Resident principal Stephanie Bloom-Washofsky Credit: Photo by John Booz

It’s 9:30 a.m. and at the West Side Technical Institute, Miyoshi Knox of Mays Elementary gives her poster-board exhibit and PowerPoint presentation a final once-over. Viewings will begin soon, and she wants to make sure she is prepared to explain her project.

The scenario looks like a science fair, but it isn’t. For the last six months, aspiring principals have been creating school improvement projects for the schools where they intern. With this exhibition, organized by the CPS Office of Principal Preparation and Development, they will showcase what they’ve done. 

The projects give these aspiring leaders hands-on experience in areas such as budgeting, management and creating school improvement plans—skills they will need to run a successful school.

“This project allowed me to work on an important initiative, which was to help a core group of students that we didn’t want to fall through the cracks,” says Principal Mathew Ditto of Jackson Language Academy.

Ditto continues to use the project he developed last year as a principal intern to help struggling middle-grade students. Teachers identify children who need help, and Ditto meets with the students every week to help them develop behaviors, such as studying regularly, that are essential to school success. Adults in the building give the students positive feedback when they see improvements. The school sends letters home every two weeks to keep parents up to speed on children’s progress.

This year, 35 principal interns from New Leaders for New Schools and the University of Illinois received $2,500 each for their projects from CPS’ principal preparation office. Now, all aspiring principals from the two programs are required to participate.

The U.S. Department of Education was so impressed with the program that it has replicated it in school districts in 20 states. 

The projects were funded with part of a $3.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. (The grant is up for renewal and CPS plans to ask for an increase for the next five years; the grant also covers other initiatives from the principal preparation office.) Next year, the district wants to include aspiring assistant principals in the program.

The recent exhibition was open to principals, local school council members and area instructional officers. Erika Hunt, a member of the Illinois School Leadership Task Force, came to scout out ideas and share them with some of the 30 universities that are currently licensed in Illinois to provide principal preparation.

“Chicago is on the cutting edge,” says Hunt. “Districts are starting to see what they can learn from Chicago.”

Gail Ward, who heads the Office of Principal Preparation and Development, calls the activity “small, but it’s a million-dollar idea.”

Interns say the experience has been invaluable.

Knox says she learned strategies for boosting student achievement in her Englewood school, as well as how to motivate teachers and help them improve. 

A case in point: Knox wanted to increase the literacy skills of students in a 5th-grade classroom, 35 percent of whom are special education students. But the regular education teacher was frustrated. The special education students needed extra attention, and the teacher worried that she wasn’t meeting their needs.

So Knox created a team-teaching model that allowed the regular and special education teacher to divide the class and teach the same lesson at the same time. She also showed them another strategy in which one teacher leads the class, while the other monitors students and provides feedback later to the other teacher.

“I wanted to change the face of team-teaching,” explains Knox.  “Usually [in an inclusive class], the special education teacher just sits with a few students and is not being used fully.”

Steven Askew, who is interning at DuBois Elementary in Riverdale, zeroed in on how to boost the literacy skills of young black males.  One lesson he learned is that students do better when they are engaged.  When he had male students polled about why they weren’t reading more, they said the books were for girls. So Askew bought books that had young men as the main characters and touched on topics they could relate to, such as avoiding gangs. 

“The boys started reading more and some of the discussions that took place were very deep,” reports Askew.

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