Pilot Principals

Former top DOE official tests out experimental principal-training program

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A team of aspiring principals from New York City, Indianapolis, Dallas, and Minnesota rehearse presentations during a training program at Teachers College.

Would-be principals from across the country clicked through PowerPoint slides and glanced down at crammed notecards during a class this week at Columbia University, where they had been told to come up with plans to fill imaginary schools with top-flight teachers.

They would draw on historically black colleges and Teach for America to find choice recruits, the student-principals said as they presented their plans. They would offer a range of incentives — from gift cards to long-term career paths — to keep turnover low. And they would make sure their hypothetical teachers either improve or leave: One group promised to help its mediocre teachers improve by 10 percent, while counseling out at least one-fifth of its bottom teachers.

But Kwame Simmons, a Washington, D.C. principal and one of the class’s two instructors, had as much to say about the students’ presentations as he did their plans. Don’t sway side to side, don’t look away from the audience, don’t use distracting slideshow graphics, and definitely don’t read from notecards, he told them.

“As a principal, it’s critically important to stand in front of your staff and know what the hell you’re talking about,” Simmons said after the presentations were finished.

The 21 teachers, administrators, and incoming principals are the first to try out an experimental program within the Summer Principals Academy, or SPA, at Teachers College. Instead of lectures and research papers, the pilot-program students are presented with scenarios that real principals might face. As they respond, they are judged on how well they embody a list of traits assembled by an earlier group of students.

So the aspiring principals weren’t just presenting their projects on Monday — they were demonstrating how they would sell an important plan to staffers. And those plans, Simmons reminded the students in the new program, should be on the cutting edge.

“You can’t be in a beta program,” he said, “and still think traditionally.”

The program is the brainchild of SPA Director Eric Nadelstern, a former principal and top Department of Education official who oversaw two of the previous administration’s defining and fiercely debated initiatives: granting new authority to principals in return for greater accountability, and replacing struggling schools with new ones.

Nadelstern is now taking a similar tack at the principals academy. He designed the new training program as a potential replacement for the traditional one, and to measure its success he plans to track the test scores of schools run by academy graduates.

The moves are in line with a nationwide push to improve the quality of educator-training programs by making their courses more practical and by rating them on how well their graduates perform in the real world. But they also reflect Nadelstern’s disdain for traditional university-based training programs, which he has accused of producing unsuccessful principals.

“I faulted them for creating the principals of the past,” Nadelstern said in an interview. “Now that I’m sitting in that seat, it’s incumbent on me to create the principals that we need for the future.”

Kwame Simmons, a principal and an instructor in the program, told the students they needed to prepare well before addressing their future staffs.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Kwame Simmons, a principal and an instructor in the program, told the students they needed to prepare well before addressing their future staffs.

The pilot program’s students hail from Miami, Minneapolis, New York City and elsewhere. They were invited to join the program after being accepted into the academy, which confers a master’s degree and principal certification to graduates after two summers of intensive classes with an in-school internship in between.

During each week of class they will study one of the eight principal traits — from “Organizational Architect” to “Culturally Intelligent Advocate” — that a past cohort of students settled on after researching and interviewing principals. For “Human Capital Manager,” the student-produced learning guide called for the class to study the hiring processes at Google and a charter school network, and to outline 20 weeks’ worth of professional development for a hypothetical team of teachers.

This week, as the students try to transform into “Instructional Game Changers,” they will use a school’s academic data to come up with plans to improve instruction, which veteran principals, district officials, and other experts will evaluate. Later, they will watch videos of teachers giving actual lessons, then practice offering feedback.

“We’re going to develop this wisdom that doesn’t come in a book,” Jonathan Peña, a fifth-grade teacher from Dallas told the class.

With 80 new students (culled from 140 applicants) starting this summer, the principal academy at Teachers College is the largest of its kind, according to Nadelstern. It competes with similar private programs, including ones run by Bank Street and Fordham University, and city-funded programs, such as the NYC Leadership Academy and Leaders in Education Apprenticeship Program, or LEAP.

Those programs offer free slots to about 150 aspiring principals each year, Nadelstern said. Meanwhile, his 14-month academy charges students about $52,000, though the city is covering half the cost for 10 New York students this year.

Graduates of all the programs face a new job market under Chancellor Carmen Fariña: would-be New York City principals now need seven years of in-school experience instead of the three that the state requires for certification. Her policy change comes after the Leadership Academy, a principal training program created by former Chancellor Joel Klein, was criticized for turning some educators with limited experience into principals who had mixed records running schools.

Nadelstern, who as a department official encouraged superintendents to hire Leadership Academy graduates, said all of the New York-based students in his latest cohort will meet the state’s experience requirement, but at least half won’t meet the city’s. As a result, he expects more graduates to apply to lead charter schools.

If the pilot program proves successful, Nadelstern said he hopes to spread the model to the rest of the academy. He also hopes to dispatch trainers to run customized versions of the program in school districts that currently send students to the academy, such as Indianapolis.

One of the Indianapolis students, Emily Butler, who will become a principal this fall, said she has gone through two other principal courses before, but felt she had already picked up more useable skills in the first two weeks of the pilot program.

“It doesn’t feel like class,” she said.

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 [email protected]

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.”