Principals and aspiring principals go back to school in summer institutes
Principals and aspiring principals from all across the city are spending their summers with one question in mind: How can I be a better leader for my school?
The focus on improving schools has shifted toward redefining optimal school leadership. In the past, the emphasis was on pushing principals to boost test scores at all costs, but a broader vision has emerged more recently of what good leadership actually requires.
“What the system hasn’t really done is look at succinctly how to better prepare principals for complicated roles,” said Principal Shavon Savage from Henry C. Lea Elementary School, a 2019 Neubauer fellow in the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders. “They have changed over time. They have become more complex; they are more time-consuming; they require us to have a multiplicity of skill sets that you might not be prepared for.”
In the past, principals were expected to “control” their buildings. Now they are expected to be instructional leaders, finding new and deeper ways to cultivate learning. They are not just expected to hire good teachers, but to nurture them, give more attention to fair and helpful teacher evaluations, and create cohesive teams of educators.
The Neubauer Fellowship puts high-performing principals together in a cohort to create a network of support and provides training to make them more effective leaders. With the introduction of its fifth cohort this year, one-third of the principals in Philadelphia, from District, charter, and faith-based schools, are Neubauer fellows.
At a summer institute for the Neubauer Fellowship for the 2019-20 cohort, which is just beginning the two-year experience, current fellows spoke about the value of being part of such a peer group.
“The work of the principal can be incredibly isolating because you’re in a building, and we don’t really have the opportunity to cross buildings and see what other colleagues are doing and tap into models of best practices,” said Savage, the Lea principal. “This is the opportunity to do so, especially since the cohort has grown so big.”
Incoming fellow Pauline Cheung echoed that point.
“You have everyone together in the room, and everyone has amazing resources and ideas on their own, and we all get so busy in our own ways in our school communities, but now we’re all together,” said Cheung, principal of Francis Scott Key Elementary School. “We can work together, we’re swapping ideas, we’re problem-solving together, and what that does is make the job less isolating because now over the course of three days, I have all these connections now.”
The summer institute for the Neubauer fellows is a six-day program. In the part of the institute called “Story of Self,” fellows talk about why they want to be principals, and people got to see each others’ authentic selves.
“I had a moment yesterday where somebody’s story of self has tapped into – and it still does – into something very traumatic for me,” said Savage. “It was nice to find a community where I could share that and know that there was safety in that.”
Todd Kimmel, principal of Horatio B. Hackett Elementary School, said that “sharing stories with people and listening to them and seeing their raw emotions has been powerful.”
Marisol Rivera Rodriguez, a 2017 Neubauer Fellow from Juniata Park Academy, spoke about how the program affected her ability to perform as a principal.
She said the fellowship helped her develop a vision and mission for the school, coalesce the faculty around the vision, develop a plan to execute it, and find the new talent needed to move forward. On the “progress” measure that the District uses to measure growth on standardized tests, her school’s score jumped 80 points to 84 percent.
“I can tell you that I couldn’t do that work without the learning that happened that summer with the institute,” she said.
District leaders support the fellowship program, which is supported entirely by the Neubauer Family Foundation.
“The Neubauer Foundation has been a good partner for the School District in providing high-quality training that has been engaging and inspirational for principals,” said school board member Christopher McGinley, a former principal and suburban superintendent who is currently chair of the Policy, Organizational and Leadership Studies Department in the College of Education at Temple University.
PhillyPLUS is a different program that takes educators and others interested in assuming additional leadership roles and places them in schools to learn firsthand what it means to be a principal. Under Pennsylvania law, they can also obtain their certification that way. After the five-week summer program, the participants work with a principal mentor and a coach and, depending on the school, have varying titles and degrees of independence.
There are 42 principals or assistant principals at District schools that are PhillyPLUS alumni or part of the 2018 cohort. The program has existed for seven years.
On a recent day during the PhillyPLUS summer institute, some alumni told the new cohort about their experiences as residents in that program. During the institute, educators visit various schools and communities, and discuss issues such as special education and culturally relevant literacy with experts, before assuming roles in schools.
“I was floored by how much we learned every day,” said Samantha Levine, a curriculum and instruction associate at JOUNCE Partners and PhillyPLUS alumna from 2017. “I may have been in Philly ed, but I only had one perspective, and it was amazing to see people from all parts of Philly and hearing different perspectives.” In Philadelphia, Levine worked as an instructional coordinator at Boys’ Latin Charter School.
“I walked out with such a strong foundational knowledge,” said Luke Hostetter, principal of Baldi Middle School. “I am able to keep focusing on education with all the daily stuff [that goes on] as a principal. … I am able to walk into a room and recognize good qualities in education, which gives me confidence in one-on-one meetings and evaluations.” Hostetter went on to be a Neubauer Fellow in 2018-19.
PhillyPLUS residents’ leadership coaches and mentor principal provide them with support and opportunities as they work inside a school.
“My coach jumped in [and gave feedback] for me,” said Hostetter, speaking of how he overcame the struggle of being both a resident and a teacher, as opposed to serving in an administration position. “A lot of the strategies [that he used on me] are strategies I use now.” (PhillyPLUS now requires teachers in the program to get released time from teaching duties.)
Kate Davis, principal of Charles W. Henry Elementary School and PhillyPLUS alumna from 2017, joked about a time when her principal took some time off in October and said she was running the school.
“He just said, ‘You’re acting principal,’” she said, laughing.
PhillyPLUS is a coalition that includes the Philadelphia School Partnership, the New Teacher Project, and the Neubauer Foundation.
“Ten of the principals selected in the last two cohorts of Neubauer fellows (2018 and 2019) have been PhillyPLUS alumni,” said David Saenz, Jr., a spokesperson for PSP. Eleven PhillyPLUS fellows will be working in District schools starting in the fall.
Hostetter, the Baldi principal, said the program also emphasizes a focus on students and their individual needs.
“The role of the [PhillyPLUS] program is [cultivating] best instruction,” Hostetter said. “Are all students engaged? If most are engaged, but one is not, why?”
Kimmel, the Hackett principal, said he appreciated the fact that these leadership programs are making an investment in them.
“I think oftentimes we don’t receive that or get that or do that for ourselves. … In turn, we can do that and invest in our kids.”
As an alternative certification route for principals, PhillyPLUS has been controversial. Its lead partners are the Philadelphia School Partnership and The New Teacher Project, which is an offshoot (but not currently affiliated with) Teach for America, known for placing mostly new college graduates into hard-to-staff teaching positions for two-year stints after one summer of training.
Both organizations are mainstays of the alternative — and generally shorter — route to certification for teachers and principals instead of going through traditional schools of education.
This year, the 14 people in the program were chosen from 114 applicants, said Christine Rhyner, who oversees PhillyPLUS for TNTP. All of them, she said, have prior experience in schools in positions such as instructional coach, dean, and school-based teacher leader.
Currently, 31 people are in either the first or second year of the program, and there are 104 alumni, 90 percent of whom work in Philadelphia schools.
Just under half are in the District, and the others in charter or faith-based schools.
“We designed PhillyPLUS to train and develop principals who can not only manage their buildings, but create strong school communities that inspire teachers and students to reach their full potential,” she said. “We’re proud of the positive impact the more than 100 PhillyPLUS alumni have made on schools in Philadelphia and beyond over the last six years.”
PhillyPLUS started in Philadelphia in 2013 and its contract comes up for renewal each spring. PSP was the main driver in starting the program seven years ago; Neubauer became a funder more recently.
It lasts two years, during which the residents get coaching and monthly professional development sessions.
The only other active PLUS (which stands for Pathway to Leadership in Urban Schools) program this year is in Kansas City, although it has operated in Camden; Shelby County, Tenn.; New York City (for charter schools only); and San Francisco.
McGinley and some education activists have long been skeptics of such short-term, non-traditional trainings that bypass colleges of education.
”I and others have some reservations of [leadership development] being done by an outside company whose work wasn’t central to the district,” McGinley said. He has voted against PhillyPLUS contracts in the past.
Deborah Grill of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, which pushes back against the use of outside contracting and consultants by the District in general, said it would have been better “to establish an in-house program that took advantage of the talents of experienced District principals who know the needs of the District, instead of farming principal training out to outside consultants.”
The School District recently named Michael Farrell as deputy chief of leadership development. He had been the principal of Penn Alexander Elementary, and he has worked in both District and charter schools.
The appointment of Farrell, who is a former Neubauer fellow, is a move by the District to bring more leadership training into the District. It has also hired five in-house coaches to work with sitting principals.
In a statement, District spokesman Lee Whack did not say whether PhillyPLUS would continue.
“We have been working over the last year to bring many aspects of leadership development into the School District,” said District spokesman Lee Whack in a statement. “This effort has been facilitated by the restructuring of the leadership development team to include principal coaching, which was previously contracted out to a vendor. We are continuing to develop pipeline programs to ensure that our schools have the most qualified leaders and, to the extent possible, are building in-house programs that will allow our own employees to be promoted in the organization.”
As far as the future of PhillyPLUS in its current form, he said that Chief Schools Officer Shawn Bird “is reviewing our relationship with all of our partnerships and determining which of our leadership development programs need support from outside partners and which programs we have the internal capacity to develop and build with our existing structure.”
Additional reporting by Dale Mezzacappa.