slow cooker

In a change, city is steering aspiring principals off the fast track

Realizing that its strategies for stocking the city’s ever-expanding supply of schools with excellent principals have fallen short, the Department of Education is launching new programs aimed at slowing down the transition from teacher to administrator.

The largest of the new initiatives is the Teacher Leadership Program, aimed at developing leadership skills in hundreds of teachers who are still working in the classroom. Other initiatives are meant to prepare leaders to handle the special challenges of running middle schools and to capitalize on the leadership skills of principals who are already in the system.

And a foundation that helped the city underwrite a fast-track principal training program is now paying for educators to earn degrees in school administration at local universities.

“Most of our principal training work that we’ve done historically is focused on that last year before you become a principal,” Chief Academic Office Shael Polakow-Suransky said. “It’s the last step in the process, and what we’ve come to understand is that there [are] a lot of steps that happen before that in someone’s career. … We want to begin to do that kind of training.”

The new programs represent a strong shift away from the Bloomberg administration’s early approach to cultivating school leadership at a time when the city is losing about 150 principals a year, even as it has ramped up new school creation. Together with existing programs, they are set to produce 134 new principals and engage 300 teachers this year, according to the department.

When Joel Klein became chancellor in 2002, launching an era of rapid-fire, corporate-influenced policy changes, one of his first moves was to create a fast-track principal training program. Former GE executive Jack Welch chaired the NYC Leadership Academy, which was aimed at developing leaders who would be the CEOs of their schools: free to make major management decisions with minimal bureaucratic interference, but accountable for improving performance. By 2009, 15 percent of principals were Leadership Academy graduates.

The program quickly drew criticism. Parents and teachers at some schools headed by graduates complained of heavy-handed management tactics, while others questioned how people who had taught for only a short time, or not at all, could supervise experienced educators. Some graduates left the system or were later demoted. A 2009 study of the program found some positive impact on student test scores, but a different analysis found higher teacher turnover and lower progress report grades at schools run by Leadership Academy graduates.

Now, nearly two years after Klein left the Department of Education, there are fewer than 30 people in the Leadership Academy. One reason for the decline, officials say, is that the department could not sustain the costs in a faltering economy. But they also say a different strategy is needed.

The department has “not done a great job” of recruiting principals, Deputy Chancellor David Weiner told a group of principals in January. He added, “Starting at the end of the process might not be the best place.”

The new programs, which Chancellor Dennis Walcott discussed today at a panel on principal and teacher training, aim to develop leadership in educators while they are on the job and well before they might run a school of their own. In recruiting participants, the department emphasized that applicants should be committed to steering their schools toward instructional excellence.

The application for the Teacher Leadership Program, for example, asked teachers to write a short essay describing their role in implementing last year’s citywide instructional expectations and how their experience would inform their teaching this year. Promotional materials billed the program as best for teachers who wanted to learn more about new learning standards and teacher observation models that the city is rolling out.

One thousand teachers applied, city officials said, and 250 were selected to attend 11 training sessions this year, which will start next month. Over the course of the year, they will practice using new leadership skills at their schools, under the supervision of their principals. At the end of the year, some participants might choose to apply to formal principal training programs, but others will stay on at their schools to help their colleagues improve.

“Philosophically, the idea is that distributed leadership is really important,” Polakow-Suransky said. He added,”That’s an edu-speak term that means principals are empowering teacher-leaders in their schools … to help to lead other adults.”

Other new programs will in fact culminate in the credentials needed to run a school. A $12.5 million gift from the Wallace Foundation — which provided some of the startup funds for the Leadership Academy — is sending some prospective principals to selective leadership programs at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bankstreet College of Education. Polakow-Suransky said Relay Graduate School of Education, which launched only in 2011, could become another partner in the future.

Later in the year, the Leadership Academy will partner with the City University of New York to launch a program for people who particularly want to become middle school principals. Last year, Walcott said the city would start to push more aspiring principals to middle schools, which tend to have a harder time attracting and retaining strong leaders.

The department is also ramping up a mentoring program that has paired experienced principals with educators in their schools who want to start schools of their own. In the last two years, mentoring has produced 15 principals of new schools, and the department said it is in the process of selecting as many as 40 mentees for this year, when Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to open more new schools than ever.

An early graduate of the Leadership Academy said today that he was heartened to hear that the department was slowing down the process of becoming a principal.

“In a perfect world somebody who has not had administrative experience should not be placed in a fast-track program,” said the graduate, who asked to remain anonymous because he currently runs a school in the city.

The department official who oversees principal training suggested that the academy had enrolled some people who were not up to the job.

“A more manageable number [of Leadership Academy participants] has allowed an opportunity for us … to be much more careful about who gets into the program,” Anthony Conelli, deputy chief academic officer for leadership, told GothamSchools in August. “We want to make sure the folks are actually ready to come out of the programs as principals.”

As the department reduced its reliance on the Leadership Academy in recent years, it ramped up the Leadership in Education Apprenticeship Program, with which the new programs share some characteristics. In LEAP, assistant principals and teachers undergo a six-week summer training course that borrows heavily from the Leadership Academy’s curriculum, then attend weekly classes that count toward the credit requirements of principal certification.

But in a major difference from other principal training programs, LEAP participants remain in their schools and work with their principals throughout the year, and in fact they cannot be selected unless their principal is experienced and willing to act as a mentor. This year, about 80 people are enrolled in LEAP, according to department officials.

LEAP’s structure solves one of the Leadership Academy’s biggest drawbacks: It is phenomenally expensive, because participants are paid principal salaries despite not yet doing the job. And having multiple department-approved pathways to becoming a school leader will solve another, according to Eric Nadelstern, who retired as the department’s second-in-command in 2011 and now runs the principal training program at Teachers College.

Nadelstern said the Leadership Academy never created the volume of effective school leaders the city needs, even at its peak.

“The solution wasn’t as extensive as it needed to be,” he said. “It’s taken this long to acknowledge the fact that it’s time to go beyond the Leadership Academy to work with other organizations and institutions in the city and beyond to ensure the quality of leadership that city schools need.”

But Nadelstern said the Leadership Academy had induced important changes in other principal training programs, including his own. Now, practitioners teach more classes and college faculty members teacher fewer, he said.

“The Leadership Academy said that until the schools produced reform-minded leaders capable of running challenging urban institutions then the district would step in and attempt to do the job themselves,” Nadelstern said. “I think that was an important message and a lot of principal preparation programs did get the message.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”