Great Principals Make a Difference at Teachers College
They are the crème de la crème—24 principals of public schools in New York City who have been chosen for the prestigious Cahn Fellows Program because of outstanding job performances. Many of the Fellows have turned failing schools around, established successful new schools, or created exciting, innovative programs. Cahn Fellows continue to work as principals but, during a fifteen-month period, come together for leadership enrichment sessions with faculty at Teachers College (TC) at Columbia University, over-seer of the initiative. Drawing upon their experiences, participants teach and learn from each other, sharing best practices and mentoring incoming principals (known as “allies”). During the year, they each identify and take on a “challenge project,” a difficult problem in their school that needs fixing, and discuss the results at a public forum attended by Fellows as well as interested education practitioners and policy makers. A key feature of the program, a summer institute, provides unique learning and bonding opportunities. In addition to intensive sessions at TC, Fellows learn about various approaches to leadership from speakers on specially designed field trips, this year to Philadelphia and Gettysburg National Military Park. Last year’s cohort visited West Point and brought back advice about leadership and discipline from high-ranking army officers.
At a recent welcome reception for this year’s Fellows, members of the Cahn class of 2007 offered congratulations, advice, and encouragement. Shimon Waronker, a Spanish-speaking, Lubavitch Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jew, seemingly a poor match for the job, dramatically changed the academic performance and culture of one of the twelve most violent schools in the city, Middle School 22 in the Bronx. He had enthusiastic praise for the Cahn initiative. “You can have an impact,” he exclaimed. “This is a very powerful program and a tremendous opportunity.” A colleague in 2007, Mary McDonald, reported Waronker trained her in a much-needed time management system for her office that allowed her more time with students. She spoke of the optimistic spirit that defines the program. “I feel renewed and re-energized every time I come back from a Cahn session.” Bill Moore, 2007, found networking to be “The nicest part of my cohort…everybody was willing to share their best stuff.” Jay Heubert of TC, an advisor to the group, explained that he “deeply respects and values the experience and wisdom of the principals” and sees his role as supporting them and helping them bring their schools to “the next level.” Echoing those sentiments, Carmen Farina, former deputy chancellor, applauded the talent in the group and advised, “I hope you take advantage of each other as resources.”
The 24 principals in the 2008 Cahn class bring a wide range of histories and accomplishments to their jobs. Sheldon Bernardo, a professional crossword puzzle constructor, is leading the school he once attended. Donna Finn, who was educated as an artist, helped found the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, which she heads. Nick Marinacci began with Teach for America. Fred Walsh worked as an actor before coming to the School for International Studies, which has been removed, from the SURR and the SINI lists under his leadership. James Waslawski taught bee keeping in the Central African Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer prior to teaching in the States. Eight of the Fellows were part of the first class of the New York City Leadership Academy, a major Department of Education initiative that trains aspiring principals.
Seven years ago, Charles (Chuck) Cahn, founder and president of the program, looked at the education world from his place in the investment world and decided he wanted to get involved. He quickly saw that “Great leadership matters enormously.” To do well, a school has to have an outstanding principal. To the Fellows he said, “When I visit your schools I walk out and say, this is magic…this is one of the most exciting things I have done in my life.” Krista Dunbar, director of the program, hopes to make “more of a systemic impact” and broadly strengthen the New York City system as Fellows share their experiences with larger groups of professionals. Now in its fifth year, the program has enough alumni for a strong network that continues to share and support best practices.