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New York City
April 2001

A Principal Program—Bank on Its Continued Success

by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

They 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, and evaluations?

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.

“What 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.

“Recently,” 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.


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001. Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919. Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2001.