Chicago Public Schools will be hit this year with a record number of principal vacancies. One in five school leaders—120 systemwide—have notified the district that they will step down from their jobs at the end of the year, CPS reported in mid-March.

That’s already a 71 percent increase over last year, when about 70 principals stepped down. And the number could climb even higher, since principals have until April 15 to notify the district that they will be leaving.

To cope with the exodus, the Office of Principal Preparation and Development is casting a wide net for candidates from both inside and outside the city. One measure of the district’s efforts: A CPS advertisement for elementary and high school principals is featured prominently on the website for the national newspaper Education Week.

The district has more than enough candidates, in terms of numbers, to fill the vacancies, but is looking to bring in “the best of the best” to run the city’s schools, says Gail Ward, CPS’ officer of principal preparation and development. Currently, 490 candidates have met the district’s principal eligibility requirements, and 80 more candidates are in the pipeline.

Most of the candidates are already working in the district, typically as teachers or assistant principals, but the eligibility list also includes a number of outsiders.

“It’s a party that everyone is invited to,” says Ward.

Wanted: Fresh Perspectives

Indeed, New Leaders for New Schools, a national principal training initiative, has set a goal that half of its next class of principal candidates will be recruited from outside Chicago. (The goal is to recruit some 30 candidates next year; 19 candidates are slated to finish this year.)

CEO Arne Duncan “is interested in looking at folks from outside the district,” says Executive Director April Ervin. Given the number of retirements, it’s likely that more outsiders will end up at the helm of CPS schools, she adds. “Plus, it brings in fresh perspectives.”

New Leaders has candidates from its other training sites in Memphis, California and New York, who could end up in Chicago. Recruitment efforts may focus on Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky where recruits may be more likely to move to Chicago.

In the past, central office was apprehensive that potential principals from outside didn’t know enough about CPS, says Ervin. “That [thought] may still be there, but I think it’s less now.”

New Leaders is one of three premier programs that the district relies on heavily to train principal candidates. The other two are Leadership Academy and Urban Network for Chicago, known as LAUNCH, and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Urban Education Leadership program.

Up the career ladder

The district is also looking to pave the way for assistant principals and top teachers to move up the career ladder.

“Assistant principals are really hungry and want to know how to best prepare for that next step,” says Ward.

To help them, the district has hosted mixers between assistant principals, area instructional officers and current principals to talk about principal posts and explain the eligibility process. Informally, the district has also encouraged principals to talk to their assistants about succession plans.

CPS is also looking at National Board Certified teachers as a conduit for the principalship. “We hope to create a natural pipeline for the future,” says Ward.

Helping schools choose

Local school councils have come under fire recently because of the controversial decision by local school council members at Curie Metro High School to oust Principal Jerryelyn Jones.

Yet many LSCs outside the spotlight are doing their homework and preparing to make crucial leadership choices for their school. Ervin says New Leaders for New Schools is getting more calls from LSCs seeking principals candidates. “In the last two years, that contact has increased significantly,” she says, estimating that the group has consulted with 10 LSCs so far this year.

Designs for Change, a school reform and advocacy group, has provided workshops and assistance to 127 schools on principal evaluation and selection since the beginning of the school year. Most of the schools are on the South Side. (The workshops are conducted through a partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for School Leadership.)

Donald Moore, executive director of Designs, says schools typically report having a large number of applicants, so LSCs want as much information as possible on how to select the right candidate. Designs for Change counsels LSCs to look for a number key qualities that exemplify effective school leadership, such as vision, interpersonal skills and instructional leadership.

“We are very comfortable with the standards,” Moore says. “We hope that councils will figure out what their school improvement priorities are and set up a process for screening and interviewing applicants.”

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