Cahn Fellows Program at Teachers College Nurtures Distinguished NYC Principals
When Israel Soto, Principal of East Harlem’s P.S. 57, began brainstorming with his faculty to acquire more computers for his elementary school, the results were palpable. Teachers organized into grant-writing teams, money poured in, and before long Soto had built a state-of-the-art technology room for his students, most of them below the poverty level.
Soto’s success would not have happened without the support of The Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished New York City Principals, a professional development and leadership recognition initiative that is making big waves in the city’s public schools. Founded in 2002 through the generosity of Charles and Jane Cahn, this 16 month program, based at Columbia University’s Teachers College, identifies successful sitting principals (they must have an average of three years in their jobs), provides them with a $2500 stipend, and offers up a host of opportunities for professional, intellectual and personal growth.
“They [the Cahns] had found that there were lots of programs and efforts to recruit and create school leaders, and some efforts to remediate those in leadership positions who were having problems, but none to honor those who are doing a great job and to help them get to the next level,” explains Director Krista Dunbar, noting that the Cahn Fellows Program fills a much-needed gap in the city’s public school system. Each year, Dunbar and her selection committee choose 20-25 outstanding principals to become fellows (107 principals have been awarded fellowships to date), based on a variety of criteria that include how their schools stack up on reading and math scores and attendance/dropout rates, and how effective they are in areas of leadership, innovation, reflection, and ability to learn from others. The fellows come from schools that are as diverse as the city itself: this year’s 2007 cohort includes Shimon Waronker, principal of the Jordan L. Mott Middle School in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of the Bronx, and Valerie Reidy, principal of the elite Bronx High School of Science. “They learn from each other,” reflects Dunbar.
When these diverse school leaders come together, sharing an intense passion for their jobs and the desire to do better for their students, the results are synergistic. By early fall, the Cahn Fellows identify challenges to student learning that they face in their schools (teacher development, parental involvement, school culture and organizational change are often singled out as most problematic), and by January, they produce a concrete plan for improvement. Just as Israel Soto’s action plan resulted in an infusion of grant monies for new technology, success stories abound among the Cahn fellows. In 2004, Sandy Johnson, principal of the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem, overhauled her curriculum to introduce an International Baccalaureate (IB) program that is still thriving today, thanks to the support of the Cahn Fellows Program. Stories like Johnson’s are repeated in dozens of schools citywide each year.
But there is more to this program than outcomes. Another important cornerstone is mentorship. Each Cahn fellow must select an “ally”, engaging in a mentor relationship with a less experienced principal who is not a fellow, and each mentor-ally pair collaborates in study groups of 8-10 to complete the challenge projects. Yet another cornerstone of the program is leadership development. Fellows attend a summer retreat on leadership that takes them on field trips from West Point to Gettysburg, and they are exposed to a cadre of speakers in areas of leadership throughout the year (one of the highlights is an executive coaching team that films the fellows and critiques them in their ability to delegate, motivate, and communicate.)
Dunbar, who started her career as a teacher at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem and now holds an MBA from Baruch College, has big plans for the Cahn fellows. “I would like to see more principals present their work at conferences…and I would like their cases to become published,” she asserts enthusiastically, noting that more exposure will dynamically increase the domino effect of the program. (In raw numbers alone, more than 15 percent of NYC principals have benefited so far from the Cahn Fellows Program as either Fellows or Allies.) Stay tuned for a Cahn Alumni Network, which will provide ongoing support for alumni through a series of bimonthly speaker sessions. And while Cahn fellows are bringing new skills and techniques into their buildings, Dunbar and her colleagues at Teachers College, many of who participate as faculty advisors to the fellows, are proving that it indeed takes a village to raise a child.#