Magazine article District Administration

Turnaround Principals: New Training Models Have Emerged for Preparing School Leaders to Transform Low-Achieving Schools

Magazine article District Administration

Turnaround Principals: New Training Models Have Emerged for Preparing School Leaders to Transform Low-Achieving Schools

Article excerpt


THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION HAS GRAND HOPES FOR TURNING around the nation's lowest-performing schools, in part by allocating $3.5 billion for School Improvement Grants. Unfortunately, there simply aren't enough qualified principals to replace those mandated to be fired under two of the four school improvement models that the federal government says districts must follow to tap into that funding.

Both the transformational and turnaround models of Obama's school restructuring plan begin with a directive to replace the principal, and in the latter case, at least half the teaching staff as well. And with the other two options--the close/consolidate model, which doses schools and transfers students to higher performing schools, and the restart model, which closes schools and reopens them as charters--principals are also likely to find themselves out of work.

Gail Connelly, CEO of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, applauds the "unprecedented level of federal financial resources" now available for innovative school reform, but says the shortage of principals in certain districts is a serious and escalating problem and one likely to continue for the foreseeable future. For example, a 2009 study, "Tenure and Retention of Newly Hired Principals in Texas" reveals that about only half of newly hired high school principals stay for three years, and a 2003 report from the University of Washington, "A Matter of Definition: Is There Truly a Shortage of School Principals?" found many superintendents reporting a dearth of principals possessing the necessary strong leadership qualities.

With 74 percent of schools eligible for improvement grants opting for the transformational model--which calls for a comprehensive overhaul of instruction, evaluation systems and other school operations in addition to replacing the principal--the need for effective administrators is a pervasive problem, Connelly says. But it's especially dire in the persistently low-performing schools where pressures and challenges are high and strong leadership is crucial, she adds.

Across the board, expectations for traditional principals have evolved over the years. No longer are principals regarded as performers of largely managerial duties. Today's principals need skills in analyzing data to drive successful instruction, developing public relations systems to ensure the community is informed of school goals and achievements, researching education trends and best practices, and facilitating continuous improvement by enabling staff to participate in communities of learning.

While turnaround principals must also possess these skills, an urban, high-poverty, high-minority, often transient district environment adds new layers of challenges for leaders who must adapt quickly and make headway with a student population and community most likely mired in academic failure.

Training the Turnaround Leader

Recognizing the problems in pockets of American education today, universities, nonprofits and other organizations have developed turnaround principal initiatives over the past decade to help improve schools labeled as failing under No Child Left Behind. These programs, which train teachers for future principal jobs as well as assistant principals and principals primarily in office up to three years, focus on skills that principals need to address the particular challenges of struggling schools. Here are a few examples.

New Leaders for New Schools

Founded in 2000, the nonprofit New Leaders for New Schools principal turnaround program purposefully recruits candidates who reflect a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. The 15-month program includes best practices from both the education and business worlds, with summer coursework and a yearlong residency in which candidates serve as assistant principals in high-need, urban public schools, helping teachers improve instructional practices and receive ongoing coaching from both the host principal and a coach that the program provides. …

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