Like many districts around the country, the Syracuse City School District doesn’t always get as many applications for open administrative positions as it would like. In some cases there are concerns about the qualifications and experience levels the candidates who do apply bring to the table.
That’s a major issue the Syracuse Aspiring Leaders Academy, now in its fourth year, aims to address.
“The challenges in urban education are huge and the feeling is that we really wanted to make sure that we weren’t starting from scratch with people,” said Linda Mulvey, Syracuse’s chief academic officer.
About 20 to 25 aspiring leaders per cohort meet on Saturdays once per month from October through May. They start with a 360-degree evaluation of their own leadership skills to figure out where their strengths lie and where they should focus for improvement.
Carin Reeve-Larham was a vice principal when she entered the academy during the 2013-14 school year. She went into the experience hoping to learn how to think like a principal and improve her leadership skills to the point where she could run her own school.
Shortly after graduating from the academy, Reeve-Larham was named principal of Dr. Edwin E. Weeks Elementary, a turnaround school. She believes her experience in the leadership academy elevated her thinking to even be able to consider best practices for such a challenge.
She put leadership training at the foundation of her strategic plan. Staff development tends to compete with investing directly in students, but Reeve-Larham says both are critical.
“If you can’t develop teachers as leaders in their own classrooms, on their own team and in the school building, then there’s simply not enough sustainability in any kind of turnaround program,” Reeve-Larham said. Leadership training has been a primary way to unify her entire school around a shared vision, mission and purpose behind change efforts.
Graduates of the Syracuse Aspiring Leaders Academy do not get a credential or a digital badge, but they do get priority when it comes time to be considered for open positions. Besides up-and-coming leaders in the district, new administrators accept their positions with the understanding that they have to go through the academy their first year.
Mulvey says this has provided an opportunity to set norms for leadership within the district. People who take on leadership roles have completed a range of graduate programs and their coursework varies. The academy lays the foundation for district-wide consistency.
That’s a key takeaway Irastina Reid had about the academy. She spent 15 years as a special education teacher in the district and moved into an administrative internship last year, when she went through the leadership academy.
“I just think it helped align your thinking and what you wanted to do, in terms of administration, with the district vision and goals,” Reid said. She is now the assistant director of special education and said her training in the academy helps keep her grounded in her new role and it offers a framework through which to approach problems of practice.
Reid found the academy to be a lot of work, but she said it was definitely worth her time.
The person who will be leading the 2016-17 cohort through the monthly sessions is an assistant superintendent in Syracuse. Mulvey said this is a good example of how the district has leveraged its own strengths to offer the training.
Other schools mulling a similar program might consider partnering with nearby higher education institutions to develop curriculum and run the program. Half-day seminars or conferences can also build momentum within smaller districts.
The value of such programs is clear. Mulvey has seen the academy improve retention among school leaders, in part because it ensures administrators are better prepared to be successful in their roles. It also creates clear advancement opportunities for people like Reid, who have spent years in the district and know the community context, and it provides opportunities to extend the reach of the district’s best teachers, offering teacher leader roles that didn’t exist before.
“The development of leadership within a district is critical,” Mulvey said. “It really needs to be something that we attend to.”