COLUMBIA, Mo.-Peggy Starks has been keeping very busy as the new principal of Phillip J. Hickey Elementary School in St. Louis. Her journey to reach this point started in 1977 and more recently put her through an intense program that partners the University of Missouri-Columbia with St. Louis Public Schools to create new leaders for the district. The New Leaders Project (NLP) is modeled after the New York City Leadership Academy.

Starks is one of 22 people who made it through the first class of the intense 15-month project. Already, half of the graduates have earned administrative or supervisory positions in St. Louis Public Schools. All 22 actually received initial interviews for such positions.

“That is amazing,” said Betty Porter Walls, program director and clinical assistant professor in the MU College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. “These NLP interns went through the school district’s selection process with no special treatment. Several said they would not have been prepared had it not been for the New Leaders Project, and that was very gratifying to hear.”

“I went into the program with no preconceived ideas,” Starks said. “I knew I was teachable, and I knew I could contribute to this school district. It is an amazing opportunity and an awesome responsibility.”

Walls said one of the goals for the program is to produce school leaders who can bring the district into compliance and help gain full accreditation for the school district. Gains in academic achievements and higher test scores also are paramount to these efforts.

“The cohort members are now familiar with everything at St. Louis Public Schools, so there is a very small learning curve, and they can hit the ground running. It’s like having a home-grown product,” Walls said. “The district is fortunate to have a group of people trained by MU, one of the highest rated universities in the country for training school leaders.”

The entire first cohort of 22 was eligible for a Master’s of Education from Mizzou and Missouri Certification for Educational Administration, which is required in the state to become a principal. Eleven from the first class have moved a step beyond the master’s to an Educational Specialist Degree. All signed five-year commitments to St. Louis Public Schools, with no promises for administrative positions.

“I really valued that year of internship,” Starks said. “I still communicate with members from my cohort and my mentor principal. I by no means feel like I’m out here alone. I couldn’t ask for any more support, and I think that is what makes this program so special.”

The second NLP group of 10 people, who were chosen through a strenuous selection process, has completed the intense summer program and is involved with the fall course work now. That work includes full days of internships in school district buildings, 11 hours of attending classes on Thursday evening and all day Friday, and online course work each week.

“As an educator and experienced administrator, I am extremely proud that such a program exists,” Walls said. “It’s like reaching the pinnacle of what I have always wanted to do in public education. I feel honored to be working with the program for the University.”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it will take time to see the full impact. I hope that people continue to embrace the New Leaders Project,” Starks said. “My success is the success of the program. There are a lot of people invested in this, and it is working.”

The program was made possible with the help of a LEAD grant from the Wallace Foundation. Boeing is a corporate partner, providing donations such as laptop computers for participants and corporate mentors in upper level positions who are on-call to give advice to participants. Participants also are paired with a St. Louis Public Schools mentor principal throughout the program and a Mizzou advisor from the MU College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. The weekly classes are taught by two facilitators from the St. Louis school district.


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