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Building the bench

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter at the City Hall event.

Evan Scott and 13 other educational colleagues make up the first cohort of the Philadelphia High School Leadership Project.

Evan Scott stood on the 13th green in Los Cabos, Mexico, looked at the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains and marveled at how far he had come. Here was a kid from the toughest part of Philadelphia surveying a putt in paradise.

Scott thought about being bused to grade school and how he survived the rugged hallways of Simon Gratz High School in bleak North Philly. He remembered his time in the Marine Corps and in Finland as a Fulbright Fellow. He recalled going to college in rural East Stroudsburg, Pa., worlds away from his high school experience.

Some kids in the city never leave their neighborhoods. Scott had been halfway around the world. Now, he was ready to go back again.

"I stood there and thought about how fortunate I was," Scott says. "How many kids from North Philadelphia ever got a chance to do that?" At the time, Scott had been working at The Haverford School, a prestigious institution that educates largely affluent students on the leafy Philadelphia Main Line. He loved the job, but he knew that wasn't where he belonged.

He wanted back into the educational trenches.

Three years ago, he became Dean of Students at Fitzsimons High School in North Philadelphia, five blocks from where he grew up. There he works with at-risk students in one of the toughest educational environments in one of the least forgiving parts of the city.

But it isn't enough. Scott's dream is to be in charge of his own school, to chart the course for students and help them find their way to the types of experiences he had. Scott wants to create a learning environment that breaks from the traditional inner-city model of failure and builds a school that incorporates the community around it in a successful, cooperative effort. That way, everybody wins--from the student to the business owner to the community leader. "You have to have a vision," Scott says.

And you need a vehicle for sustained success.

Thanks to a grant from the federal government and a groundbreaking relationship between Lehigh University and the Philadelphia School District, Scott and 13 others are getting the training and guidance necessary to become a new breed of inner-city educational CEOs. As part of the Philadelphia High School Leadership Project (PHSLP), Scott will train to be a principal in a program that offers more than just theory. It focuses on teaching the candidates--or proteges, as they are referred to in the project--how to integrate the school into the community around it and foster a learning environment that lowers dropout rates and raises the percentage of students who go on to college and greater opportunities.

When Scott has completed his training, he will be ready to meet the daily challenges of administrative leadership with an approach that goes beyond the classroom and into the world around the school.

The proteges will spend between 12 and 24 months receiving instruction from current and former Philadelphia high school principals, all of whom have years of real-world experience. There are also plans for a mentoring program by Philadelphia corporate CEO s who understand the value of an educated workforce. By next fall, nine of the proteges will be ready to take a post and transform the culture of a school. A year later, the remaining five will step in.

In all, 60 proteges will graduate from the program in the next five years.

"For some kids, school is just a drag," says George White, who leads Lehigh's Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders (CDUEL). "We can change that environment and build on what a principal can do with his staff to make education practical and attractive so kids want to come to school. Eleventh and twelfth graders need experience that is practical to their lives.

"What has bothered me consistently is that principal preparation has had a one-size-fits-all model," White adds. "That isn't happening here. Classroom sessions focus on lessons from those who have been on the front lines, rather than professors who deal in generic educational concepts."

Though the rigorous program has the proteges learning best practices in the classroom, the success of PhslP hinges on the interconnectivity of theory, research, and practice. according to project coordinators, classes are being co-taught by a mix of educators, business leaders, and university faculty who can help translate research into practice.

Lehigh tailored the PhslP's curriculum and professional development components in close partnership with the school district and the national association of secondary school Principals. in addition to the educational experience, the proteges will be mentored, receive coaching, and participate in ongoing education programs during their first two years on the job--efforts that will ensure they learn the unique and specifi c skills of leading a struggling high school to success.

"At its heart, the project is all about the proteges becoming refl ective learners. they're developing the ability to learn from their experiences so that they can continue to grow even after they enter the principal position," says Margaret Barber, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Lehigh who also serves as the research director of Cduel.

"This isn't an 'either/or' effort," she adds. "We strategically blur the lines between theory and practice. it's the combination of the two--and how well the proteges incorporate their experiences--that will ultimately determine the longterm success of the program."

A Philly Welcome

The Mayor's reception room in Philadelphia's City hall is impressive, with its vaulted ceiling, ornate chandelier and gallery of portraits of the city's former mayors, all of whom appear to be sitting in judgment of the city's latest developments.

On a sun-splashed July morning, the first 14 proteges were introduced officially and lauded by Mayor Michael nutter, the lehigh community, the Philadelphia business community, and city administrators.

The ceremony was a great pep rally and certainly made the proteges feel as if the time they were devoting to training would be rewarded with widespread support. it also put a public stamp on the relationship that will serve as the catalyst for the program's success. although lehigh has long promoted urban educational leadership, the PhslP has a greater chance of success because of the bond between school and city.

As vital as the curriculum may be and as important as the commitments of the proteges are, the union between lehigh and Philadelphia is just as critical to the project's long-term success. it is part of the city's "imagine 2014" strategic plan for education that aims to increase graduation rates. the July ceremony proved the strength of the bond. everyone who spoke described the importance of the project and the need to educate students who will become solid citizens, employable workers, and future leaders.

"The work you are doing is unbelievably connected to the economic well-being of this region," Lori Shorr, Mayor nutter's chief education officer, said to the proteges. it's an important message, because the challenge is daunting.

The Leadership Vacuum

More than 70 percent of the students in the school district come from low-income families and qualify for free/reduced price lunch programs. More than 20,000 students (11.5 percent of the district's 167,000) require special educational services, while 7.5 percent have limited English proficiency. those numbers represent the cultural challenges that face administrators on every level and demonstrate the need for creative, active leadership at the school level.

Although improvements have been made in the past seven years, only 44.9 percent of Philadelphia students scored profi cient or advanced in math Pssa tests, while 40.6 percent hit those marks in reading. and only 49.2 percent of the public school students graduate after four years. although that number is better than the grim stats found in detroit (24.9 percent graduation rate) and indianapolis (30.5 percent), according to a 2008 study released by the Bush administration, it remains way too low, especially when compared with graduation fi gures in the Philadelphia suburbs (82.4 percent). the PhslP program hopes to contribute to the district's goal of reducing dropout rates by 25 percent and boosting test scores by 25 percent over the next five to ten years.

The low numbers in Philadelphia are hardly a local phenomenon. according to the '08 report, only 52 percent of students in the nation's 50 largest cities graduate high school after four years--a rate 18 percent lower than the national average. the study also cited a national dropout rate of 1.2 million students per year.

Exacerbating the situation is a climate in which Philadelphia's school leadership is in a high state of flux. the district has had to hire a total of 183 new principals (at all levels) over the past five years. and those who have remained in their positions are graying. Marcia schulman, PhslP's coordinator, reports that 86.7 percent of high school principals are within 10 years of retirement.

White and Schulman speak of developing a "bench" of potential principal candidates, but those reserves will get into the game pretty quickly, given the turnover rates and expected mass exodus in the next decade. those who step in must be prepared to meet the challenges of a new century, and that's why the PhslP is so important.

Charting a New Course

Before Janet Middleton became an educator, she spent time in the retail and real estate worlds, learning what made businesses--and their leaders--successful. If you want to teach students how to thrive in the marketplace, she says, the people preparing them had better be experienced beyond the classroom and school office.

"You need people with real-life experiences," Middleton says.

In her role as a data-driven instructional specialist for the Philadelphia School District's South Regional Office, Middleton has noticed a disconnect between the middle and high school domains. Students often enter secondary schools without plans for success. They aren't always aware of what courses they need to graduate, much less to move on to college.

But it's not always the students' faults. Because school administrators lack the experience beyond their institutions' walls, they don't always know how to guide the young men and women.

"[The project] will give me the foundation and the opportunity to look at things in a different way," Middleton says. "If you're talking about high school preparing 21st century leaders, you have to look for [administrators] with experience. Children value that."

The project's strength is that real-world component and the emphasis on creating principals who will see themselves as CEO s, not just disciplinarians or traditional educators. Their job is to build an environment that goes beyond textbooks and into the community. It must translate knowledge imparted during lectures into skills that emerge in the workplace. And it must convince students whose surroundings seduce them away from the school that a diploma is the only real ticket to success and prosperity.

Middleton and her fellow proteges have been asked to develop their visions for what they want to achieve. After that, they are given the skills necessary to achieve those goals. Some have gritty, daily applications. Others take a longer view.

Culture of Success

Peter Bennett '63 is chairman and CEO of Liberty Partners, a private equity investment firm. The Lehigh alum helped launch Lehigh's Center for Developing Urban Educational Leaders in 2006 with a gift of $2.25 million, with the goal of bridging the gap between industry and educational leadership.

For more than 40 years, Bennett's been in the business of turning around underperforming companies. He's seen firsthand the difference between companies that are well run and those that aren't--and believes many of those measures of success can be applied to the educational arena.

"Turning a school around is, in my opinion, more difficult because of the many parties that are in play," he says. "And there is no such thing as absolute authority in our educational system--hence the need for exceptional leaders who have the insight and ability to bring people together.

"It's not just about understanding the business of education, like finance and budgeting," says Bennett. "Today, principals must be trained with the leadership skills, negotiating techniques, and aspects of change management to persuade multiple audiences to get behind programs and to help overturn what has become a culture of failure," Bennett says.

Philadelphia executives share those sentiments. Discussions are already in the works to involve the Philadelphia-based CEO Ambassadors for 21st Century Skills to serve as executive coaches for the proteges. The intent is to ensure that the proteges learn the requisite leadership and management skills of successful CEO s--individuals who not only chart the course for their companies, but also their communities.

Citizens Bank CEO Daniel Fitzpatrick is chairman of the ambassadors group. He says both leaders must solve problems, deal with many different constituencies, do more with less, and be accountable for the results. "Don't shrink from what doesn't work," he told the proteges.

It's an entrepreneurial message that carries a lot of weight. And it's why the proteges will also be assigned to "host principals," experienced administrators already on the job who will oversee and support the proteges during their intensive internship experience. Those veterans will provide even more practical experience and, just as important, provide critical feedback on their skill development. It continues the theme of the importance of functional instruction designed to create a new breed of urban leader.

"We're providing training so these people can be change agents," Schulman says. "They need to build teams that can get the work done to build change."

A Change of Vision

When the proteges emerge from their training, they will be ready to create new cultures in the schools they lead. They will be trained to create the type of environment that nurtures but also demands accountability from students--just like people find in suburban districts.

By incorporating contact with a variety of groups into the training, the PHSL P will give the tools necessary to build that environment, so that students at an urban high school will have the same motivation and expectations to succeed as their counterparts in the 'burbs.

The key is to look beyond the traditional and ask what can be done differently to effect change, and more importantly, to improve results. Principals need to be case managers, applying a variety of techniques to many different constituencies.

"In this day and age, you have to be a coalition builder," Scott says. "Twenty or 30 years ago, it was a boss doing it a certain way. Now, it's a more collaborative issue.

"You have to provide an environment conducive to learning...and you have to be someone who has a vision and can be proactive."

Do that, and Scott might just be standing on that green in Los Cabos some day with a couple of former students.

Story by --Michael Bradley

Posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010

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