A small Delaware education experiment thinks big

As it recruits its fifth class, the Delaware Leadership Project wants to grow its numbers and spark conversation about how teachers become principals.

One year ago, Amina Baaith was an English teacher at Wilmington Friends School, a private academy nestled in the city’s tony Alapocas section.

Today she’s an administrator at McCullough Middle School in New Castle, where more than half the student body is low-income and nearly 40 percent were suspended at some point last school year.

Her reasons for leaving weren’t surprising—“I had to ask myself: Are you in a place where you are making a difference,” Baiith says—but her path was.

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The fastrack

Baiith did not, like most wannabe administrators, go to a local university and earn the proper certification. Instead she applied for a spot in the Delaware Leadership Project, the state’s first alternative training path for aspiring principals.

She got into the program last spring, took a manic, five-week course last summer with the other four members of her cohort, and by fall had begun a yearlong residency at McCullough. Assuming all goes as planned, Baiith will get her administrative certification at the end of the school year and be an assistant principal at a high-needs Delaware school next fall.

In the meantime, she’s navigating the hazards of her new job in a program that gives her “the latitude to fail.” There have been teachers to critique, parents to mollify, and schedules to juggle. She’s learning all of it as she goes, under the guidance of McCullough administrators who have been there before.

“This is no platitude,” Baiith says. “This really is the most meaningful professional development I’ve ever had.”

Scaling up

If Baiith’s transition seems quick—from independent school teacher to urban administrator in a matter of months—that’s because it is. Delaware wants to fast track more talented teachers into administrative roles at low-income schools. So far, the state has been able to accommodate just a handful of applicants—and even then only with massive subsidies from a nonprofit partner.

But as the Delaware Leadership Project (DLP) recruits its fifth cohort—applications are due February 13—there’s talk of scaling up the program and shifting the cost to districts. In other words, the state wants to take its small experiment, begun in 2011, to the next level.

Delaware’s aspiring administrators typically spend two-to-three years earning their Master of Education in School Leadership and spend a little over $15,000 in that pursuit, according Monroe Gerhart, chair of the school leadership division at Wilmington University’s College of Education. Along the way, they take classes in fiscal operations, school leadership theory, and education law.

Beyond “chalk and talk”

DLP’s recruits do almost none of that. They first take a five-week summer course where instructors bombard them with scenarios they may face in their new schools. Then they jump straight into pseudo-administrative roles under the guidance of workplace mentors.

“That type of experience you can’t get in a classroom,” says Reshid Walker, a 2012 DLP grad and the current assistant principal at Harlan Elementary School in Wilmington. “It’s mostly chalk and talk in the classroom.”

“I realized I still needed more practical experience,” says Leah Anderson, a fellow 2012 grad who got her certification at the University of Delaware before joining DLP. “It’s one thing to read about theory. It’s another to actually be in a school.”

Not everyone, Amina Baiith says, can make the quick jump from teacher to administrator. Indeed DLP admits a tiny portion of those that apply for the program. Last year, more than 300 educators put in for what ended up being 5 slots. In three years, just 16 people have graduated from the program.

Doing the numbers

There is, however, a push to double, perhaps even triple, DLP’s annual intake.

“This is the first time we’re truly, aggressively trying to grow the cohort,” says Angela Morton, who oversees the program for Innovative Schools, a local non-profit that administers and helps fund DLP.

Morton hopes to land about eight candidates for cohort five. Within a few years, the state would like that number to inch toward 20, according to Tasha Cannon, deputy officer of the teacher and leader effectiveness unit at the Delaware Department of Education.

“Our highest need, lowest income schools are really struggling right now,” says Cannon. “DLP is the only pipeline in the state that is producing leaders specific to closing the achievement gap.”

Funding that will be difficult, though, unless the state can reformat the program and shift funding to districts.

“How does this sustain itself?”

Right now, DLP pays its budding administrators the same salary they would receive as teachers. That cost is split three ways, Morton says, between Innovative Schools, the district, and the state. The program models itself after the New York City Leadership Academy, which was founded in 2003 and counts the William Penn Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York among its funders

Innovative Schools receives its funding from the Rodel Foundation, a prominent supporter of educational causes in Delaware and a polarizing one for its perceived allegiance to corporate-style reform. Rodel has contributed millions to incubate DLP, Morton says, but long-term, Innovative Schools and the state would like local districts to cover the cost of employing the program’s trainees.

“How does this sustain itself,” asks Cannon. “That’s going to rely heavily on [district] partnerships.”

Districts could pay extra to employ an administrative resident with the hope they’ll stay local when the year ends. (Currently, program participants commit to three years in Delaware, but not in any particular district.) Districts could also skip the residency step and promote the candidates they receive from DLP directly into administrative roles. Such a wrinkle would neutralize cost, but make an already-steep transition even steeper. One district is already trying that approach this year, according to Morton.

“Building a marketplace”

Perhaps the larger question, however, isn’t whether DLP will grow, but whether ideas like it can flourish.

Cannon at the Department of Education says DLP is step one in “building a marketplace” for administrative training in Delaware that is “aligned with demand.” Even if DLP doesn’t scale to a meaningful size, it may someday be one option among many for administrators-in-training.

But will those options train future principals as well as universities have? It’s too early to know, says Kevin Carson, head of the Delaware Association of School Administrators. “As with anything it comes down to the quality of the work,” Carson says. “The interesting thing will be, over time, what does the proof of performance show us?”

At least one university is also keeping an open mind, even as DLP threatens to poach its customers. “I think alternative paths are healthy. I think competition is good,” says Wilmington University’s Monroe Gerhart. Rather than fight DLP, Gerhart says, Wilmington University wants to learn from it. DLP’s hands-on approach, for example, has inspired Wilmington to integrate more on-site learning into its curriculum. “All programs need to have more time in a clinical setting,” Gerhart says.

Learning by doing

DLP participants learn by doing from their first days in the program. During their five-week summer crash course, instructors bombard them with the sort of crises scenarios they’ll face behind the desk. Every session ends with extensive critiques.

“Over the summer you are inundated with feedback,” says Baiith. “It’s almost a bad word.”

The rapid fire role-playing prepared Baiith for her first days on the job at McCullough. Early on, Baiith suspended a student for defiance. Baiith admits she felt nervous when the student’s irate mother called. But she was ready, and held firm.

“It was an unpleasant conversation, but when I hung up I was like, ‘There it is. I did it,’” Baiith says. “I did it.”

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