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Listening to School Leaders

DOE’s ambassador program connects policymakers with principals.
By Caralee Adams

Jill Levine has been in public education for 22 years, but no one from the federal government has ever asked for her opinion. “And I have lots of opinions,” says the principal of Normal Park Museum Magnet, a PreK–8 magnet school in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Now, Levine is sharing her thoughts on everything from testing to professional development as one of three Principal Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s a great way to collect voices of principals and use those to inform the decisions that are made from here,” says Levine of the fellowship program, which launched as a pilot in 2013.

A Conduit to the Top

Modeled after a similar fellowship for teachers that began in 2008, the principal fellows work closely with the DOE’s communication and outreach office, as well as travel to meet with administrators around the country. Levine is based in Washington full-time, while two other fellows are part-time appointees. (Levine took a leave from her school and moved her family to Arlington, Virginia, for the year.)

“There is such a distance between the altitude where we set policies and form programs and the altitude where those policies and programs hit classrooms,” says Massie Ritsch, the DOE’s communications director. “A program like this aims to close that gap so we are hearing more directly from school leaders: what they need from the federal department of education, how faithfully our policies translate into practice when they get to the local level.”

Department officials say they are realizing the overload that principals face and how policies impact them. “A huge piece is just literally understanding what is happening in the school building,” says Gillian Cohen-Boyer, director of the fellowship program. “What we do becomes part of the equation…that can help and hurt.”

The fellows are trying to find more opportunities for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other officials to hear from principals at large conferences, at small roundtable focus groups, and in schools.

This fall marked the third year that the DOE hosted a principal shadowing day in October, where 30 officials worked alongside principals in Washington, Virginia, and Maryland schools.

At a debriefing of the event held at DOE headquarters last week, Duncan said he saw firsthand the challenges of running a large high school when he shadowed Rachel Skerritt, a fellow and a principal at Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C.

Duncan said he saw a lot of energy expended, from checking in cell phones to complying with the district attendance policy, to “make sure the ship is afloat every day.” He also commented that he gained a new appreciation for the demands of the job and that more needs to be done to convey to young people that educators are fighting for their lives and that school is their lifeline.

Lessons From the Inside

While the fellows are sharing their perspective with DOE officials, they are gaining a better understanding of the inner workings of the bureaucracy.

“It’s a two-way street for learning,” Skerritt says. “The intention of the fellowship program was to get feedback from us, but we had a lot of learning to do about what the federal government does and doesn’t do.”

Rachel-pulse2Although he used to be an 8th-grade history teacher, fellow Sharif El-Mekki says the program has helped him realize the influence of the federal government and the control that states have over implementing education policy.

The potential impact of working collaboratively with education officials drew El-Mekki to the program. “Years ago, I thought that could never happen. It was two different worlds,” says El-Mekki, who is the principal at Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a 7th- to 12th-grade charter school in Philadelphia. “I thought whatever policymakers came up with, practitioners would just try to fix it or disregard it.” Through the fellowship, El-Mekki has discovered that the DOE is interested in the advice of principals.

“I’ve been struck by how much people here care,” Levine says. “It’s very easy to make joking comments about ‘Oh, the federal government,’ but the hearts of people here when they talk about the work they are doing is so genuine.”

So, now that Levine has their ear, what is she saying?

“The thing I most want them to know is how important principals are,” Levine says. “If there is a great administrator in the school who believes in an initiative and who buys into it and has the leadership skills to make it happen, it will happen.”

Skerritt agrees. “Principals really hold the key,” she says. For instance, with a new Teach to Lead initiative that the department rolled out in the spring, success will boil down to the school level. “It is going to fall on whether the school leader buys into that concept for the teacher to even have an opportunity to take on a teacher-leader role in a building,” Skerritt explains.

Principals must provide teachers with support for instruction to improve, adds El-Mekki, noting that PD and sharing of best training practices can help.

Leading a building is a complex job, and the new fellowship program has, in essence, been a “national support group” for principals, Skerritt says. Administrators in schools large and small, rural and urban, are sharing common challenges. One frequent refrain heard from principals is a call for autonomy.

“Principals don’t actually mind the buck stopping with them and the responsibility line,” Skerritt says. “But they definitely want the autonomy around key levers: hiring and resources that impact school success. They are really longing for that and it needs to be considered when holding them accountable.”

Next Steps

During the summer, the fellows met with DOE staff to summarize what they were hearing from principals, and they will be asked to do so again at the end of their experience, says Ritsch. They also participate in meetings almost weekly in which they are asked to chime in with ideas on communication materials going out to schools or language going into a speech.

The information provided by the principal fellows has already changed the way the department thinks about policy, says Cohen-Boyer. Administrators must clearly understand reform initiatives if they are going to be implemented with fidelity, she says. With 90,000 principals (compared with 3. 5 million teachers), the number is more manageable to reach, she adds.

The fellows have provided a reality check. “Things can sound perfect in the abstract when you are designing them on paper, but you need a person running a school to tell you if that’s going to fly,” says Ritsch.

While the fellowship pilot lasts for 18 months, going forward the appointment will be for the academic year. According to Ritsch, new fellows will be selected in the spring for 2015–16. Last year, 600 applications were received for the three positions. Application information will be available by the end of this year here.

Image: Chris Adams

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