This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
We have all heard about a dynamic principal who singlehandedly transforms a school from chaos to order, from malaise to excitement, from mediocre performance to stunning academic gains.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan knows those stories, too. But personal dynamism is not enough, he says — great leadership is necessary at scale.
“Leadership matters,” said Duncan, who spoke Thursday night at an event sponsored by the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders. “If you are going to make Philadelphia the fastest-improving city, it won’t happen with just one great principal. I want to hear stories of 100 great principals.”
That is the idea behind the Academy of School Leaders, whose Neubauer Fellowship in Educational Leadership has so far trained 62 Philadelphia principals from District, charter, and faith-based schools. During the fellowship, the principals spend two years learning the best leadership techniques, while also creating a professional support network.
Joseph Neubauer, whose family foundation underwrites the fellowship, is a former top executive at Aramark. He explained that coming back from an overseas trip and catching up on the news a few years ago, he was appalled to learn that two of the city’s flagship public schools were losing their librarians to budget cuts. In trying to do something about that, he visited schools and began to realize how crucial leadership is to making them work.
School principals need to know about pedagogy and teaching, he said, but they also need a host of other skills to manage the complex interplay of people of different races, backgrounds, geographic areas, and ages who come together in their buildings.
Not to mention the need to navigate the demands of higher-ups and understand the bureaucracy under which they work.
“Great leadership creates great organizations,” Neubauer said. And: “Education is clearly the best way to break the cycle of poverty.”
Duncan is now a managing partner at Emerson Collective, which works to increase opportunities for young people in Chicago, where the rate of violence exceeds other big cities, including New York and Los Angeles.
“We’re trying to work with the young men who are doing the shooting and being shot,” he said. There is no other way to reduce violence “than a high-quality education at scale.”
Several hundred people attended the event at the Barnes Foundation, including what appeared to be dozens of principals.
Duncan said that, of all the school leadership programs he is aware of, this is the only one that combines traditional public, charter, and faith-based schools.
“I’m fascinated by what you’re doing here,” he said.
Marty Moss-Coane, the host of WHYY’s Radio Times, moderated a discussion among Duncan and three principals who have been Neubauer Fellows — Christine Borelli of Benjamin Franklin High School, Dywonne Davis-Harris of Potter-Thomas Elementary, and Noah Tennant of Boys’ Latin Charter School.
All of them, as well as the evening’s emcee, Ted Domers of Carver High School of Engineering & Science, talked about how principals often don’t know what they will be facing on any given day.
“The beauty of being a principal, you never have the same day twice,” said Borelli, of Ben Franklin High. “Your schedule is flexible without you desiring it to be flexible.”
Unscheduled parent meetings, student meltdowns, bureaucratic demands — any or all of those things can crop up unexpectedly.
Regardless of that, they all talked about the importance of building a “culture of trust” in their buildings, of being not the chief of a school but the “chief learner,” and of remaining focused on the needs of children.
Borelli, who grew up in Fishtown and went to Philadelphia High School for Girls, remembered her first experience as a teacher — arriving mid-year to teach kids “a lot taller than me” in a rough school and being left mostly on her own.
“I figured it out,” she said. “There was not a lot of teaching and learning going on. I realized that there was not a lot of leadership going on.”
Davis-Harris of Potter-Thomas Elementary, who is also a pastor of a religious congregation, said her role as principal is “to push [people] to the next level, to give them hope.” In school, she said, “I can’t talk about the Bible, but I can instill certain principles.”
Tennant talked about principals confronting their own preconceptions.
Before coming to Boys’ Latin, Tennant had been working in upscale, mostly white Haddonfield, N.J. When he got to Boys’ Latin, he saw himself in the students — young men of color aspiring, most of them, to be the first generation in their family to attend college.
“I came from a community where I was the diversity, to Boys’ Latin,” where almost all the students are African American, with just a handful of Latinos and whites.
And he found himself “surprised at how different they are.” Just as in Haddonfield, “there are the skaters, the gamers, the jocks and the nerds. I had to check what biases I carried into the situation.”
It was, he said, “a powerful learning for me.”
The goal is to have more than 100 principals as Neubauer Fellows by 2020.