I served as the founding principal of The International High School @ Prospect Heights in Brooklyn for five and a half years. The school opened in September 2004 and served immigrant adolescents learning English. Four years later, we had 415 students from over 20 different countries.
The job of principal has become extremely challenging. Principals are expected to be instructional leaders, CEOs, data specialists, parents, social workers, and generally all things to all people. Our national demand that all students achieve has made the principal directly responsible for making that happen.
The old emphasis on management has given way to a new emphasis on instruction and learning—for students and adults. This is a positive change. However, the immense responsibility placed on a principal’s shoulders, coupled with the myriad compliance-related requests from the federal, state, and local governments make the job almost undoable.
I was fortunate because I was able to participate in a 14-month training at the New York City Leadership Academy. This training prepared me for the challenges of being a principal. At the Academy, we were asked to re-design a struggling school. This two-month training was followed by nine months under the guidance of an experienced principal, followed by two additional months of classroom training. My experience at the academy was more effective than the traditional university training I had received in prior years. The most important skill I learned was how to work with people from different backgrounds who had different philosophies about learning. It was my job to get them focused around one goal – ensuring that student and adult learning was happening throughout our school.
This meant that, in addition to knowing what students were learning and how they were progressing toward graduation, I needed to know where all teachers were in terms of their development and make sure they had the appropriate supports so that they could reach their potential. This is what competent leaders do.
My team and I were able to create a school where parents were happy to send their kids, where students were happy to attend, and where teachers were happy to teach. In 2008, when we graduated our first class, we more than doubled the historical graduation rate for English language learners in NYC. Our school received a grade of “A” in the progress report for 2008 and 2009, and a rating of “well developed” in the quality review, the two most important accountability tools in NYC. Our school had a high attendance rate and some of the city’s highest parent, student, and teacher satisfaction rates. Our teacher retention rate was over 90 percent.
The job of principal is extremely rewarding but incredibly difficult. Schools that work have good teachers, and it is up to the principal to create conditions in their schools that lead to teachers’ success. If we want to invest in our teaching corps, we also have to invest in our school leaders. Both pre- and in-service training are crucial to keep our best leaders thriving. We need to continue to create and support effective training programs as well as district efforts to provide professional learning experiences to principals.
Alexandra Anormaliza currently is the executive director of the Office of Achievement Resources in the New York City Department of Education.