Are Grants for Principal Training Making a Difference in Chicago Schools?

Last fall, we touched on a funder that’s made public school principal training its mission in Chicago. The Chicago Public Education Fund was created by a group of civic and corporate leaders as a philanthropic venture fund in 2000. Its Principal Fellowship has been getting a lot of attention around Chicago, as it focuses on retaining strong principals rather than kicking ineffective ones to the curb. Studies have shown that very few local principals (only about 40 percent) stick with the job after five years, which is unfortunate, because that’s about the time that they start becoming more effective.

Related: Will Better Principals Lead to Better Schools? Here's a Chicago Funder That Thinks So

For the 2015-2016 school year, the fund just announced its latest selection of 20 principals to receive Chicago Principals Fellowships, year-long professional development commitments supported by the fund and the Crown Family.

A big part of Crown's education portfolio goes to effective leadership, which is split between support for principals and teachers. A majority of the principals lead schools that have predominantly low-income and minority student populations.

Heather Y. Anichini, president and CEO of the Chicago Public Education Fund, described the effort this way:

World-class public schools require great educators. We’re interested in retaining more of Chicago’s best public school principals by providing what many are asking for: differentiated professional development opportunities that help them continue to grow professionally in the leadership of their schools, teachers and students. The fellowship supports top principals in developing their own skills and leadership approaches. Most also commit to mentoring newer principals and sharing their best practices more broadly. Leveraging their expertise helps us all better support all principals across Chicago.

This is only the second cohort of principals chosen for the program, so it’s a little too early to judge the fellowship’s overall effectiveness in the Chicago Public School system. However, the fund is taking this one step beyond a simple annual selection process. In just a year, the Chicago Fund for Education has made its presence widely known and received some good feedback to begin tailoring its program.

Back in May, the fund invited all Chicago Public School teachers to participate in a survey to get a feel for their 2014-2015 school year experience. This was the second time that the fund sent out the requests, and it saw hundreds of principals participate the previous year. In 2014, principals reported that they needed the following things to make their schools and students better:

  • Greater flexibility in their ability to implement instructional leadership practices that will most benefit their schools, educator teams and communities (88 percent of principals surveyed).
  • Tailored, streamlined professional development opportunities and tools to meet their individual needs and those of their schools (65 percent of principals surveyed).
  • Practical tools to increase the quality of teaching and learning in their schools, especially those that support instruction and implementation of the Common Core State Standards and strategic budgeting (57 percent of principals surveyed).

The 2015 report hasn't yet been released, but it’ll be interesting to see if any of those needs were met and/or if some new needs have emerged for Chicago principals.

Overall, Chicago principals have been pretty content with their salaries and their relationships with the community and local councils. The fund’s goal is to at least double the number of top-performing principals in Chicago Public Schools by 2018. It’s a $20 million effort that requires fellows to commit to their positions for at least three years after participating in the program.

While improving teachers has long been an interest of foundations and individual donors, more funders have focused lately on improving top leadership in schools and seeing if this eventually trickles down to improved student performance.

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According to Liz Livingston Howard, Director of Nonprofit Executive Education at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management: 

Principals are a key driver of success within their schools and play a critical role in creating a culture suitable for effective teaching and learning. High-quality professional development opportunities for principals support their ability to confidently remain in that role for an extended period of time, contributing to their ability to work with teachers, parents and the community to transform and accelerate student learning.

That said, principal training is still pretty low on priorities of education funders, so it'll probably take a few more years, published reports, and statistics from the Chicago Public Education Fund to get the point across.