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Aspiring principals get a glimpse of their futures


Ten CMSD principals-in-waiting won’t be on their own for another 13 months but are already getting a taste of the challenges they will face.

The first class in the District's new Aspiring Principals Academy began a five-week boot camp Monday at the Barbara Byrd-Bennett Professional Development Center in Bratenahl. Next comes a yearlong paid residency served alongside a mentor principal.

Developing outstanding leaders is a key element of The Cleveland Plan, the District’s state-approved blueprint for reform. The “summer intensive,” as the boot camp is aptly known, will gird the new principals by bombarding them with challenges from a fictional school, Maya Angelou K-8.

“We have to work together to have them ready to take on a hard-to-staff school in Cleveland,” said Laura Purnell, a former District academic superintendent who has spent the last year getting the academy off the ground. “Thirteen months is not a lot of time; there is an urgency around the work.”

The class of six women and four men were selected from among 153 applicants. Four came up in the ranks with the District, two are from elsewhere in Ohio and four previously worked in North Carolina, Texas or New York. None has served as a principal.

Their backgrounds are diverse. Two were offered the chance to immediately take over CMSD schools but chose to become better grounded. One worked as a registered nurse before teaching special education. Some have state principal’s licenses; others will obtain alternative certification after gaining administrative experience.

Maria Felicano started as an aide, obtained a master's degree and taught bilingual classes at CMSD’s Luis Munoz Marin K-8 School. She said she hopes to show other Hispanics the value of continuing to pursue education.

NYCLA, formerly the New York City Leadership Academy, helped organize the academy, and NYCLA’s Shannon Matlovsky will serve as facilitator for the first two weeks. Her job is to remain neutral, so the class should not expect any high-fives.

“We’re doing a simulation of a real school in Cleveland,” Matlovsky said. “A principal does not have a person behind their shoulder saying, ‘Good job.’ You have to manage the ambiguities.”

Matlovsky had on her best stone face Monday during, “Connections,” a daily opening discussion that will allow the participants to express thoughts, feelings or questions linked to their work.

She announced the start of the session and then waited through awkward silence. When Matthew Bryan, a former high school social studies teacher and dean of students in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C., schools, took his turn, he showed he had grasped the objective.

“It’s uncomfortable,” said Bryan, an Elmira, N.Y., native who is moving to the area with his wife to be near her family. “But there are going to be plenty of times when we are going to be uncomfortable as principals.”

The group then divided into two teams that will spend the five weeks analyzing Maya Angelou K-8 academic data, understanding the culture, calculating resources and planning strategy. They will observe video of teachers and submit evaluations based on District and state standards.

The trainees were introduced to "staff" on Monday, with visitors playing the roles of teachers, an administrative assistant and an academic superintendent, each with their particular nuances and agendas. On Thursday, aspiring principals will be summoned individually to speak with angry “parents.”

Throughout the boot camp, observers will quietly take notes and measure the aspiring principals’ performance. Purnell said she did not expect anyone to quit, but the District wants to see signs of resilience.

“Resilience is absolutely critical,” said Purnell, who will be succeeded next week by the academy’s first director, former Tremont Montessori Principal Heather Grant. “That’s probably the biggest trait we want to work with them on. A lot of principals drop out within the first five years.”

Jose Gonzalez, principal at CMSD’s Buhrer Dual Language School, helped to interview applicants for the academy. He thinks those who were selected have what it takes.

“You have to have a calling and a passion,” he said. “With this cohort of people, we have the passion to deliver.”