My View

Proactive Support of Budding Principals
By JEFF EAKINS/School Administrator, June 2020

TEN YEARS AGO, we were a school district that lacked clarity around how to effectively and strategically support schools. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of staff from various divisions were working tirelessly to support the schools, but to our schools, this help seemed reactionary and, in many cases, not sustainable.

We had to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “Why have we created such a reactive system of support?”

The answer became clearer and clearer each time we were charged with filling a principal vacancy. Our candidate pool was drying up. Newly appointed principals were entering their roles lacking the support and training to develop as effective building leaders. This was not fair to them.

Our system was reactive because of a growing lack of trust with principal effectiveness in our schools. We had to rebuild that trust by rebuilding the process for preparing and supporting our principals. And we had to be more intentional.

Molding Incomers

Enter the Wallace Foundation and its support of our school district in building a high-quality principal pipeline. It was a game changer.

The Principal Pipeline Program is strategic. We encourage qualified teachers to apply for the Future Leaders Academy. From there, these candidates go through the Assistant Principal Induction Program, where we begin to mold them into the leaders we want them to be. After three years, an assistant principal can apply for and begin a course of study focused on hands-on experience relevant to the principal role. The final stage is the Principal Induction Program.

Each of the programs is grounded in a set of leadership standards, which are the driving force behind all parts of our comprehensive pipeline. The standards drive candidate recruitment, selection, preservice training, hiring, on-the-job support and evaluation of school leaders.

Deliberate Backing

Within a few years, we had more great principals ready to lead our schools. Now we had to create a better districtwide support system for them. We needed strong people in central roles who knew how to give proper support.

We established a new system of area superintendents and principal coaches who also had an understanding of effective instructional leadership. We ensured everyone on the pipeline was working under the same instructional lens.

We also recognized the importance of preventing our great leaders from burning out. We are deliberate about this. We allow different departments to be more strategically responsive to the needs of our schools and not just create a haphazard system of support.

One area where we’ve been more responsive is our higher-needs schools — we call them our Achievement Schools. Not only do these schools receive their own highly specialized team of district leaders and supports, but the process to become a principal of one of these schools is even more intense. The candidate must complete the pipeline, have at least two years of experience as a principal and go through turnaround leadership. A system of specific support encourages and guides candidates the entire way.

Resources Remain

Another benefit of the pipeline is how fiscally responsible it is. It allows us greater clarity to make more effective financial decisions that are sustainable. The money from the Wallace Foundation grant is gone, but the pipeline and the resources in place to support it remain.

In short, the pipeline created great principals and our shifts in support enabled these leaders to succeed. We created a strong line of accountability that aligned the supports for principals and allowed the rest of the organization to support their schools in their own areas. We got out of our own way. By doing so, we put in place a system that sets our schools and our district up for success.

JEFF EAKINS retired in March as superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla.