Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

New York City Charlotte, NC San Diego, CA

Carmen Fariña

Carmen Fariña was a District 2 principal under Anthony Alvarado.

district wide reform

by Sarah Long and Rick Young

When Rebekah Marler-Mitchell took the job as principal of PS 50, she took on one of New York City's toughest educational challenges. Located in the heart of East Harlem, along East 100th Street, the school serves more than 600 elementary students. Ninety-four percent of the kids come from homes of poverty and the school had been, for many years, below average in student performance.

Marler-Mitchell's assignment to PS 50 last year was, in some ways, surprising. Just two years earlier, she was happily teaching in Brooklyn with no plans to change jobs. But a visit to her school by Chancellor Joel Klein changed all of that. Impressed with Marler-Mitchell's passion for improving classroom instruction, Klein persuaded her to participate in a new program that is a centerpiece of his citywide reform effort – the New York City Leadership Academy.

The Academy opened its doors in January 2003, and Marler-Mitchell was one of the first 77 new principal graduates. The program involves 18 months of rigorous study and practical hands-on experience, all geared toward turning aspiring principals, like Marler-Mitchell, into strong instructional leaders. It's an objective rooted largely in the successful reforms experienced earlier by former superintendent Anthony Alvarado in District 2. Joel Klein was borrowing a page from Alvarado's strategy book.

One of Alvarado's trademark reform strategies was to focus primary attention on the leaders of every school. In Alvarado's eyes, principals were the change agents – “the most important actors on the stage of a school system.” To improve academic performance across the district, Alvarado believed in demanding constant improvement from every classroom, a responsibility he believed should be exercised by principals. “The primary purpose of a principal in a school is to lead the improvement of instruction in a school. Not to manage a school,” he said.

Alvarado's former deputy superintendent, Elaine Fink, agreed. “I firmly believe that a principal makes it or breaks it and that a principal is our key,” she said. “If they are just organizers of buildings, the result will be that the building is organized. If you really want to improve instruction, they have to be the leaders of the improvement of instruction.”

In New York City's District 2, Alvarado looked to principals as instructional leaders to develop and nourish school-wide cultures of learning. An intellectual commitment was made to excellent teaching practice in every classroom and to continuous learning for every educator.

“You had to have this commitment to not doing things the way they've always been done, and to learning beyond what you already know,” recalled Carmen Farina, formerly a principal in District 2 and now the Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning for the entire New York City school system. “Generally when you became a principal in the city of New York there was a feeling that you already knew everything. That's why you became a principal. In the new paradigm [under Alvarado] you became a principal to learn all the new things – and that's a real shift.”

But Alvarado relied on more than just expectations to change the paradigm. New principals received strong support from his district office, which developed principal apprenticeships and individualized principal mentoring programs. Monthly principal conferences provided focused study on the latest research about instructional practice. And a key concept of “dual accountability” was established. As Elaine Fink describes, “they were very clear that this was a dual accountability system, a reciprocal system, that… if I was not providing the reciprocal learning for you or guiding you to that direction of learning, I could not hold you accountable if you were not providing it for your teachers.”

Many principals found transitioning to Alvarado's new model difficult. Some left on their own accord; others were forced out. During the first four years, Alvarado replaced 20 of 30 principals in his district. And he was relentless in pursuing his new recruits. “I would do anything to try to get a good principal into the district,” Alvarado says. “I had no shame in begging people to come to the district.”

"Who we hired made a great difference,” explains Fink. “That's the job of the district – to hire the best and the brightest principals that you can and then give them the best training, the best professional development that you possibly can. Their lead role is to hire the best and the brightest teachers that they could possibly find and then make them the smartest that they could possibly be by giving them the best training out there."

Today in New York, the Leadership Academy provides the first step – identifying, developing and training the city's new principals, an experience that has paid off for some like Rebekah Marler-Mitchell at PS 50. “Quite frankly, I wouldn't have known what to do the first day if it had not been for the comprehensive work of the Academy,” she says. And with her new leadership, PS 50 is beginning to see improvement in student performance. Scores in math and language arts are up, disciplinary problems and school suspensions are dramatically down.

For Chancellor Klein, the Leadership Academy, now in its third year, remains a central launching point and focus of the city's reform effort. In a school system of 1.1 million children and 1,300 schools, the Academy is very selective in recruiting talented educators to build what Klein calls a “team of 1,300 great principals who are true instructional leaders” to guide system wide change and improvement. This year's class of 94 aspiring principals was chosen from an applicant pool of over 1,400.

The Academy is an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation and is funded by corporate and philanthropic giving. Klein claims to have raised nearly $75 million from the private sector to support the Academy. Underscoring the importance he ascribes to training and developing new instructional leaders, Klein says that when he first began working as chancellor, he remembers saying, “the most important thing I could do in my chancellorship is if I leave this system with 1250 great principals. That's the most single, important thing I could do.”

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