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PBS Newshour discusses training and retaining great principals in struggling urban schools

principal-urban“Urban schools often face great challenges, low test scores and high dropout rates,” according to a recent PBS Newshour segment. But just as schools are trying to create 21st century learners, can education programs create the perfect urban school principal—leading to better test scores and higher graduation rates?

According to Ernesto Matias, high school principal at Wells Community Academy in Chicago, Ill., principals can be trained for urban school environments and issues specific to urban schools.

Wells, which Matias explained experienced a student walk-out last year (2012) and fired four teachers, began to stand for “We Educate Low-Life Students.” For the past 16 years, Wells failed to meet basic academic standards for test scores.

“That’s what I walked into,” said Matias. “A lot of distrust, disunity, and a lot of meeting up with staff members here.”

But five years after the new acronym for Wells was in full-swing, test scores have improved and the graduation rate is steadily climbing. The school attributes this success to Matias’ leadership.

(Next page: Urban principal training programs and PBS video)

Matias is a graduate of a program at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) called the Center for Urban Education Leadership, which takes a new approach to training principals.

“There was essentially no selectivity in the field,” said Steve Tozer, director of the Center for Urban Education Leadership. “Our thought was, since we’ve known for about 35 years that a great principal could improve students learning in schools, we ought to try to produce such principals instead of waiting for them to come along.”

To produce such individuals, leaders of the urban principal program say mentorship is critical.

Rita Raichoudhuri, resident principal at Wells, is part of the urban principal program, and explained that she would not be prepared for the job if it were not for her two mentors: Matias and Cynthia Barron, a veteran former teacher and principal who is now a leadership coach for the Center for Urban Education Leadership.

“They’re taking me beyond my theoretical knowledge that I’m gaining in my classes and helping me put them in action in practical terms in the school,” she said.

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Part of Raichoudhuri’s responsibilities is developing new teachers.

“[Matias] has never said ‘No, you can’t try that idea.’ It’s all about trial and error. [Matias] has always said ‘try and we’ll talk about how it went,’” said Raichoudhuri.

Soon Raichoudhuri will face similar challenges Matias has had to face as she takes a new position in another urban school next year, but Barron will continue to coach Raichoudhuri through her career.

“Kids really model what the adults are doing,” said Raichoudhuri. “When they see us collaborating, see us as a team, the students start to feel that this is a school with high expectations for me and will not let me fall through the cracks.”

Just like the Center for Urban Education Leadership, other principal-training nonprofits are cropping up around the U.S.

For example, New Leaders—a principal training program—currently has centers in 12 cities across the U.S.

And just like Chicago’s program, New Leaders maintains a rigorous screening process, which is based on whether or not the applicant can show significant student growth in their own classrooms.

PBS Newshour went further in depth, asking Will Miller, president of the Wallace Foundation, to present a national picture of retaining and training urban school principals.

PBS asked Miller:

  • With all the national attention teachers are getting, are principals getting enough attention?
  • It seems that Matias is getting all the credit for Well’s improvement. Is that fair? What exactly do principals do?
  • Are these characteristics of a good urban principal teachable?
  • Should we try to help principals already in place learn these skills, or should we fire and replace them?
  • Are we creating disincentives for principals?

Watch the full PBS Newshour segment:

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