'Speed dating' pairs principals with schools

Councils look for new leaders.


Veronica Anderson

You wouldn't necessarily call it a "love connection,' but something must have clicked between Erick Pruitt and O'Toole Elementary's local school council on a winter evening this past February. That's when the Chicago Public Schools and school reform group Designs for Change co-sponsored the Leaders to Leaders conference, an annual matchmaking event to hook up aspiring principals with local school councils looking to hire someone in their schools' top leadership spots.

Pruitt was among 45 candidates who attended and had the chance to meet with representatives from 18 schools in the market for a principal. Recruited from the city's premier training programs, the candidates had seven minutes to make their pitch.

"It's like speed dating," says Pruitt, 33, a former teacher who served eight years in the Marine Corps. "You go around and talk to schools that you're interested in."

A few months later, Pruitt, who by then had nearly completed principal training with New Leaders for New Schools, got a call from O'Toole to come in for an interview. By May, he had been awarded a four-year contract. Two others in Pruitt's training class who participated in the event got principal contracts, too.

Likely, there were others who were hired as a result of connections made at the conference, but unfortunately, Chicago Public Schools does not keep track. That's too bad, because local school councils, which by state law have the authority to hire and fire principals in Chicago, are blamed most often for the difficulty of getting talented leaders in schools. Composed mostly of non-educators, councils are accused of casting too narrow a net when looking for principals and for basing hiring decisions on politics.

Whether or not these assertions are true, council-candidate matchmaking events can help overcome both hurdles and help Chicago schools stay a step ahead of a growing challenge: replacing hundreds of principals who are expected to retire over the next several years.

"Everyone in urban districts is struggling with this now," says Nancy Laho, who oversees principal development for the city's school system.

This year, 107 of the district's 600-plus schools have new principals; 62 replaced someone who retired. Laho says it is not yet clear how many more will retire by next June. (Principals have until next March to make a decision.)

Things got tough on the supply side a few years ago, when the pool of eligible principal candidates shrunk following the district's revision of standards, as it aimed for the best candidates.

Three nontraditional training programs are doing their part, adding about 45 qualified people to the pool each year. But their success rates for getting these candidates jobs ranges from 42 percent to 61 percent, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis.

It's time to step up the game, Chicago. Even if that means turning to the dating game.


Catalyst Chicago is a monthly newsmagazine published by the Community Renewal Society that covers the progress, problems and politics of school reform in Chicago Public Schools. Editor Veronica Anderson can be reached at (312) 673-3847 or e-mail her at [email protected]

Q.State poverty funds that go directly to Chicago's public schools have been capped at $261 million since 1995. But the poverty funds that go to the district's central office have been increasing. What is the district spending its portion on?

Valencia Rias Designs for Change

A. The state sent an additional $69 million in poverty funds to the district for 2007, raising the total to $355 million, according to Pedro Martinez, budget director. Additional funds were spent on raises and benefits for teachers and staff, he says.

Chicago's general education fund includes state poverty money, other state funding and property tax revenue. The general fund pays for everything from salaries to textbooks to building maintenance, says Martinez. Schools can only use their portion of poverty funds to supplement basic services. Directing additional poverty funds to schools above the $261 million required by state law would force the district to cut basic services, Martinez argues, because overall funding from the state is so low.

But without an increase in their portion of poverty funds, schools can't keep pace with salary increases and are forced to cut positions, observes Diana Lauber, managing director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.


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