Principal Succession in a Fast-Growing District


As Delaware’s fastest-growing school system, Appoquinimink has learned firsthand the necessity of succession planning. With about 500 additional pupils enrolling each year, the school district since 2004 has constructed two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.

As a result of Appoquinimink’s succession plan, more than three-fourths of the recent leadership positions created by the growth have been filled with candidates from the district’s own aspiring leaders program.

Sharon BrittinghamSharon Brittingham

Of the district’s 11 schools, six are rated as superior by the state of Delaware as determined by the state’s accountability system using a school’s adequate yearly progress and the state progress determination. Each of the six schools has a principal who went through Appoquinimink’s own leadership development. Two additional candidates assumed principalships at the district’s high schools in August 2009.

Marion Proffitt, the assistant superintendent of the 8,700-student Appoquinimink School District took the lead on developing the succession plan. Proffitt says the program has fulfilled all expectations. “At one time, I may have worried about who would fill leadership positions, but now I have a pool of available, highly qualified candidates, and the dilemma is not about finding qualified candidates, but who will be the best fit for a particular position from within our pool,” she says.

A Few Discoveries
These are some of the significant things we discovered about operating a leadership succession program in our district over the past decade:

•  Establish a clear process for selecting candidates for the program. Allowing candidates to self-nominate is not productive. When Appoquinimink began its program in 1998, the school district distributed a brochure with an overview and encouraged anyone interested to apply. This became problematic when the district fielded applications from candidates who were not exemplary teachers, who had not served on or led any committees or been department chairs, had no coursework toward an M.Ed. in leadership, and who had only been in teaching a few years.

The district then developed a clear process for candidate selection. This included (1) nomination by the principal; (2) five or more years of teaching experience with exemplary ratings on Delaware’s statewide evaluation system; (3) documented evidence of leadership, such as serving as department chair, leading a committee, etc.; and (4) being within two courses of completing a graduate degree in educational administration.

These criteria ensured the pool of candidates had the characteristics the district wanted in its future leaders. When Proffitt interviewed one candidate, she discovered he had stopped taking graduate courses and no longer was involved on any committees or with any other leadership work. In a private conference, she told the teacher that until he demonstrated a commitment to becoming a leader through his actions, he would not be invited into the program. She left the door open for him to re-enter when he showed initiative. As a result, he completed his master’s in school leadership and led a major school-level committee. He then received an invitation to join the district’s leadership training and now is applying for leadership vacancies.

•  Require candidates to have five or more successful years as a classroom teacher. In Delaware, a teacher can become a school leader after just three years of teaching. The developers of Appoquinimink’s aspiring leaders program did not believe three years of teaching were adequate to fully understand the intricacies of schooling or to be engaged in leadership projects dealing with curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Proffitt believes the credibility of the Appoquinimink program has been enhanced among the teaching staff because the aspiring leaders are recognized by their peers as outstanding teachers who have “walked the talk.”

•  Offer “big picture” opportunities to candidates. Appoquinimink provides its aspiring leaders with chances to complete districtwide projects with leaders from all levels and various functions. These opportunities give teachers a wider perspective of the school district and show them what it means to collaborate and network with others in the district.

At required monthly meetings, the aspiring leaders present reports on their various projects to principals and central-office staff. Proffitt believes the collaboration improves the candidates’ understanding of different school levels, their issues and their priorities since they may differ markedly from the candidate’s more narrow experiences. Aspiring leaders must be given experiences to present publicly to practitioners, she says, and the monthly session becomes a venue for this.

“It is difficult to determine how much a person internalizes until they present,” says Proffitt. “Therefore, an essential part of the program is working with others and presenting.”

Aspiring leaders worked collaboratively with district staff and building principals in Appoquinimink in a range of hands-on, job-embedded ways. They’ve been assigned to investigate the International Baccalaureate Programme and construct a plan of action for implementation; prepare for the transition from half-day to full-day kindergarten; develop a school’s master schedule; draft the district technology plan; prepare for the district’s opening of an early childhood development center; and research the possibility of year-round schools.

They also are integral members of grading committees and school improvement teams at the building level.

•  Ensure regular feedback, goal setting and self-reflection take place. Aspiring leaders meet with Proffitt and the district’s human resource director to set goals, receive candid feedback about their performance and reflect on their strengths and developmental needs. She requires all new leaders to attend NASSP Assessment Center’s Selecting and Developing the 21st Century Principal program, coordinated by the Delaware Academy for School Leadership, and to use the feedback to set their goals for leadership development.

•  Identify the district’s needs and ensure the program addresses those needs. When Appoquinimink began looking for a new middle school principal, the district leadership discovered that none of the aspiring leaders had a thorough knowledge of middle school education. The district immediately started to run training on middle schools and to work with the middle school principals to identify teacher leaders to meet this need in the future.

•  Get commitments to the aspiring leaders program from the top on down. The entire district must be committed to succession planning. This commitment begins with the superintendent, who maintains a relationship with the aspiring group, and reaches from the school board through the current administration.

In Appoquinimink, the program organizers solicited board support prior to implementation. Board members agreed to give strong consideration to those administrator candidates who completed the district program, and a board member served on the program’s original advisory group.

In addition, the principals of the high schools and middle schools agreed to supervise and mentor the interns as they rotated through the two-year internship, developing a broad understanding of the entire system. All now fill assistant principalships. Each year an additional two interns are selected.

Sharon Brittingham directs the Developmental Assessment Center at the Delaware Academy for School Leadership in the College of Education and Public Policy at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del. E-mail: