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Center will teach principals to succeed in city settings

George White

Faced with changing demographics, challenged to meet rigorous academic standards and hampered by daunting budget cuts, America’s urban schools are at a crossroads. It’s a predicament that Lehigh’s College of Education is committed to addressing.

One year after the college received the largest gift in its history, the Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders is building its staff, designing and implementing programs to prepare the next generation of urban school principals and conducting research examining “outperforming” and “out-improving” urban schools.

The center, which was made possible by a generous gift of $2.25 million from Peter Bennett ’63, chairman and CEO of Liberty Partners, is helping Lehigh develop effective educational leaders, who, in turn, will help improve urban communities nationwide.

The center’s mission is to cultivate transformational educational leadership in urban communities by conducting research, developing leadership competencies and improving leadership practices to enhance student learning and development. Understanding that schools are a reflection of the communities in which they are built, the Center will engage the communities, social service agencies and other forces that shape reform efforts.

“Peter Bennett recognizes that strong educational leaders foster strong students,” says J. Gary Lutz, interim dean of the College of Education. “Generous visionaries like Peter, coupled with an enthusiastic and dedicated team of Lehigh faculty and students are making it possible to secure a brighter future for our communities.”

To spearhead these efforts, George White has been appointed interim executive director of the Center. White, program coordinator and professor of educational leadership, has worked with over 60 school districts, educational organizations, and colleges and universities to address issues associated with organizational development and change, partnership development and strategic planning.

“Lehigh and the College of Education have been committed to developing educators who are equipped to work within the unique environment and challenges that urban schools present,” says White. “This Center takes our work one step further by providing a home for urban educational leaders to train and put their creative solutions and innovative ideas to practice.”

White is charged with creating the mission for the new center as well as commencing the center’s work. To help in this effort, Margaret Barber, assistant professor for educational leadership, has been appointed research director. Bennett’s gift will also support an endowed professor for the college who will eventually assume the role of executive director. A faculty search begins next fall.

White is tapping the expertise of a regional advisory board comprised of educational and community leaders immersed in the region’s urban schools. Representing Pennsylvania cities such as Philadelphia, Chester, Allentown and Norristown, these board members are on the front lines of a struggle between education and economics. The board will help devise a plan to achieve the center’s goals.

“Our emphasis is on finding ways to overcome the issues of power and privilege as they relate to determining who receives a quality education,” says White.

“We’re focusing on success”

For White, the center’s mission is of both professional and personal interest. A product of a parochial high school in Philadelphia, White understands the struggle for educators and students to excel in a challenging economic climate.

“Poor education is a way of continuing a cycle of poverty,” says White. “We’re trying to understand how we can help schools and their communities overcome the impact of economic disadvantages.”

An initial research study, which directly addresses that mission, is already underway. White and Barber have identified a segment of economically disadvantaged schools with high academic achievement in Pennsylvania – schools that appear to be bucking the trend that links performance to wealth. These “outperforming” and “out-improving” schools have high poverty and high minority student populations.

“Too often we study failing schools, but here we’re focusing on success,” says White.

The main focus is on the principal’s role and the role of other leaders (teachers, community members or parents) in those achievements. Teams of educational researchers, sociologists and economists will study these urban schools that are performing at levels comparable to the best suburban schools. The results of this study will serve as the basis for the design of a comprehensive model for principal and teachers. “This is research that guides practice,” adds White.

“We want to specifically look for common traits and practices among this segment of principals that other schools can use to select on, or train on, in order to replicate the progress these leaders have made within their own schools,” says Barber. “But we also recognize that additional leadership from teachers, parents and community leaders, as well as other sociological, political and economic factors may have contributed to these success stories as well.”

Research teams will be placed in this segment of schools to determine precisely which factors are creating a successful learning environment. The research will first focus on Pennsylvania-based schools, with the intention of expanding the research efforts to other states. Teams will not only observe typical urban settings such as Philadelphia but also what White refers to as the “forgotten urban” – the small to mid-size urban districts such as Allentown, Trenton or Wilmington.

A number of additional initiatives are also in the planning stages, including an urban principal-in-residence program, urban fellowships and graduate assistantships – all designed to attract and develop practicing educational leaders from across the country.

In addition to Bennett’s gift, Lehigh is committed to raising an additional $2.75 million in support of the center.

“Peter’s generous gift will make it possible to create exceptional leaders for our urban schools, at one of the most critical junctures in education,” said White. “With additional contributions the center will be able to carry out research and develop preparation programs vital not only to the American school system but to every urban community.”

--Tricia Long

Posted on Friday, December 14, 2007

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