Aspiring Leaders program prepares Central Louisiana educators for leadership positions
2016 class is largest in program history
Central Louisiana educators have begun a three-year journey that will prepare them for leadership positions in their schools and school districts. The educators in August started Aspiring Leaders, a leadership institute administered by The Orchard Foundation and funded under The Rapides Foundation’s Education Initiative. The Aspiring Leaders curriculum was developed specifically for Central Louisiana by the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership.
The Rapides Foundation's Education Initiative seeks to increase the level of educational attainment and achievement as the primary path to improved economic, social and health status. At the core of the initiative is its continued effort to build leaders in the field of education by offering a variety of institutes for Central Louisiana educators.
“One of the core strategies for our initiative has been to provide ongoing professional development and leadership opportunities for our teachers because research tells us that strong school leadership and instructional strategies ultimately lead to improved student achievement,” said Joe Rosier, President and CEO of The Rapides Foundation.
The Aspiring Leaders curriculum is based on the Center for Educational Leadership’s theory of action that states “student learning will not improve until the quality of teaching improves, and that the quality of teaching will not improve until leaders understand what constitutes high-quality instruction along with the role they play in improving teacher practice.”
Educators attend the opening session of Aspiring Leaders. This is the largest class in the program's history.
Three-year curriculum is customized for Cenla
This group of 139 participants is the largest class of Aspiring Leaders since a shorter version of the program was brought to Central Louisiana in 2012-13. Previously, Aspiring Leaders was offered on a year-to-year basis, with participants deciding each year whether to continue. This year and moving forward, Aspiring Leaders is a three-year curriculum that includes the best ideas and concepts of the previous years. Teachers who enter Aspiring Leaders agree to attend all three years, regardless of whether they are promoted during the program.
“There are always challenges for the districts not only in Central Louisiana, but across the state, in filling positions. Our ultimate goal is to create that hiring pool, and we have the confidence that all of the people who complete Aspiring Leaders will have the baseline knowledge of those key instructional leadership principles that the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership builds its program on,” said Marjorie Taylor, Executive Director of The Orchard Foundation. “The program is centered around high-quality instruction: How to recognize high-quality instruction, how to provide feedback and how to support teachers in providing that. The Center for Educational Leadership is recognized nationally as the leader in instructional leadership. They are the best practice.”
An Aspiring Leaders cohort conducts classroom observations as part of their session work.
Diane Smith, Project Director for the Center for Educational Leadership, helped develop the curriculum. Smith is also one of the three facilitators who will teach the educators over the next three years.
'There’s a large commitment to themselves and their students, and it shows their dedication.'
“CEL has a tool that we developed called the 4 Dimensions of Instructional Leadership, and in that we defined what we believe are the skills that you need to possess if you’re going to be an instructional leader. The first dimension is about vision and mission, the second one is about improvement of instruction, the third is about allocation of resources, and the fourth is about management of systems and processes. In our original work with Aspiring Leaders, we almost exclusively focused on Dimension 2, which is the improvement of instructional practices. This of course is incredibly important for a principal to be able to do, but it’s not all that the job entails,” she said. The new curriculum will focus on the theme of improving instruction all three years, but participants will study the other dimensions as well.
“So by the end of the third year, we think, not only will our aspiring leaders have a really good sense of how to improve instruction, but also how to align everything within a school – your resources, your people, your professional development – to a vision and mission,” Smith said.
Facilitator Wendy London, Project Director for the Center for Educational Leadership, also helped design the curriculum, particularly what happens in each session. After the opening session, the educators are grouped into seven cohorts of approximately 20 people. These smaller cohorts will then meet five times per year, with each session hosted by a different school.
'The cohort size is small enough to have a really good discussion.'
“The cohort size is small enough to have a really good discussion,” she said. “When we are at the school site, they are learning the skills of observing and analyzing instruction during three of the five sessions. The other two sessions they are looking at the school’s implementation of their vision and mission, and observing and analyzing the culture of the entire school. So every session, they are using the host school as a laboratory for being able to hone their own skills.”
In between sessions, participants are assigned homework where they practice a skill at their own school, London said. “They have a teacher they are mentoring, and typically the homework would be to go to the mentee teacher classroom and observe for a particular element of the instructional framework. Or it might be to do a school-wide observation around the mission and vision. In any case they have an element of homework and opportunity to share with their cohort about how that went. So we do reflections as well as the walkthrough process.”
London said the Aspiring Leaders program ultimately benefits students. “These participants are learning about a theory of action that really ties principal practices and teacher practices with student learning, and so the processes and the concepts that we teach are all for getting improved student achievement and closing the achievement gap.”
Smith applauded the educators for taking on the three-year commitment. “It’s really showing a commitment to children and to learning and to being the best educators they can be. And we ask them to not only attend their sessions, but to practice that between sessions and to be working with another teacher in their building, so there’s a large commitment to themselves and their students, and it shows their dedication.”
Diane Marcantel is the facilitator for four of the seven cohorts. Marcantel retired from her position as Personnel and School Improvement Supervisor for the Allen Parish School District and now serves as a contractor for The Orchard Foundation. She said each educator will have the chance to host one of the sessions at his or her school over the three-year program. This is also part of the learning process.
Facilitator Diane Marcantel, left, works with an Aspiring Leaders cohort.
“The host does a good bit of preparation before we get there, like scheduling the four classrooms we are going to visit. Then I prep the whole group about what we are going to be looking for before we get in each classroom,” she said. “The entire session is to help them think as an administrator, to try on a new hat, to practice some of the thinking and the skills that they will have to use if they would become a school administrator.”
During the classroom observations, participants “script what the teacher is doing and saying, what the student is doing and saying, and what’s the content of the lesson. This is a new experience for most of them.”
Debriefings are held at the end of the session, giving participants a chance to discuss what they learned. “I tell them you are not evaluating a teacher. This is about you trying on a new hat, learning a new role, preparing for a possible future leadership role. And for the ones that are new assistant principals, it’s practice for them to become stronger assistant principals. There is such depth to this work, it helps to think this through with companions.”
Program develops pool of leaders for school districts
Marcantel, London and Smith all agreed that the Aspiring Leaders program is giving educators a unique opportunity to prepare for leadership roles, a practice that was rarely done in the past.
"When I first became a principal, you would take these very generic classes that focused on management and we did very little discussion about instructional leadership. You learned almost everything on the job, and through trial and error. It was figure it out for yourself,” Smith said.
Marcantel said she, too, was not fully prepared when she was first promoted to assistant principal, especially when it came to evaluating and observing teachers. “I did not feel comfortable doing that at all. So these Aspiring Leaders participants are having an opportunity to practice something that I so wish I had the opportunity to practice.”
The program also benefits participants who may later decide not to pursue administrative roles. “In order to be a strong instructional leader, you have to know and understand instruction yourself. You can’t lead what you don’t know. So we are still building good instructional leaders within a school, because they can also lead instruction in collaboration team meetings, they can also become instructional coaches. All of those are areas of building capacity in a school to build learning of children,” Marcantel said.
School superintendents say the Aspiring Leaders program develops a pool of qualified educators within their districts, which helps when administrative positions become open.
“When you see that on a resume, yes, that is something that you pay attention to, but the real glaring difference is when you talk to them face-to-face in an interview” said Vernon Parish School Superintendent James Williams. “When you get into a dialogue with them, you can really tell when someone has been in the Aspiring Leaders program.”
“We feel we have administrators who are better prepared for leadership positions, and that being said, we think this program has helped them develop skills and recognize high-quality instruction, and also how to support teachers in improving instruction in each one of the classrooms,” he said. “At one time the principal was more the plant manager and did things to keep the school going and instruction was kind of left in the teachers’ hands. But now it’s all about instructional leadership, and this program has stressed that and focused on that and has made our educators recognize the importance of instructional leadership from the role of a principal. We feel some of our strongest administrators have been in the Aspiring Leaders program.”
'We feel some of our strongest administrators have been in the Aspiring Leaders program.'
Williams said educators also benefit from the networking opportunity that Aspiring Leaders provides. “When you get that dialogue going on, it means a lot more than seeing it in a video or reading it in a book. You give them a chance to develop a network where they can learn from each other and depend on each other even later down the road. Our attitude is take what you have learned and be very good at that, but also share it with others.”
Vernon Parish has four educators who just began the three-year program, and several who participated in Aspiring Leaders in the past. “We feel like it’s been a big part of our academic success because we fully believe that accountability and school performance scores and district performance scores start in the classroom with that classroom teacher being supervised by that instructional leader which we call administrators,” Williams said.
Acadian Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Tiffaney Kelly said the opening session of Aspiring Leaders left her excited about the upcoming sessions she will be attending over the next three years.
'I feel that after these three years I definitely will be prepared.'
“I do want to get out of the classroom at some point, and I want to get into administration and I know a few people who are already in the Aspiring Leaders program, and they talked about how it prepares you for leadership and lets you know what to expect when you get into leadership,” she said. “In just that first day, I found out I’m going be able to learn a lot from this from a leadership perspective and from a teacher perspective. It’s definitely a gift.”
This is Kelly’s first time to enroll in a training program taught by the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership.
“It’s more than I thought it would be. I’m looking forward to going into another school and being able to see how they do things and actually looking at how you are supposed to evaluate them. I learned that principals have to do a lot when they evaluate us. It’s not just coming in and writing something down and leaving. You really have to put a lot into it,” she said. “I feel that after these three years I definitely will be prepared.”
In addition to Aspiring Leaders, the Center for Educational Leadership also teaches a Leading for Better Instruction program, an institute for Central Louisiana administrators designed to improve their leadership skills, enhance classroom instruction and ultimately impact student achievement.
Dr. Stephen Fink is the Executive Director of the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership, which has a longstanding partnership with The Rapides Foundation. “I really appreciate The Rapides Foundation’s commitment to long-term leadership development. This commitment has allowed us at the Center for Educational Leadership to develop a three-year curriculum for two separate programs designed to support aspiring and sitting school leaders. These programs are designed to build the instructional leadership expertise necessary to support teacher growth in all nine parishes. I commend the Foundation for making this important investment in their school leaders.”
In addition to teaching the three-year program, the Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) worked with The Orchard Foundation to identify one person from each school district who is qualified to work with educators attending CEL programs throughout the entire school year. These “CEL champions” are beginning their work this school year. “We now have a set curriculum that will be used and we will also have someone within their district that can support them in between CEL visits,” Taylor said. “This supports our goal of building internal capacity.”