Fourteen school systems around the country, including the District and Prince George’s County, will receive grants totaling $30 million to improve the effectiveness of unsung middle managers in large urban districts — those who supervise principals.
The five-year program, funded by the Wallace Foundation, is designed to help improve management in sprawling school bureaucracies.
The grants will allow school districts to restructure workloads so that supervisors have fewer principals to manage, more time to spend in schools and more ability to focus on mentoring and solving problems with their principals, said Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at Wallace.
The average supervisor — sometimes called assistant superintendents, instructional coaches or zone supervisors — oversees 24 principals, Spiro said.
What’s more, most of their work is making sure that schools are complying with district, state or federal policies, bureaucratic accounting that leaves little time for meaningful interaction with principals, she said.
The grants are designed to encourage school districts to rearrange responsibilities so that others in the central office assume some of the compliance duties and supervisors have more time to spend with fewer principals.
“This will allow supervisors to be frequently present in the schools, providing mentoring and guidance, particularly to new principals but also to experienced principals who need this kind of support,” Spiro said.
The Wallace Foundation, which has been focused on improving leadership in public schools, believes that the job of supervising principals has been overlooked in discussions about school improvement.
“It’s really been a neglected position,” Spiro said. “There’s no commonality throughout the country from district to district about what these people do. There are no standards of performance, no agreement about what the job is. No one had been really paying attention to it.”
Yet, research commissioned by Wallace found links between effective principals and student achievement, Spiro said. And principals who feel supported by their central administrations are happier, she said.
“One of the things we’ve learned is how lonely the job of a principal is,” Spiro said. “No one else in the school has that position. The principal is responsible for everything that goes on in that building. And that’s lonely.”
An effective mentor can make a difference, she said. “Our theory is that this will not only make a tremendous difference in how effective the principal will be, but it will also help retain the best principals,” Spiro said. “They’ll stay.”
A core group of six school districts — Long Beach (Calif.), Des Moines (Iowa), Broward County (Fla.), Minneapolis, Cleveland and DeKalb County (Ga.) — will receive four-year grants averaging about $3 million each. The foundation will spend $2.5 million on an independent evaluation of whether the grants result in more effective principals.
Wallace also is giving $700,000 to the District and $800,000 to Tulsa (Okla.) to reorganize workloads for principal supervisors and to cultivate new talent.
And it is awarding grants to six districts that are already part of an ongoing 2011 project to develop a “pipeline” of talented school principals. The six districts are Prince George’s County — which will get $700,000 — and Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina), Denver, Gwinnett County (Georgia), Hillsborough County (Fla.) and New York City. The six will receive Wallace grants ranging from $430,000 to $1 million, for a total of $4 million.