Grow Your Own Leaders

A consortium of school districts uses a cohort approach to prepare committed educators for administrative ranks by Sandra R. Lindsay

My father-in-law grew the best tomatoes in the neighborhood. He always declared it had everything to do with his special blend of fertilizer. As I recall, there were some rather odd ingredients in his concoction — even a touch of gunpowder.

Without question his combination of proper fertilizer and attentive care resulted in a harvest we all awaited with eager anticipation.
For the past three years, I have served as liaison for the Leadership Pipeline Initiative, which is a partnership between the College of Education at the University of South Carolina and local school districts. The agreement is to prepare school leaders in cohorts of 25 selected participants. The results are noteworthy, and it occurs to me that the equivalent of Pop Lindsay’s gardening techniques have made all the difference.

Seed Starter
The first cohort was formed and nurtured by the Olde English Consortium, composed of nine school systems in six counties in upstate South Carolina. The idea for the Grow Your Own Leaders program was initiated by the school superintendents in the nine school districts located in the region.

Rita Stringfellow, former executive director of human resources in the Chester County School District, echoed a lament heard in school district headquarters coast to coast. “We are facing a crisis in South Carolina of people retiring, and we don’t have a deep pool of people waiting,” she said.

It’s a similar scenario everywhere: Too few quality administrators ready to fill vacancies created by growth, retirement or the stress of high-stakes leadership. “I hired six principals last year and anticipate hiring three principals per year for the next three years,” says Lynn Moody, superintendent of Rock Hill School District 3. “I’m tired of casting the net to see who applies.”

A memorandum of understanding between the department of educational leadership and policies at the university and the Olde English Consortium includes these key elements:

Purchase of a 13-course program of study leading to an M.Ed. in educational administration and eligibility to be certified as a school administrator;

Inclusion of all fees, tuition and textbooks in the per-participant fee for the complete program;

Hand selection of participants (usually in groups of 25);

Payment of one-half the cost of the program by school districts, and participants pay the other half;

Completion of all course work and outside assignments together as a cohort of aspiring administrators, thereby standardizing and bringing accountability to the set of courses, professors and experiences; and

Commitment by the graduates of the program to stay within the consortiums schools for at least three years after completion of their degrees.

The selection process is crucial. District and school leaders look carefully into their teaching ranks to select participants who show leadership potential. At the conclusion of a sometimes lengthy and elaborate selection process, the participants chosen feel special and work together cooperatively and responsibly and in ways that honor the commitment made to them by their appointment.

The cohort members are diverse — by gender, race, age and experience levels. Their diversity adds to the quality of their personal and professional growth.

Maximum Growth
The curriculum and practical experiences planned for the Grow Your Own Leaders cohorts include input from college faculty and local school district administrators and staff. In true partnership, each plays a role in ensuring that academic preparation is grounded in the practical work of school leaders.

Robert Marzano’s 21 responsibilities as described in School Leadership That Works; Paul Hersey, Ken Blanchard and Dewey Johnson’s work on situational leadership in Management of Organizational Behavior; and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People have moved from words on a page to actions in reflective practice. A constant question asked of participants is: How will this apply in the day-to-day world of an administrator?

The participants are asked to reflect periodically on their own professional growth. Oliver Love, an assistant principal at Harold C. Johnson Middle School in York County, S.C., shared evidence of the success of tying theory to practice.

“A significant learning experience for me involved a teacher who was very unhappy with her assigned team. She became very emotional as she talked with me about her situation,” Love recounts. “I immediately shifted into counseling mode, using some of the skills learned in a … positive-language activity from our instructional supervision class. I was committed to helping this teacher since she was the first one who trusted me enough to share a problem.”

In their book, Hersey, Blanchard and Johnson explain that a good leader has to show commitment to others by spending necessary time and energy working with them, Love adds. Workers, the authors state, will be more productive team players when their leader shows positive concern and recognition, gives developmental feedback and encourages innovative ideas.

“In this situation, that is exactly what I did,” Love says. “Once I finished with my supportive supervisory approach, the teacher was willing to stay in the position and see how things worked out under my leadership. Six months later, she is now enjoying her position, is very supportive of me and is serving as a department chairperson.”

Christopher Roorda, who spent the second year of the program as an administrative intern at Oakdale Elementary School, recounted an episode that reflects the professional growth of those in the Grow Your Own Leaders program.

“On the first day of school I was introduced to some teachers and one looked at me and said, ‘You know, it’s bad enough I’ve got to go to my doctor who is younger than me and he tells me what to do. Now I’ve got to come to work and be told what to do by someone else who is younger than me,’” Roorda relates. “I had never met the lady before in my life.”

Over the first few days as teachers needed things done in their classrooms, Roorda tried to be accommodating as he thought about Covey’s concept of the “emotional piggy bank.” “As it turned out, this teacher needed my help with discipline issues as well, and again I was more than happy to help her,” he says. “Well, it absolutely floored me one afternoon after bus duty when she came walking up to me and told me I was doing a wonderful job and she was so happy I was here. Stephen Covey is a genius!”

Covey’s habits also resonated with Jamie Quinn, whose passion is working with students who have difficulty in the regular setting. One of the administrators at the Phoenix Academy in Rock Hill, S.C., where Quinn was assigned as an intern, became ill, allowing Quinn to fill in and live the challenges of day-to-day school leadership.

Referring to Covey’s seminal work, he said, “I put first things first. This is a rule that I use more and more while in the leadership role. I am always looking down the road as opposed to concentrating on the moment. As I get better at evaluating and looking forward I feel as though I am becoming more of a visionary. I believe that the ability to be a visionary and communicate a vision in real language is the essence of a good leader. It is not hard to sell a quality product, but it is more difficult to make improvements than I previously anticipated.”

Superintendents opt to grow their own leaders in part to acclimate participants to the school districts and leadership roles in the particular schools and communities in which they will serve. The participants receive personal counseling and support from an array of people in their home school districts. Mentor principals are selected carefully to guide practicum experiences.

Like the gunpowder in Pop Lindsay’s magic fertilizer, one aspect of the program proved unique. The benefits of preparing for leadership in a true cohort have been the most surprising success of all. Though all who participated in the planning believed having the group train in cohort fashion would be an asset, none expected the process to be central to the success.

The M.Ed. in educational administration at University of South Carolina uses an online delivery model. For the Grow Your Own Leaders cohort, the program consists of a combination of face-to-face instruction and a blended online delivery (augmented by periodic face-to-face sessions). The first course offering in summer 2005 was an in-person course that enabled the cohort to build relationships.

During the following two years, 25 comrades studied together, completed projects jointly, discussed ethics and leadership issues in educational administration together, came to each other’s rescue and celebrated successes together.

By graduation in August 2007, 75 percent of the participants in the initial cohort had been appointed to an assistant principalship, administrative internship or teacher-leader/coach role. Latoya Dixon was the first to be named a principal. In January 2008, she was named principal of Mt. Gallant Elementary School in the community where she grew up.

“They have formed a very cohesive support system,” Stringfellow says of the 25 participants. “They will support one another as they move through their careers and that support will help us and help keep them here. That ongoing support is so important for the demands of administration.”

The connection among cohort members is real and valued. The support, which likely will last throughout their careers, includes tangible personal and professional benefits. Oliver Love noted: “Everybody has a partner. Somebody always keeps you out of trouble. Nobody is alone. I think all of them have helped me at some time. We’re real close.”

The academic and personal benefits of being a member of a group with a true, shared learning experience are phenomenal. Academic discussions take on new life and conversations are effortless when participants know and trust each other and share a common knowledge base.

A Healthy Harvest
The journey is neither easy nor without challenges. Expectations for success are clearly communicated. The performance bar is high. The pressure to be a leader among a group of hand-selected leaders causes stress and plenty of mostly healthy competition.

As they began their course work, almost all 25 participants in the initial cohort were classroom teachers. Completing a degree while still handling the responsibilities of the classroom proved hard. Cohort members who were appointed to leadership posts midway through the program had greater capacity to apply their graduate school assignments to their daily routines on the job.

This wasn’t the case for the classroom teachers in the cohort who had to take time away from students to shadow a principal, attend conferences and interview other staff to help prepare for their leadership work.

Planning for succession is a responsibility many school district leaders take too lightly. A Grow Your Own Leaders program is clearly an investment in the future. It is strategic planning made practical. The superintendents in the Olde English Consortium acknowledge they might not even be around when these cohort members become principals five or six years from entering the training program.

A former superintendent in Fort Mill, TEC Dowling, was a driving force in bringing the program to life. He retired in 2006 for health reasons, reminding his colleagues, “The investment in these young leaders is what we owe our students and our communities.”

By planning strategically with university partners, superintendents across nine school districts created a synergistic principal-preparation model. Within a short time, 25 well-trained, loyal, committed and professionally connected school leaders dispersed across the region. They serve as role models of connected leaders who understand that leadership is not about the degree earned but the professional connections nurtured in an ongoing quest to improve one’s leadership capability.

A second cohort of 24 aspiring leaders from the Olde English Consortium began their course work in summer 2007 and among their first teachers and mentors are members of the original cohort, sowing new seeds and planning for a future abundant harvest.

In fact, the seeds have resulted in an abundant and wide-ranging harvest. With the support of the consortium, the Leadership Pipeline Initiative is supporting six Grow Your Own Leaders cohorts across South Carolina and three more will begin in 2008-2009.

Sandra Lindsay is clinical professor and project coordinator for the Leadership Pipeline Initiative in the department of educational leadership and policies at the University of South Carolina. E-mail: slindsay@gwm.sc.edu