New Leaders for New Schools

Secretary Duncan recently visited high performing North Star charter school in Newark New Jersey. He’d like to see states and districts close the lowest performing schools and replace them with more schools like North Star.

The first big challenge is getting state and district officials to do the right thing and close failing schools. They’ll need the right combination of pressure and support. It’s politically difficult to close bad schools—even the worst have a constituency.

The second big challenge is developing charter networks that have the capacity to open great schools where others have failed. However, the Innovation Fund will barely offset lost donations over the last year.

The third great challenge is leadership—developing a cadre of exceptional leaders to run schools in challenging circumstances.

Most principals receive state required credentials through a university program. An increasing number attend online diploma mills, “No need for campus visits.” Many principals are “prepared” for the job by serving as an Assistant Principal in a big school where they’re relegated to dealing with student discipline issues. In far too many cases, the courses and work experience leave leaders unprepared for the challenge of leading a school community.

New Leaders for New Schools (NLNS) is addressing the need for well-prepared urban school leaders by recruiting talented, preparing them with relevant coursework, and requiring a year long residency. Founder Jon Schnur was Obama’s education adviser, the president certainly appreciates the importance of school leadership. In eight years, the program has grown to support 550 diverse and highly qualified leaders in 9 cities.

NLNS has spawned a few interesting regional programs that take leadership development seriously. Last week, I had the opportunity visit an innovative principal residency program in Louisiana that is starting its second year. During the Redesigning Lessons, Re-envisioning Principals (RLRP) program, aspiring principals focus on performing leadership responsibilities in a school while under the full-time guidance of a mentor. In a unique partnership with LSU Business School, the mission is to inspire new principals to become social entrepreneurs and operate schools as successful organizations while focusing on increasing student achievement.  RLRP is already turning out certificated school leaders who are bringing new ideas to Baton Rouge area schools and receiving excellent reviews. The RLRP residency program is the brainchild of Kristy Hebert, CEO of ADVANCE Innovative Education. AIE is bringing new tools and new schools to Louisiana’s students.

Teach for America kicked off a revitalized focus on human capital in education. NLNS set the bar for leadership development. It’s great to see the B schools at Harvard, Yale, Stanford and now LSU involved in education entrepreneurship with local partners like AIE. One benefit of this recession and stimulus investment may be a cadre of talented and well-prepared school leaders.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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