Principal Program—Bank on Its Continued Success
Joan Baum, Ph.D.
sat around a table, surrounded by colorful artwork on the walls—arithmetic
posters, drawings announcing spring. The room was sunny and upbeat,
and the talk personal, direct and full of good humor. These were
not lively 4th graders being given an afternoon break, but 40-somethings—experienced
classroom teachers—gathered at Bank Street College of Education
for a graduate session called “Conference Graduate Group.”
This particular class, part of Bank Street College’s Leadership
Center, an array of professional development services offered
since 1992 for “front-line” educational leaders around the City,
was being held under the auspices of The Principals’ Institute,
a “one-of-a-kind” 18-month master’s degree program for aspiring
public school leaders.
The group were Institute interns, all carefully selected in a
highly competitive, city-wide program begun by former Schools
Chancellor and District 1 Superintendent, now director of the
Institute, Bernard Mecklowitz.
To date, the Principals Institute at Bank Street College has graduated
a total of 327 students, 80 percent have been women and 73 percent
have been African-American, Latino or Asian. Graduates have assumed
leadership roles in public schools as principals, assistant principals
and directors of small or alternative schools. Established primarily
to “increase the pool of women and minorities qualified for school
leadership in New York City,” the Institute draws participants
from all 32 community school districts and the Division of High
Schools, and includes intensive course work, site visits to schools,
lectures by various theorists and practitioners and a last semester
internship. Open to all, regardless of age, race or ethnicity,
Institute applicants must have been in the system full-time for
at least three years.
The application process is tough, Mecklowitz notes proudly—recommendations,
essays, one of which must be written at Bank Street, and videotaped
group interviews, which he and others carefully critique. The
program is “very intense, not for wannabes, but most certainly
for ‘should-bes,’” he adds. Approximately 100 applications are
received for the 25 to 30 seats available. Then, he and his assistant
director do some close, critical interviewing: Do the applicants
truly understand the rigor of the schedule—evening courses, advisement,
one-on-one intervention at the start, constant mentoring, interning,
Writing skills are an essential requirement for admission, Mecklowitz
points out, and notes that “reflection” is another important facet—much
of it taking the form of regular journal entries. And collaboration
is important, because it is essential for present-day school management.
To judge from the spirited discussion going on in Emily White’s
Conference Group, the ten participants were clearly into collegial
exchange. Although the ostensible subject was the “professional
and social role administrators play with their teachers,” the
discussion turned to concerns about race: the need for supervisors
to take into account how stereotyping may lead to feelings of
racism. How do you approach a teacher of another race or culture
who needs to be criticized? How “safe” is it to criticize, anyway,
when the teacher-grapevine is sure to find out about the supervisor’s
comments? A lot more goes on between administrators and teachers,
among teachers, and between teachers and students than you think,
responded a teacher, especially when a friend becomes an assistant
principal and “the power thing” kicks in.
are the people skills that help supervisors do their job?” White
interjected, eager to keep the discussion on a structural track.
Her pointed question, “How much does an administrator need to
know about a teacher’s personal life to establish rapport?” triggered
further discussion. The handful of potential supervisors in Emily
White’s classroom that evening were clearly thinking about their
own experiences, with some even wondering if being an administrator
was worth it.
In Katherine O’Donnell’s class on “The Process of Supervision,”
25 participants were asked to consider chart handouts on different
approaches to clinical supervision. This theoretical lecture would
later be related to pressing real-world classroom concerns and
to what Bernie Mecklowitz identified as the number-one challenge
facing public schools today: standardized testing. “We’re not
going to teach to the test, that is not what Bank Street is about.
We focus on the individual. In so doing, we maintain high standards
that acknowledge the complexity of the learning process.”
So, does the Program work? To invoke the A-word, has the Institute
been Assessed? The beauty is, it doesn’t have to be, since its
effects are sufficient: 70 to 80 percent of those who come through
are placed in supervisory positions, and a spin-off “Cohort Program”
has begun to catch on.
Mecklowitz beams, “of the 15 Cohort students in the Bronx’s District
10, 14 are now assistant principals, and the idea is growing,
with more districts making requests—District 5 in Harlem, District
28 in Forest Hills, and District 19 in East New York.”
Of course, it takes a while to turn around a failing school, but
having a good person at the top is critical. And “good,” Mecklowitz
would remind everyone, means being a realist as well as an idealist.
The tests are here, thus, being “good,” means balancing demands,
which in turn means being “courageous, taking risks, building
a fine leadership team, knowing how to run a high-powered meeting
but also a lunchroom.”
People come into the Program with different strengths, and it
is the director’s job to arrange the best match possible between
degree candidate and mentor. He is gratified that the program
has become something you can bank on.
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