In Delaware, a growing number of principal prep programs

 (photo via ShutterStock)

(photo via ShutterStock)

A major change is brewing in Delaware education, and it has to do with the way the state trains its future principals.

Just last week, the Delaware branch of Teach for America formally unveiled a new, two-year principal preparation program designed to produce high-quality leaders for Delaware’s high-needs schools. And it will do all that without charging those future leaders a dime.

Lead for Delaware, as the program is called, is just the latest in a growing focus of alternative certification programs that state officials hope will bolster Delaware’s principal pipeline.

“We believe fundamentally there is nothing more important than principal preparation,” said Christopher Ruszkowski, head of the state’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit. “Leadership is everything.”

For decades, the path toward becoming a school administrator in Delaware has been simple and singular: enroll in a local university, fork over about $15,000, and walk out about six courses later with a certification. In 2013, the state established new regulations permitting the formation of alternative licensing programs. The Delaware Leadership Project (DLP), a pilot program launched in 2011, enrolled its fifth cohort earlier this year.

Only recently, though, have new players entered the market.

This spring the University of Delaware’s Delaware Academy for School Leadership established a one-year program that focuses on preparing administrators for suburban and rural districts. And in September, the State Board of Education signed off on FLEX, a program designed to decrease administrator turnover in rural Sussex County.

More than building managers

Now, into the fray, steps Lead for Delaware, a small initiative with big-name backing from the likes of Capital One, Bank of America, and the Longwood Foundation.

Lead for Delaware applicants must have three years of teaching experience, an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or greater, and a master’s degree. And the program is small. There are just four students in the initial class, said Jeremy Grant-Skinner, senior managing director of school leadership at Teach for America Delaware. In future years, the cohort size will grow only to seven, and Grant-Skinner expects the program to have an admissions rate of about 10 percent.

Students will stay in their current jobs throughout the program’s duration, but will receive instruction on one Saturday every month through the first year. They’ll also attend occasional multi-day seminars and, over the summer, travel abroad to learn about best practices in a foreign country. In year two they’ll complete 600 hours of live leadership training.

If program participants stay in Delaware schools for five years after graduating they won’t owe a cent. They’ll owe $3,500 if they stay four years, $7,000 if they stay three years, and onward. Those that don’t complete the program at all will have to pay the full, $30,000 cost of the course. Though there is no requirement graduates work at high-needs schools, Grant-Skinner said his staff will guide candidates toward openings at schools with high poverty rates.

Lead for Delaware shares a philosophical kinship with many other alternative certification programs, namely a belief that principal training has not kept up with changes in the profession. Many education reformers argue that today’s principals must be instructional leaders–not simply building managers or disciplinarians.

“Teachers want to work in schools and stay in schools where they have a leader who can help them continually get better,” says Grant-Skinner. “Rather than just someone who is sharing directives and keeping the lights on.”

A FLEXible option for Sussex County

That’s also the theory behind FLEX, the alternative pathway program approved earlier this fall in Sussex County.

Sandy Smith, who oversees the program, describes FLEX as a “little proving ground” for aspiring administrators. The program will run about 15 months and will produce 10-15 graduates each cycle.

FLEX emerged from a administrator development program that the Indian River School District had been using to identify and train its next generation of school leaders. With state approval, that same program can now offer official certification.

Smith, a longtime Indian River administrator herself, describes FLEX as “much more hands-on than a traditional program” and believes its focus on in-school training will better prepare administrators to tackle the rigors of the job. FLEX participants will have to train as elementary, middle, and high school administrators and complete a 600-hour internship as part of the curriculum. 

“Just taking classes isn’t enough,” said Smith. “It’s the same thing with teachers. That’s why you have student teaching.”

Shaking up the sector

State officials hope the new menu of alternative programs–all of which received seed money through Delaware’s Race to the Top grant–can inject a dose of competition and vitality into a job-training sector long dominated by universities.

Ruszkowski, with the State Department of Education, predicts that by 2020 the combination of alternative certification programs will be producing about 50 graduates each year. That may sound like a modest total, but it would represent a significant share of the principal prep market in a state where there are only, according to Ruszkowski, roughly 600 total administrators and 60-to-90 job openings every summer.

Can new programs deliver?

Alongside the optimism, though, major questions remain.

The first concerns money. In the start-up phase, new pathway programs have received public and private money to defray the cost of training. Traditionally, students have shouldered that burden. There is hope, however, that districts will pick up the tab if they find value in these new principal prep pathways.

That leads to another question: Do these alternative programs produce better quality leaders for Delaware?

The only data point so far comes from the the Delaware Leadership Project.

So far DLP has produced 21 graduates, 14 of which have stayed in Delaware as administrators and five of which have become school leaders, according to program head Sean Gallagher. Gallagher says that “hit rate” is comparable to national principal training programs.

“There’s a way to look at the numbers from DLP and say that it’s been successful,” says Gallagher.

State leaders and education reformers, however, were dissatisfied with the results and pushed for a change. DLP’s leadership left over the summer and Gallagher was installed in July as the new leader.

“I feel like the program could be much much more rigorous,” Gallagher says.

Innovative Schools, the non-profit that houses DLP, is also the management organization for the Delaware Met, a just-opened Wilmington charter school that is already facing a possible state shutdown due to severe school climate concerns. There is a DLP graduate on the Delaware Met board and another who briefly served as an administrator at the school before being removed.

Gallagher says training new leaders capable of resurrecting flailing schools isn’t easy. And success won’t be immediate.

“It’s just very very hard work and not many people are successful at it,” says Gallagher. “If they were we wouldn’t have as many struggling schools.”

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