Charter schools suffer leadership shortages

April 24, 2011

One Sunday in 2009, the principal of Potomac Lighthouse Public Charter School in Northeast Washington called the school’s board to tell them she was quitting. The next day, school officials said, she didn’t come to work.

A national search team immediately placed advertisements in newspapers and on job boards but received just 15 applications. Of those, only five had the qualifications school officials were seeking. And it was already a month into the school year.

Potomac Lighthouse soon solved its problem — appointing an interim principal before settling on one of the candidates for the permanent position — but such leadership quandaries are growing more common in the District and in other locations where charter-school movements are robust. The supply of skilled, experienced talent is not keeping up with demand.

Charter school supporters say the shortage of high-quality leaders could significantly slow the movement at a time when some 400 new charters are opening annually — creating several hundred top positions that must be filled.

“It is hard to find a good charter leader,” said Regan Kelly, vice president of Lighthouse Academies in the District. “It’s not an easy problem, but it’s one that people need to get their heads around.”

Unlike traditional public schools, most charters don’t have the resources of a school district — such as recruitment teams or pools of resumes — to find new leaders quickly. And turnover at the top level in charters is high. Seventy-one percent of charter leaders plan to leave their positions in the next five years, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, which studied the issue last year.

There is also a dearth of training programs specifically geared toward charter leaders, who tend to have more responsibilities than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

Experts say good leadership is key to improving student performance. New Leaders for New Schools, a New York-based nonprofit group that prepares principals and other top administrators for urban schools, found in 2009 that more than half of a school’s impact on student achievement can be attributed to principal and teacher effectiveness. In the 2009 study, principals accounted for 25 percent and teachers 33 percent of the effect.

“I think [the leadership shortage] has already substantially throttled the growth” of charter schools, said Eric Premack, director of the Charter Schools Development Center, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group that offers training, resources and technical assistance to charters nationally. “We would have two to three times as many schools operating if we didn’t have this problem.”

One weekday, aspiring principal Danalyn Hypolite and Shawn Hardnett, a leadership coach for the New Leaders for New Schools program in the District, walked down the wide hallways of Paul Public Charter School in Northwest. Each carried a plate of King Cake that Hypolite, a New Orleans native, had brought for the staff.

It was only Tuesday morning, but Hypolite’s week had already been hectic. “I was here until eight last night,” she told Hardnett.

He just laughed. “Welcome to the rest of leadership,” Hardnett said.

Hypolite is more than halfway through a 15-month New Leaders for New Schools program, one of only a handful nationwide that offer extensive, personal training for potential leaders of charter schools. (The program also trains those who want to work in traditional public schools.)

Hardnett has become a trusted confidant of Hypolite’s. They meet weekly, dissecting encounters she has with students and parents, planning academic projects and preparing for observations and meetings with teachers.

The training program begins in the summer and continues with year-long paid residencies. Participants spend the summer together, and by spring the program separates those who are preparing to work at traditional schools from those focused on charters.

The charter leaders, who will operate with more autonomy than principals at traditional schools, must learn to recruit students and balance budgets. They often have to raise money and secure their own facilities.

“Good leaders need to have not only the core skills around improving student achievement and evaluating teachers,” said James Merriman, director of the New York City Charter School Center, a nonprofit group that helps new charters get started and supports existing ones. “They also need to know how to manage upwards to their board of trustees . . . and navigate the shoals of living in and working in a community.”

Comprehensive training programs spend time on all of these issues, but there is a limit to how many graduates they can produce. With programs in 12 urban districts across nine states and the District, New Leaders for New Schools accepts about 100 applicants — 7 percent of those who apply — each year. At the D.C. program this year, six out of 12 residents are being trained to be principals at charter schools. Nationally, about 25 percent of new leaders go on to run charters.

Some charter schools are starting to train teachers from within their own ranks to take leadership roles. But far more schools don’t have any plan should their principals retire tomorrow.

Only half of the nation’s charter schools said they had succession plans in 2010, and many of those plans were weak, said Christine Campbell, author of the Center on Reinventing Public Education study.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the District’s 98 charter schools, makes recommendations to schools about developing succession plans. “It’s nothing enforceable,” said Tamara Lumpkin, deputy director of the board. “We want to respect schools’ autonomy, but we do think it’s a good thing to have.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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