The new principal hired for Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest Washington this month has quelled a nearly year-long protest by parents and teachers who felt adrift without a permanent leader. But his arrival is significant for another reason.
After teaching social studies in the District for five years and then working as an eighth-grade administrator for a year, MenSa Ankh Maa completed a rigorous one-year program, called New Leaders for New Schools, that leapfrogged him over the competition.
As school system leaders work to improve lagging student achievement, they are increasingly turning to the national principal-training program to fill vacancies. School officials hope that within a few years, about half of D.C. public schools will be led by graduates of the program.
New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit organization, was established in 2000 to address a nationwide shortage of principals. In the District, about 50 percent of principals are now eligible to retire, school officials say. Moreover, School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has indicated that up to 40 percent of principals are not performing adequately and has already terminated several of them.
Maa is among nine program graduates recently hired as principals for public schools including Ballou Senior High, Deal Junior High, Bunker Hill Elementary and Murch Elementary and for charter schools. At least 18 graduates from Maa's class, who received master's degrees in educational administration, are expected to become principals or assistant principals in city schools by the fall, compared with 10 last year. In the past two years, 19 program graduates have become a principal or an assistant principal of a public or charter school in the city.
D.C. school officials say they are seeking "entrepreneurial" principals to carry out Janey's ambitious plan to transform the system through new learning standards, curricula and testing, to be introduced in the coming academic year. Maa, for example, said he wants to "maximize the instructional day and limit student distraction" at Jefferson by lengthening class periods from 50 to 75 minutes and replacing daily recess with a once-a-week activity time aimed at rewarding students who do their homework.
Unlike some neighboring districts, the D.C. system has no in-house training program for principal prospects, and school officials say they are relying on the New Leaders program to help fill that void as the system prepares for the new testing required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"We're asking our entire system to get up to speed in less than seven months on an assessment we've never done before," said Meria J. Carstarphen, the system's chief accountability officer. "We're asking more of our principals."
The New Leaders program is not without critics. Announcements of the hirings have sparked some debates on who best qualifies as a principal -- the candidate with the most experience in the system or the one with the most determination to shake up the system.
Those especially disparaging of the recruiting effort are veteran school administrators, some of whom refer to those in the program as "microwave" leaders because they are groomed for their new posts so quickly.
Bernard C. Lucas Sr., president of the Council of School Officers, which represents D.C. public school principals, said he recently filed a grievance against the school system, alleging that several assistant principals were discouraged from applying for principals' jobs. Given that the assistant principals were qualified, according to the grievance, the school system's action was "capricious and age discriminatory."
"It's a serious issue. There is an arbitrary glass ceiling," Lucas said. "And rules are being rewritten as we talk."
Tony Dimasi, executive director of the system's human resources department, could not be reached Friday to comment on the union's grievance.
Founders of New Leaders for New Schools say the nationwide principal shortage coincides with a push by schools to upgrade requirements for the job.
Besides serving as instructional leaders, education experts say, principals now are expected to devise and manage multimillion-dollar budgets, analyze test data and think innovatively. The problem, those experts say, is that those skills are not naturally developed through classroom teaching and not often taught in traditional university education programs.
So far, 230 educators have gone through the New Leaders training programs in New York, Chicago, Memphis, Oakland, Calif., and the District. A new class was formed in Baltimore this summer. Although long-term studies have not been done, student test scores have risen 10 to 35 percentage points in one year at some New York schools with New Leaders-trained principals, said Jon Schnur, founder and chief executive of the organization.
Jacquelyn Davis, executive director of the D.C. division of the program, said that, in general, those selected for the program have been teachers but few have extensive administrative experience. They take courses in leadership, team building, budgeting and management and complete a one-year residency as an assistant principal at a D.C. public school. Their salaries, as much as $74,000, are paid by the school system; the rest of the program is financed by foundations and private donors, Davis said.
"This year, I was able to visit several high-performing schools around the country," Maa said. "They've given me the conviction to put several innovative theories into practice -- home visits to students and weekly progress reports so parents can know how their children are doing."
The appointment of New Leaders graduate Karen Smith to Ballou, the second-largest senior high school in the city, has been controversial. Smith, who previously taught humanities at another high school, is Ballou's third principal in three years. In that time at the Southeast school, a student was fatally shot, a mercury spill caused by students shut the building for a month and low achievement has persisted, and some say Smith isn't ready to take on the assignment.
"Just because a person goes through this [program] doesn't mean they are qualified to lead a school at this point in their career," said the Rev. Anthony J. Motley, president of a nonprofit education program in Southeast. "What are we doing to our students when we select people without a proven track record?"
Smith did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Philip E. Pannell, treasurer of the Ballou parent-teacher-student association, said he supports Smith. "Ballou is, in my mind, such an educational wasteland. I'm willing to try anything."