without the practical advice, emotional support, and inspiring ideas she gets from the Principal Residency Network.

“I feel sorry for anyone who starts doing this job…without the support network that I have,” Manning says. “I’d feel [like], how the hell am I supposed to figure this out?”

A Shortage of leadership

The pressure on teachers these days is tremendous, given the demands to improve public schools across the country. But it’s nothing compared to the burden on the people at the top of the schoolhouse pecking order. Research shows that the principal is the most important person in the building when it comes to boosting student learning. And if schools don’t show progress, it’s their jobs on the line. Yet many of these leaders complain that education reform has stuck them with all of the accountability, but little power to get things done.

“This is a really tough time to be a school leader,” says Larry Myatt, founder and director of Boston’s award-winning Fenway High School, who coordinates the Principal Residency Network in Massachusetts. “You can get your guts ripped out in this job.”

It should come as no surprise that the hot seat of school leadership is getting harder to fill. About half of school districts trying to hire new principals face a shortage of qualified candidates, according to a 1998 national survey. And with retirement looming for at least half of the 100,000 principals now on the job, a full-fledged crisis could be coming this decade.

Several studies are underway to assess the extent of the problem here. And, in a 1999 survey on their career plans, one-third of the 189 principals quizzed by the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association said they would retire or seek a post outside the principal’s office by 2004.

“It is one of the most urgent topics on the [education] reform horizon,” says Paul Reville, chairman of the state’s Education Reform Review Commission. “We desperately need strong leadership…and we need to do something about it.”

The Principal Residency Network was designed to help fill the void. The program grew out of conversations among some of the nation’s leading progressive educators in the early and mid-1990s. Veterans such as Deborah Meier, acclaimed for creating an innovative high school in New York City (and now the Mission Hill pilot school in Boston), and Dennis Littky, a maverick principal then in New Hampshire, were devastated to see schools backslide when dynamic administrators left their jobs.

“It happens a lot that the school falls apart after the leader goes,” says Littky, acknowledging that the dysfunctional rural school he turned into a national showcase “went down” after his departure. So along with Larry Myatt and other local standouts, Littky and Meier decided to create a new program to train the next generation of visionary school principals.

Their goal was to perpetuate the spirit and the skills needed to sustain small, “democratic” schools, where teachers, parents, and students have a real voice in decision-making and success is not judged by standardized test scores alone. They also wanted to do their part to increase the paltry number of African Americans and other minorities seeking principal posts.

Led by the Big Picture Co., Littky’s Providence-based nonprofit organization dedicated to school change, the group launched a principal apprenticeship program in 1998, with 10 schools from Boston to Seattle. Last year, they won a $1.3 million grant from the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds and expanded the number of participants. They also decided to focus on two sites, Boston and Providence, and then spread out from there. A New Hampshire branch starts this summer.

All of the Boston-area schools, except Rindge and Latin, are charter schools or pilot schools, which operate more independently than traditional public schools and are freer to experiment. Rindge and Latin was included because its controversial redesign–dividing its 2,000 students into five small schools in an effort to ensure all are known well by staff and challenged intellectually–makes it anything but traditional. Seven of the 10 aspiring principals in the Boston area are minorities, including Manning, who is African American.

Practice makes perfect

Littky and his crew are not the only ones experimenting with new ways of training school leaders these days. Other principal-development programs around the country are trying to expand internships and make university lessons more relevant to the daily life of schools. But the Principal Residency Network takes the idea the furthest, requiring a full year of work as an administrator, in an innovative school, under the guidance of a master.

“It’s cutting edge. It’s really in front of the curve,” says Mary Lee Fitzgerald, director of education programs for the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds, which is pouring $150 million into a national effort to attract, prepare, and keep high-quality school leaders. “It’s gaining the eyes of a connoisseur…to understand the complexities in front of you.”

Manning with her mentor, Rindge and
Latin principal Paula Evans.

Traditionally, principal-certification programs have been offered by university education schools, often at night. Coursework covers management topics like budgeting, contracts, and transportation, with much less time spent on instructional leadership. Internships typically follow, for a semester or less, but they rarely let interns take on real administrative responsibilities for substantial periods of time. And education-school interns have limited contact with each other or other school leaders.

Such training falls short, turning out principal candidates who are “pretty poorly [prepared] in most instances,” says Reville, of the state review commission. “In many cases, we’ve been promoting people because they’ve been outstanding volunteers as teachers…and because they seem to be reasonably well organized.”

The Principal Residency Network does not reject the role of universities. In fact, the Boston-area network is a joint project of Northeastern University and the Center for Collaborative Education, which develops and supports small schools in the Northeast.

Jim Fraser, dean of Northeastern’s new school of education, says he was thrilled to move administrative training out of university lecture halls. Learning how to be an effective principal today means much more than keeping budgets in the black and running the buses on time, he notes. It means figuring out how to drive change and help teachers improve student achievement. “You don’t do that by sitting in the classroom with me lecturing you,” he says. “You do it by trying it [in a school], and sometimes falling on your face… and having a mentor with whom you can reflect on a very regular basis.”

The Principal Residency Network is not for everyone. Some principal candidates need more structured learning; some would drown in the sink-or-swim apprenticeship. And that’s fine with Larry Myatt. “We don’t want to convey the idea that this is the only way to train principals,” he says. “We don’t want to start pumping out thousands, because it will pretty soon lose its integrity.”

Yet Myatt and the other network organizers have set their sights high. Their mission is more than to train a handful of educational visionaries each year. It’s nothing less than to change the way every principal learns the ropes.

They’re off to a good start. Already, the Big Picture Co.’s example has influenced Massachusetts Department of Education’s rules governing administrator certification, says Ann Duffy, associate commissioner of educator quality. “They are the benchmark,” says Duffy, who is coordinating the state’s new leadership initiative. “We are really looking hard to see what we can learn from the success they’ve had.”

Starting this fall, the state will require principals and assistant principals who want a permanent license to participate in a full-year induction program under the guidance of a trained mentor. The state is also asking for longer administrative internships from teachers hoping to become principals.

In Rhode Island, the principal network has served as a model for a group of educators helping the state education commissioner–who has vowed not to re-accredit the current university-based programs–rewrite the rules for state approval of school-leadership training programs. Within five years, education officials hope that all of the principal-preparation programs in the state will be more like the Principal Residency Network, says David Roy, a certification specialist with the state’s Department of Education.

Despite strong interest in the approach, organizers acknowledge there are challenges to training people this way. For one, finding enough truly distinguished principals who want to be mentors–and know how to do it effectively–is bound to become more difficult as the program grows. Eventually, Littky hopes, the network will serve as its own pipeline, with graduates becoming mentors to the new trainees. But he dismisses criticism that the program may go too far in divorcing itself from university classes and book-learning as “full of it.”

“We’re testing who you are as a leader,” says Littky. “It’s the experience of [being] a leader that comes first.”

Learning by doing–and listening

Late as usual, Benadette Manning rushes to her weekly meeting with Rindge and Latin principal Paula Evans. Her long, black dreadlocks flapping against the back of her neck, Manning strides into the conference room and jumps into conversation with Evans, her mentor. Manning, dean of curriculum and program for School 5, is blunt: She’s fed up with the constant stream of negative comments she hears from some teachers.

Evans took over at Rindge and Latin two years ago after a long teaching career in Newton, then working with Brown University and the Coalition of Essential Schools to help principals around the country improve their practice. While leading Rindge and Latin through the second year of a difficult restructuring, Evans has been mentor to Manning and two other aspiring principals at the school (though she recently decided to leave her job in August).

Wearing a long denim jumper and oval glasses, she seems laid back and businesslike at the same time. She lets Manning vent a bit, then steers her to something more concrete: How will she handle that afternoon’s faculty meeting, where she needs to get staff thinking about key issues facing the school next year? Manning wants them to discuss a host of topics, from how to require failing students to stay after school for extra help to how to improve communication with parents. But their negativity is foremost on her mind.

“I’m going to ask them to keep it simple and to keep it positive. I’m going to have to really say to them…we won’t get this work done if we’re griping all the time,” Manning says. “I can’t take it anymore.”

Evans is sympathetic, but firm. “You’ve got to be careful when you start by berating people,” she warns. “I know what you mean, exactly; it’s my impulse. But I think when you do that, then it’s, ‘She doesn’t want to hear how we feel.’ So…you can put it in a different way. You can say, ‘You know, we have a real opportunity, we’re moving towards a new year here…and we need to start planning for it now.’”

“I like that,” Manning murmurs. “That’s positive.” Evans also encourages Manning to focus in on two or three priorities rather than a long list, and ask teachers to keep them in mind in everything they do.

After about 15 minutes, Manning has to leave to teach a math class. But later she describes the brief exchange as “powerful.” All year, she says, she has struggled with deciding when to give orders and when to let teachers take the initiative, especially when it comes to those who have been educators much longer than she. Evans was telling her this is one of those times she needed to lead, she says.

Manning, 45, is indeed a rookie compared to many of her staff. Previously an accountant, she caught the teaching bug while helping out at the Sunday school of her church. After teaching English for a year at a Catholic school in the early 1990s, she left her husband in Texas and brought her four children east so she could attend Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Her ed-school internship landed her at Fenway High School, where Larry Myatt hired her to teach math, then to become part-time coordinator of one of the school’s three small “houses.” After five years, Manning felt so inspired by the work there that she felt compelled to spread it around. When she heard about the opening at Rindge and Latin, she jumped at the chance to be involved in a major school redesign. But she couldn’t get the job unless she was working toward state certification as a principal.

With four children, ages 8 to 13, Manning knew the night-school option would be a nightmare for her family. The Principal Residency Network, she says, has been a great alternative–worth every penny of the $5,500 fee. This summer, she is expected to receive her state certification, along with eight other aspiring principals in the Boston-area network. (A 10th, a Rindge and Latin teacher who took a maternity leave this spring, will continue in the program for a second year.) One of her colleagues will take over as principal of the school she’s in, while the others will stay in their current jobs, at least for the time being.

Meet the Author
Manning admits that it hasn’t been easy to fit in all the reading, writing, and “reflecting” required of her while holding down the dean’s office and the math class she teaches. She wishes she’d been able to learn more about helping teachers reach kids of different ability levels. And she sometimes thinks a traditional university course in school law would be useful.

But, she adds, no course could have given her access to so many inspiring educators–not just Evans but all of the other mentors in the network. “You can’t beat that,” she says. “Getting all those people in one room at the same time is phenomenal. When you sit down with people like that, you’re going to learn something about your job.”