Only in his late 20s, Adam Parrott-Sheffer is on the verge of completing his principal internship and getting ready to take the helm of his own school. Young, and willing to do things out of the box, like wear fatigues to school for a day, he has a lot in common with many of the new principals in CPS.
For one, he is adept at using technology and skillful with data. These traits are common among new principals, says Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools of Chicago, which works in dozens of schools across the city. “It’s been more emphasized in their training and education,” she says.
Data skills will be part of the required assessments under the state’s planned revamp of principal preparation programs. In CPS, data savvy is becoming a key component of principals’ toolkits since the advent of performance management, which requires continuous analysis of student performance and how it is linked to different instructional strategies.
Parrott-Sheffer is an intern at Harte Elementary in Hyde Park, where lead literacy teacher Bernadette Glover notes that the most important task he’s accomplished so far involves data analysis and strategizing. Over the past summer, he helped teachers organize their curriculum so that they had a firm understanding of which skills correspond to different state standards and assessments.
“We had the ideas, but he brought them [together], with graphs, sequences of curriculum, and graphic organizers, to organize our thinking,” Glover says.
Parrott-Sheffer works closely with Harte Principal Shenethe Parks to get hands-on experience in all aspects of her job. Some of this experience, too, involves data and technology. “Mr. P,” as students call him, started a before-school computer lab and tutoring program for boys, who are performing behind girls at Harte.
“We needed the program, we had no budget, and I’m free,” Parrott-Sheffer says. He also grouped after-school reading classes by ability level, so that students with similar needs receive the same teaching help.
Parrott-Sheffer also strives to connect with students. He wore fatigues to school to motivate students for ISAT “boot camp.” One girl, with disappointment in her voice, chided him when he scrapped the fatigues. “You’re wearing a suit again,” she told him.
One recent afternoon, after hooking up a printer that had not worked for months and discussing school webpage options with the technology coordinator, he heads to after-school duty monitoring children as they eat their snacks – defusing fights, coaching them not to steal food from each other, sassily confronting a boy who seems to be taking an extra juice, and offering latecomers snacks while putting away the cafeteria’s garbage can. Students swarm around him constantly, seeking attention, which he calmly offers to each one of them.
When Parrott-Sheffer completes Teach for America’s principal preparation program, he will be required to spend four years working as an administrator in a traditional CPS school.
Since many Teach for America alumni are attracted by charter schools, “we wanted to make sure that more had the opportunity to lead in the traditional school context,” says Josh Anderson, the executive director of Teach for America–Chicago.
Yet Parrott-Sheffer understands the lure of non-traditional schools, where many new principals are clustered. According to data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s 2009 principal survey, almost 63 percent of charter school principals are younger than 40.
Parrott-Sheffer says many candidates like him join charters because of the emphasis they place on defining goals and quantifying results. “That seems to be part of our generation – needing to know that the work you are doing is not only important, but effective,” he says. He still looks back fondly on being part of a tight-knit group of like-minded, ambitious educators at the Gary, Ind. charter school where he landed a job as an administrator after completing a stint as a Teach for America teacher.
He calls the question of whether to work in a public school or a charter “an internal dilemma.”
“I feel this draw towards (neighborhood) schools because those (kids) are the non-choosers,” he says. “(But) also knowing the powerful instruction that is happening in charter schools, and the desire to stay where it is so energizing—I guess I’m kind of ambivalent about it.”
Anderson says the autonomy new schools offer tends to appeal to alumni like Parrott-Sheffer, who was a Teach for America teacher at a Philadelphia middle school.
In addition, charter school principals don’t need an administrator’s license in Illinois, making the path to school leadership quicker.
The independence offered by new schools is also a lure. Peggy Korellis-Byrd, 40, spent a decade teaching before moving into administration and is now in her third year as principal at TEAM Englewood Academy.
She and her former teaching colleagues often talked about how things would look different if they had “a school of their own.” What’s more, starting a school offered her the chance to be judged on the basis of her ideas, rather than her age, she says.
“A lot of times, local school councils have a hard time envisioning a young person [as principal],” Korellis-Byrd says. Starting a school “seemed like a great opportunity. You are able to you grow it your way, rather than inheriting a school that has strengths and weaknesses already.”
A 2004 graduate of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Parrott-Sheffer has since earned two master’s degrees – one in educational policy from the University of Pennsylvania, and a second in school leadership from Harvard, which he earned in the first year of the Teach for America principal preparation program.
Parrott-Sheffer got a taste of administrative work just three months into his Teach for America job at the Philadelphia middle school, which had been taken over by EdisonLearning.
“We didn’t have a working schedule,” Parrott-Sheffer says. So he made one. Soon, every student had a class, and every class had a teacher. The principal asked him to take over as roster chair, similar to a programmer and normally a full-time job. Ever the overachiever, Parrott-Sheffer did it in an hour each day before school.
After his Teach for America stint, Parrott-Sheffer became director of instruction—similar to an assistant principal—at the Gary charter school, where he produced reading and math gains of two grade levels a year.
Now away from the classroom, he struggles to make peace with the slow pace of school improvement. “So much of what you’re doing is for the [current students’] younger brothers and sisters,” he says.
As a teacher, he knew how to get students up to grade level within a year – but “getting an entire school to proficiency within a year [is] not always a realistic goal,” Parrott-Sheffer says.
But he understands why some ambitious young principals leave for jobs higher up.
“There’s a desperate need not just at the principal level, but above that, for excellent leaders,” Parrott-Sheffer says. “People that are good – and a lot of people that aspire to be principals in their 30s are – are stolen by these higher positions.”
“I feel called to be a principal already, but no one’s calling above [that] so far,” he continues. “Thank goodness.