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Academy Aims to Equip New and Future Principals With Real-World Skills

One of the enduring criticisms of principal-preparation programs is that many still offer courses and experiences that are divorced from the practical skills principals need to address day-to-day challenges they face in schools.

After hearing that kind of feedback from their members and digging into the research on school leadership, two national organizations—the ASSA, the School Superintendents Association and the National Association of Elementary School Principals—have joined forces to launch a professional-development program to help aspiring principals and early-career principals fill in some of their knowledge and skills gaps.

The National Aspiring Principals Academy is nearly year-long program that started late last month, and it will serve an initial cohort of about 25 teachers, teacher leaders, assistant principals, and novice principals. The aim is for them to grow into what Gail Pletnick, a former ASSA president and a former superintendent in the Dysart school district in Arizona, called "21st century leaders."

"All of us who are dedicated to equity in education want to make certain that our public schools are the strongest education institutions possible," said Pletnick, who is serving as one of the lead instructors, in a release on the program. "Our program is about real-world experiences, networking and creating opportunities for educators to engage in the work as building leaders." 

The other lead instructor is Eric Cardwell, who just wrapped up a year serving as the NAESP's president.

An outline for the program shows that current and aspiring school leaders will delve into areas such as the principal's role in instructional leadership, building professional learning communities in their schools, and providing feedback to teachers. Participants will also spend time addressing "critical issues and trends" in education, with specific topics to be guided by the school leaders, Pletnick said in an interview.  

Still, they are expected to spend time focusing on managing fiscal resources and equity via real case studies and real scenarios on those topics, Pletnick said. Experts in those fields will also be a key part of the discussions and activities around those topics, she said.

"This isn't really about giving the right answer," she said. "This is about building each person's capacity to be a problem-solver, use design thinking, use a variety of tools that we're hoping we'll put in their toolbox. We're also helping them to build resources that they can take back into their schools and utilize."

Most of the courses will be offered virtually, but the school leaders are expected to have three two-day in-person meetings, including a final meeting next April in which they will present a capstone project, likely drawn from a real-world problem-of-practice in their school.

Each participant will be assigned a mentor that he or she can contact throughout the program, and experts will participate in the in-person sessions as well as the virtual meetings.

The national pool—with participants drawn from all over the country—was one of the reasons why Max O'Casey, an assistant principal in the Clarkstown Central district, in New City, N.Y., signed up for the program.

O'Casey already has a degree in educational leadership and spent years working as an assistant principal in New York City.

"I definitely see my next step, career-wise, as a principal," O'Casey said. "What really drew me to [the academy] was the opportunity to learn from other people in similar situations...I really liked the idea of the opportunity to work with people like myself—assistant principals, people who are on that principal track—to see how their schools operate, how they work with their kids, to get ideas from them, continue to grow personally and professionally, [and] bring things back to my school that I think would help our staff and kids."

With only one in-person meeting under his belt, O'Casey said he is looking forward to collaborating with his peers on common challenges they face in school and approaches that worked. The program costs $3,500, and O'Casey's district and school will cover the cost.

"It's a great opportunity to work with education leaders from a national pool," he said. "That's not an everyday experience for me, and it's one that I really welcome."

The academy is not meant to take the place of a traditional preparation program and it will not lead to principal certification. 

"This really is a program designed to provide an opportunity to extend the learning that we all need as leaders," Pletnick said. "We know that as a leader you are constantly learning and growing. This is one of those opportunities for participants to really fine-tune some of those skills, [and] also to walk away with tools, with knowledge, with resources they can utilize as soon as they walk back into their districts.

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