For many years, Karen Aluko’s focus was on the daily hum of her fourth-grade classroom, her students’ successes and their challenges. “The island of my classroom was what I was all about,” she said. Then she became a math resource teacher and started to wonder about becoming a principal. “How do I see beyond the rocks in the water?” she said. “How do I get there?”
Aluko enrolled in the Administration and Supervision certification program at the Johns Hopkins School of Education (SOE) and “that changed everything for me,” she said. “It opened my eyes to all that goes into being a principal.”
For a research project, Aluko worked with her principal at Turning Point Academy in Lantham to identify a schoolwide problem and create an action plan to solve it.
“We needed to make our student intervention process more fluid so students who were struggling could get the services they needed,” said Aluko. “My principal had to trust I’d present a solution to a very real problem and implement it with fidelity. I began to see all the small details involved, the legalities the principal has to consider.”
When she presented her plan to a panel of teachers, principals, an assistant superintendent and SOE faculty, “they asked the hard questions: How would I roll this out? How exactly would this lead to student success?” She refined it and the plan was put in place at her school.
As part of the SOE certificate program, she interned with her school’s leadership team and took part in learning modules, working in a variety of settings in Prince George’s County Public School offices “so I could see the big picture, how everyone played a part in a student’s success.” She finished the program in the spring and, this summer, was hired by the district as a mentor teacher.
Aluko is part of the Principal Pipeline, a Wallace Foundation initiative started in 2011 in six urban districts around the country. Prince George’s County Public Schools received a $12.5 million grant over five years and the School of Education has been a partner as the district worked to adopt standards of practice and performance for school leaders, improve the quality of pre-service preparation for principals, use selective hiring to better match principal candidates to schools and implement on-the-job evaluations and support for novice principals. A 2016 Wallace-funded education study by Brenda Turnbull and Policy Associates found the six districts made progress in all four areas “to a striking degree.” Policy Associates is now studying how these changes are affecting student achievement.
Today, Aluko mentors new teachers, sitting in on classes, as she did one fall afternoon, observing a teacher who was struggling with a lesson. “He knew his content, but his pacing was off. The lesson wasn’t going where he wanted it to go,” she said. “So we sat down together after and I said, ‘How can we win next period? I want you to focus on one thing.’ His shoulders relaxed; I could see him thinking, ‘I can do this. She’s here to help me.’ This is part of being a principal—knowing how to talk to teachers, how to support them to get their best work.”
Annette Campbell Anderson, who directs the School of Education’s Administration and Supervision program, said a school principal is expected to be many things: an instructional leader, a building operations supervisor, a parent resource, a community leader. “They are expected to do a lot of tasks simultaneously well,” she said.
Training aspiring principals—providing them with many different experiences so they are ready to dive into that work from the first day—is of vital importance to the School of Education, said Anderson, especially as a new generation of principals takes control across the country. Principals are younger and have fewer years of experience in education than a generation ago, and are asked to lead schools whose student populations are growing more diverse.
“There are more English language learners and more students living in chronic poverty,” said Anderson. “Principals today have to think about housing for students, how they are going to support students after school, and building in family engagement for struggling families.”
In addition, rapidly advancing technology and the constant pressure to improve test scores “can be very overwhelming,” she said.
More than half of the principals leave their positions after four years. In a 2015 report, “Supporting and Retaining Effective Principals,” the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders warned that principal turnover can lead to “declines in student achievement, interruption of program or reform implementation, low teacher morale and development of a change-resistant culture.”
Higher education has to have a seat at the table with school districts during conversations about leadership development, said Anderson. In turn, Douglas Anthony, associate superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools, said “the partnership with Johns Hopkins has strengthened our overall strategy around leadership development. With JHU as a partner, we offer a program unique in design specifically for the urban leader as entrepreneur. Having a candidate prepared to support and lead schools in an urban context is a needed outcome for us as a district.”
In March, the School of Education partnered with Prince George’s County Public Schools to hold “Greater Impact 2017,” a national conference of 150 educators who examined how best to elevate partnerships between school districts and universities in order to develop the next generation of school leaders. The next conference will take place in November 2018.
“We have to make sure that principals have the support they need so they know they are not alone, so they can stay in the field longer and so that ultimately we have better principals,” said Anderson.
An Array of Voices
The School of Education continually reviews its curriculum in the 18-credit certification, as well as its 39-credit master’s degree in Administration & Supervision, to keep courses flexible, rigorous, hands-on and reflective of these new dynamics and national standards. The program draws educators from local districts, from around the country and the world, some already in school leadership and others in less traditional roles.
Randolph Barnes, the former creative arts department chair and music teacher at William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale, knows all too well about principal changes. He worked for three principals in six years, each with new ideas and approaches that students and faculty had to adjust to. Barnes was accepted into the School of Education program where he was immediately taken with the cohort-based, collaborative learning approach.
“Someone had to have been very strategic in putting our cohort together. We came with a wide variety of experiences,” he said. “For me, as a music teacher, the path I have taken isn’t often traveled in leadership roles. We all had the chance to share our voices.”
As part of his certificate program, Barnes had the opportunity to work alongside district leaders. “I was able to see what you experience when you’re in the seat of the principal so that I could consider how I would best respond in particular situations,” said Barnes, now a Prince George’s County Public Schools mentor teacher who plans to become a principal. “I’m deep in the pipeline and I want to learn everything I can.”
Other School of Education alumni are helping new principals navigate those first years running a school. Cheree Davis completed her certificate program in 2015 and is an education specialist in the Baltimore County Public Schools. Part of her role involves supporting principals and assistant principals as a “thought partner,” allowing her to observe them in action, talking and offering guidance as they make instructional leadership decisions. “Historically principals were the least-supported in professional development in a school,” said Davis. “That’s changing.”
In order to be a mentor to principals, Davis sometimes leans on her own mentors and School of Education faculty, many whom are former principals. “The expertise they share is priceless,” she said.