How Districts Are Joining the Fight to Close a Troubling Training Gap Among America’s School Leaders
In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a surge of news stories about patriotic Americans who eagerly joined the armed forces to serve their country. However, there were also civilians who felt inspired by that fateful day and chose to serve their country in less obvious ways.
One such individual is Christina Grant. After graduating from college, she made the decision to leave her comfortable, high-paying job at a law firm in New York City and become a teacher. She had a crisis of conscience, realizing that she didn’t want to spend her life solely focused on making rich people even wealthier. Now, at the age of 38, she is an assistant superintendent in the School District of Philadelphia. Throughout her career, she has taught in various schools, both charter and public, and has held positions within big-city education departments and charter management organizations.
Despite her achievements, Grant attributes her ability to make a significant impact on education to the School System Leaders Fellowship (SSLF). This unique program is specifically designed to prepare individuals for high-level roles within the school system’s central office. While there are several existing programs for superintendents, SSLF fills a gap by targeting roles such as assistant superintendents, chief academic officers, and principal supervisors.
The SSLF fellowship is often compared to a medical residency. For one year, fellows, the majority of whom are former principals, work full-time in districts at the highest levels of leadership. They receive personalized coaching and participate in seminars covering a wide range of topics, including instruction and system improvement strategy. The ultimate goal is for them to secure similar positions within the public education system, usually within two to three years after completing the program.
According to Executive Director Ellen Winn, the aim of SSLF is not merely to place individuals in high-ranking positions but to cultivate their skills and knowledge so that they can become transformational leaders. The program emphasizes the importance of making a dramatic impact on students’ lives.
Although SSLF currently works with small cohorts, Winn hopes to expand its reach based on the positive outcomes associated with sustained and effective training for educators.
Many educators who transition from teaching roles to central office positions are often expected to figure things out on their own, without proper training or support. Aurora Lora, superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, acknowledges that SSLF provided her with fellowship hires who had a support network that the district couldn’t offer.
Some districts have been fortunate enough to receive philanthropic funding for ongoing professional development for their executives. For example, Washington, D.C., Public Schools received a $700,000 grant from the Wallace Foundation, which has allowed them to hire SSLF graduates as instructional superintendents.
SSLF’s work could be the beginning of a broader movement in professional development for central office administrators. Initiatives focusing on principal supervisors are already emerging, according to Elizabeth City, director of the Doctor of Education Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Programs like SSLF, which combine practical experience with theoretical and classroom learning, show great potential.
City believes that leadership is about bringing relevant expertise to the table while acknowledging that there is always more to learn. Having relevant expertise doesn’t mean having all the necessary skills and knowledge, as that can only come from being in the role itself.
All in all, the School System Leaders Fellowship has provided a new and valuable home for educators aspiring to make lasting and positive changes within the education system.
SSLF has successfully garnered support from Cambiar Education, a California-based incubator that supports new organizations aiming to bring about change in the education sector. SSLF’s future plans include expanding and diversifying its 2018 cohort, reserving half of its openings for individuals who are not TFA alumni, while still prioritizing diversity. Currently, 70 percent of fellows are women and 59 percent identify as people of color.
Since its establishment in 2013, SSLF has seen an increase in the number of partnering districts, growing from 10 to 24 in 2016. The organization is also seeking to place fellows in charter school systems.
Nancy Hanks, the chief of schools for Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, started her career as a teacher in the Atlanta TFA corps. She later became a principal in Chicago Public Schools and eventually an SSLF fellow. Hanks believes that the fellowship provided her with an invaluable lesson that on-the-job learning alone couldn’t have imparted – the significance of adult learning.
According to Hanks, being a leader in the education field requires more than just love for children. It also necessitates a love for adults, as they are the ones who need to lead and make progress in order to benefit students. She emphasizes that adults are continuously evolving, and thus equipping them requires a great sense of awareness and empathy. It is not enough to simply tell them why change is necessary, but to offer support as they navigate through the difficulties that change presents.
While fellows acknowledge the importance of systems leader roles, they also acknowledge the isolation that comes with these positions. At the top of the district hierarchy, there are fewer colleagues to seek advice from or consult with when making decisions. SSLF addresses this issue by providing a network and a support-oriented environment for fellows, offering help and feedback.
Grant, an assistant superintendent in Philadelphia, compares senior leadership positions to the management of many people, where being friends with principals is not possible. Grant describes it as a lonely job, where even fellow educators stop talking when they enter the room. However, Grant believes that being in a position of power means making tough decisions for the benefit of children, even if it means not being the most popular person in the room.
Hanks believes that for a district to be successful, it does not have to be heavily centralized or decentralized. However, the central office plays a crucial role in achieving success. Hanks argues that central offices often face criticism for being dysfunctional, but in order to improve systems, there needs to be a recognition that they are not a joke. The central office can play a vital role in transforming communities, which requires competent individuals who have the necessary support, tools, and resources to excel in their work.
Experts in the field believe that effective system leaders can be fostered through collaborative efforts involving foundation-supported programs like SSLF, universities, and districts themselves. Strong, systems-level leaders are in high demand nationwide, and the work to cultivate these leaders requires a combination of instructional, managerial, strategic, and political skills that can drive improvements in public education.
It is worth noting that both and the School System Leaders Fellowship receive funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.