Fulton County Assistant Superintendent Judy Gilliam surveyed her pupils, their pens poised and laptops open, early one morning this month.
“If the curriculum becomes political,” she asked them, “what does it have to do with you?”
“We’re kind of on the front lines,” volunteered Gene Dunn. “We’re the first avenue parents go to.”
Dunn is an assistant principal at Milton High in north Fulton County. His observation was an apt one, given that school administrators’ jobs are growing more complex — and some would say more demanding — each year.
Principals who used to worry mostly about keeping order in schools now must also crunch data, make sure state standards are taught and raise student test scores buildingwide, all while navigating the political quandaries that have always made the job challenging.
The exchange between Dunn and Gilliam came at a session of Fulton’s Promising Principals Program, which aims to make the transition to the principalship a bit less trial-by-fire. The yearlong training includes confronting assistant principals who aspire to become principals with scenarios they are likely to encounter, to help them think through how they would react.
“The job of principal has changed so dramatically over the last decade,” said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. “The feeling is that the kind of training that they need is just not readily available to a lot of principals, so school systems are doing it themselves.”
Fulton’s program is in its second year. In Atlanta, a quarter of all principals are graduates of a similar two-year program the district began offering in 2001, said spokesman Keith Bromery. Cobb, Clayton, Gwinnett and DeKalb have offered their own versions for several years.
“We know our needs and we’re able to groom and train our own,” said Thomas Glanton, DeKalb’s director of leadership development.
Gwinnett expects a slew of principals to retire in upcoming years, making its leadership program all the more crucial, said spokeswoman Sloan Roach.
The system will also see more principal posts open due to a building boom that continues to add more than a half-dozen schools each year.
At the Fulton County session, participants said the program is teaching them to think more globally, in contrast to their more detail-oriented days as assistant principals. Practical training in matters such as developing budgets is invaluable, too, they said. And with sessions on everything from curriculum to facilities, they said they were learning how to find help in the large system when they need it.
“Even as assistant principals, there’s other facets that we don’t see,” said Brent McBride, an assistant principal at Sandy Springs’ Heards Ferry Elementary. “This helps us close that gap.”
Ishmael Abdul-Salaam, assistant principal at Bethune Elementary in College Park, said he sees the program as “executive-level” training, somewhat like what business leaders would seek.
The 10 participants in the Fulton program this year were chosen from about 16 applicants. While none are guaranteed promotions, three of 26 participants last year became principals within a year, said Greg Fields, the district’s chief leadership development officer.
An advantage of increasing the number of strong internal applicants for leadership posts is candidates’ familiarity with a system they have already made an investment in, Fields said. “When you grow your principals or your leaders from within, there is already a profound commitment to the school system,” he said.
The program’s monthly in-person sessions are supplemented by online work, readings, job shadowing and attendance at board meetings. On days when participants meet, the trainees hear from senior administrators such as Gilliam. They also have four round-table lunches during the year with groups of three principals.
Conventional wisdom says that on most days, principals make 100 decisions before lunch.
“The principal is not the most important person in the building,” Gilliam told her class, “but the principal is the most influential person in the building.”
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