Innovations in Education: Innovative Pathways to School Leadership
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First Ring Leadership Academy, Cleveland, Ohio

Partners Cleveland State University, 13 First Ring Suburbs Consortium school districts, Ohio Department of Education, U.S. Department of Education, Local Foundation Support
Program Initiated 2003
Admission Requirements First Ring superintendents nominate participants with teaching credentials who are employed in First Ring Schools and have demonstrated leadership potential
No. of Participants (2004) 26
(2003) 26
Participant Demographics 2004
Gender: 62% female
Ethnicity: 70% White, 30% African American
Length of Instructional Program Fifteen months that include 11 2.5-day modules and site-based practice in the interim between sessions.
Certification, Credits Earned Principal License
2 CSU credits for each 2.5-day module

Cleveland, Ohio, is surrounded by 13 suburbs known as the "First Ring Suburbs," each struggling with the same issues facing large urban core cities: poverty, transiency, violence, underemployment, and achievement gaps aligned along racial lines and diversity. In 2002-03, the 13 school districts in this First Ring reported a 25 percent turnover in school principals. This crisis, along with other negative trends, such as the detrimental effects of high student mobility and low overall test scores, inspired the creation of the First Ring School Superintendents' Collaborative. The superintendents' most urgent concern was a shortage of principals. After exploring several options, they concluded that the most promising solution would be to identify principal candidates from within their own districts: highly skilled teacher-leaders who, with appropriate training and support, could rise to the challenge of leading the change and innovation necessary to reverse the effects of high student mobility and poverty, to utilize student diversity as a resource, and to close the achievement gap.

In 2003, districts in the Collaborative joined forces with Cleveland State University's College of Education to create the First Ring Leadership Academy as an accelerated route to principal licensure and certification. The academy's mission is to recruit, train, and retain school leaders capable of meeting challenges unique to First Ring school districts, thereby increasing regional capacity for educational leadership and school reform. Its program is built around a belief system that sees the principal as key to creating school environments where all children are learning all of the time. The three driving beliefs of the academy are that great schools are places where every child learns and achieves at high levels; that it takes a great principal to lead a great school and make things happen; and that the most fundamental work of a principal is to improve instruction and create a learning environment where each child is a high achiever.

Selection Process

Superintendents in the First Ring school districts identify and nominate candidates to apply to the academy. Each is judged to possess "the raw talent to become a high-quality leader." Once nominated, candidates complete a formal application process and are screened for admission by the Acceptance Committee, which includes representative superintendents from the First Ring districts and members of Cleveland State University's Education Administration faculty. The academy accepts candidates by cohort group. Each cohort of 26 includes two to three candidates nominated by each of the 13 districts. Participating superintendents say that this process sends a strong message throughout their districts that there is a deep internal capacity among staff to take on challenging leadership roles. In some districts, staff interest and capacity is great enough that superintendents have generated candidate waiting lists. To be admitted to the academy, each nominee must make a three-year commitment to stay in the First Ring Suburbs when joining the program.

A key part of the application process is the requirement that candidates articulate a personal theory of action regarding school leadership. The selection criteria identify candidates with a strong understanding of the challenges facing First Ring schools and a commitment to accept those challenges and transform low-performing schools into places where all students can meet high standards. The screening panel includes university faculty, First Ring district administrators, funders, and academy staff.

Those who are ultimately chosen to participate in the program have been deemed most likely to become strong instructional leaders who can meet the needs of First Ring schools. Most candidates have a master's degree in education, and some have a doctoral degree.

Program Design and Practical Learning Experiences

A guiding theory of leadership informs all aspects of the program: an effective leader is a change agent who guides a school community toward improved instruction so that all students achieve at high levels. As the executive director asserts, "Excellent leaders stir the imagination so that others can see a new way to do things. Excellent leaders communicate a new model that inspires action."

Candidates are released from teaching to participate in 11 two-and-a-half-day training modules over a 15-month period. Each module emphasizes a different aspect of effective school leadership, and taken together, their scope and sequence lead to a developmental understanding of a school principal's core work: social justice; instructional improvement; curriculum articulation; teacher supervision and growth; communication; change theory; the use of technology to improve instruction and meet student needs; school oversight and management; parent and family involvement; and community development. Most training sessions take place on the Cleveland State University campus.

Academy candidates take on authentic site-based projects in the interim between each module. Such projects include supervising and coaching teachers, writing teacher performance reviews, organizing a parent group to accomplish a specific goal, and developing a site-specific teacher development training. During each interim period, candidates receive coaching and guidance from their districts' liaison. They also spend time shadowing and observing the principal, recording journal reflections on their observations, and participating in routine management tasks.

While focusing on the core work of a school principal, the coursework also includes time for discussing journal observations and site-based projects in relation to the module content. Cohort members point to these interweaving discussions as their most enduring learning experiences. They also state that building their cohort network during these sessions extends their learning because they call on one another for peer coaching and advice.

Participants generate a portfolio based on the projects and tasks they complete so that they can subsequently share their work with employers. The portfolio is also used for assessing candidate achievement in the program. Candidates are also required to create a Capstone Presentation about a successful project and what they learned from it, and then present it at an annual leadership conference they are responsible for planning.

Academy staff facilitate ongoing cohort networking activities in which candidates have opportunities to share with and learn from one another beyond their initial 15-month program.

Key Success Factors

The First Ring Leadership Academy had received strong local philanthropic support. Although the program is less expensive than traditional pathways to certification, it does have tuition fees, which go directly to the university. The First Ring districts support the program by providing release time to candidates.

To understand the impact of the program over time, First Ring has instituted a long-term assessment plan. An independent research organization will be evaluating the academy's content and structures in addition to establishing a control group of non-participating, first-year principals. Essentially, the assessment will determine whether or not the academy's non-traditional, standards-based program has created skilled leaders for First Ring schools.

According to anecdotal evidence, the academy has already added value in the districts. The executive director of the academy reports that teachers in the First Ring schools are now using different instructional models reflective of the learning of academy graduates.

The First Ring Leadership Academy staff and faculty have identified the following key factors as contributing to their success so far:

  • The commitment to build authentic relationships with all of the stakeholders;

  • The collaboration and support of the First Ring superintendents;

  • The vision of an excellent principal as a change agent that focuses the curriculum and program experiences for candidates;

  • The enduring belief that every child can achieve high standards;

  • The recognition that an effective, knowledgeable instructional leader understands the instructional process that ensures that every child meets high standards;

  • The understanding that adult learners are most successful when learning experiences are authentic and relate to their actual work demands;

  • A well-designed, developmental curriculum that builds and reinforces an understanding of the core work of the principal; and

  • The use of portfolios as the means of assessing candidate progress.

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Last Modified: 07/17/2006