Here's One Way Funders Are Helping Train Future School System Leaders

Various educator training programs have attracted high levels of support from funders large and small. Teacher and principal training programs have proliferated over the years, as have programs focused on training school superintendents. The Broad Superintendents Academy is a prominent example of the latter.

And not long ago, we wrote about a $100 million gift from the grocery story billionaire Charles Butt to train district administrators and principals in Texas, which has the nation's second-largest public school system. As we wrote at the time, this gift is important because "the vast majority of K-12 students in the U.S. attend traditional district schools—not charter schools, which are a huge focus of much education philanthropy. Funders who are able to improve these mainstream schools can have a huge impact."

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Still, training focused on the administrators who work below superintendents and principals are less common. But one funder-backed program is working to change that with a professional development program designed for chief academic officers, curriculum directors, principal supervisors, and assistant superintendents. To achieve the management and problem-solving experience these and other positions require, a growing number of educators are looking to the School Systems Leaders Fellowship (SSLF), a funder-backed outfit now in its fifth year of existence and growing.

SSLF began in 2013 as an arm of Teach For America, one of the best-known pipelines for new educators, and one to whom funders have been especially generous in their giving. SSLF's mission was to train TFA alumni for positions of leadership at the school district level and to foster systemic change. In an organizational shakeup that saw TFA cut staff, it also dropped the SSLF, which later attracted support from Cambiar Education, a California-based organization funded by the venture philanthropy group New Schools Venture Fund. SSLF also receives support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, according to the education news site The 74.

SSLF's leadership likens its program to a medical residency. SSLF fellows spend one year working in school districts alongside district staff members at the top levels of leadership. Along the way, fellows receive coaching and take part in seminars dealing with topics and issues with which school district leaders grapple on a daily basis. These include principal mentoring, instructional leadership, school and district improvement strategies, strategic planning, and project management. The goal is for fellows who complete the fellowship to find district administrator positions in public school systems.

But the fellowship is not just about helping educators move up the organizational chart. SSLF Executive Director Ellen Winn told The 74 that the program teaches fellows the skill set and knowledge to be transformational leaders and achieve positive outcomes for students.

The training and mentorship that aspiring system leaders receive through SSLF appears to be resonating with school districts, as a growing number of them have partnered with SSLF to host the program's fellows. When the program began in 2013, it had partnerships with 10 school districts. That number has now more than doubled to 24 and includes public school systems in New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, Providence, Denver, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and the District of Columbia. SSLF also hopes to place fellows in charter school systems.

Because of its past affiliation with TFA, graduates of the SSLF have been alumni of that program. However, the program plans to diversify its next cohort of fellows, opening half of the positions to non-TFA alumni.

Central offices at many school districts are often portrayed as bureaucratic and dysfunctional, and are frequent targets of budget cuts and criticism from politicians who question their value. But they often play an important role in the operation of schools, supporting the work of teachers and principals. For these offices to provide effective support, it is important for committed educators to come into these positions with the skills and experience needed. Programs such as SSLF can assist in that role.