Cahn Fellows Program: Outstanding Principals Make a Difference
The Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished Principals at Teachers College, Columbia University, is celebrating its tenth anniversary amidst many successes, making this year’s introduction of new Fellows a particularly proud occasion. Founded in 2002 by successful entrepreneur and Columbia Business School MBA Chuck Cahn and his wife, Jane, to help outstanding NYC principals become even better at their jobs, the program has significantly affected public schools in all five boroughs, grades pre-K to 12. In welcoming the 23 members of the 2011 cohort of Fellows, Cahn admitted to “still not quite getting why we were the first to recognize you.” His vision has been validated. Since its founding, the program has provided professional development and support to 168 principals, or more than 18 percent of school heads, and has had an impact on over 200,000 school children. Cahn admits his original expectations have been surpassed, proudly citing a recent independent evaluation that concludes schools headed by Cahn Fellows have become better schools. Beaming, he says he “knew the program was working, anecdotically, but now I know for sure.” Adding to the excitement of the milestone anniversary was the announcement of outreach to another city, Newark, NJ, where the educational system is going through “tremendous change, from top to bottom.” Two outstanding Newark school principals have been selected as 2011 Fellows.
Krista J. Dunbar, program director, explained the rigorous selection process for Fellows involves 28 people and lasts about six months. Recommended candidates are interviewed, visited in their classrooms, and required to produce relevant data for scrutiny. Selected principals participate in intensive development activities during fifteen months, while continuing to work in their own schools. Every other month the group engages in study sessions with Teachers College faculty advisors. A Summer Leadership Institute at the College as well as a trip to the Gettysburg historic site provide opportunities to think about responsibility and decision-making. The Fellows Challenge Project asks principals to identify a problem in their schools to be analyzed and solved during the year with the help of Cahn colleagues. To maintain a culture of leadership excellence, each Fellow chooses an Ally in his or her school to mentor and prepare as a possible future principal. The interaction and bonding in all these activities produces sharing of best practices, new ideas, and needed encouragement and support.
In a keynote address, Anna Commitante, currently Deputy CEO for Instruction, Cluster 2, and a 2003 Cahn Fellow, spoke of her time as a principal in NYC as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done...You know what I’m talking about.” The Cahn program was the “most dynamic, challenging, and rewarding professional experience...The group had shared values. We all wanted to do good things for our students.” She advised the new Fellows, “Open yourselves up. You can work out specific issues you have in your schools in an environment where you feel safe and protected. We had each other’s backs.” Sana Nasser became a 2006 Fellow while in her ninth year as a high school principal, “An isolated kind of job.” The program “opened doors to relationships.” She came to a new respect for elementary school principals through those she met, and now requires her teachers to visit elementary schools to learn how to build class cultures and positive interactions with students.
The 2011 Cahn Fellows come from a variety of backgrounds as do their students. Several are founders of schools. Most lead traditional public schools; some head charters. Many principals have turned around poorly performing institutions. High expectations are standard, teamwork a common goal, and parent needs frequently considered. Franca Conti, principal of PS 217 in Brooklyn, one of the city’s largest and most diverse elementary schools, says, “We all know you don’t have successful children if you don’t have successful families.” In his toast to the new Fellows, Chuck Cahn exclaimed, “I go out and visit schools of people who were Fellows. It’s unbelievable. You go into one of these great schools and you meet a principal who makes a school a spectacular success. Teachers are fantastic, but it doesn’t happen without a principal. They have the stuff, and at the end of the day, children walk out better for it.” Edith Everett, a founding board member of the program, came to celebrate and be proud. “It’s an exciting program that’s had a great impact,” she said approvingly. #