Expanding My Impact through the Chicago Principals Fellowship

Jo Easterling-Hood headshot

Note from The Fund: Jo Easterling-Hood, an alum of the 2015-16 Chicago Principals Fellowship, authored this post. In its first two years, the program served 41 principals in schools citywide. 32 of them remain principals, and three of them have been promoted to district leadership roles. The third cohort of The Fellowship will serve 24 principals, impacting 16,000 students in grades PreK-12.

I have had the pleasure of serving as the principal of McDowell Elementary School on Chicago’s Southeast side for nearly 20 years. In that time, my team and I have worked with our parents and the broader school community to improve teaching and learning in our school, creating the vibrant school community that visitors see today. Even though I am a veteran principal, I constantly seek opportunities to hone my skills and build my professional capacity to be a more effective leader. For that reason, I was honored to be selected into the Chicago Principals Fellowship last year.

As part of the Fellowship, our cohort worked with incredible faculty from Northwestern University and met monthly with CPS Chief Education Officer Dr. Janice K. Jackson to discuss improvements to citywide programs and policies. My project for the year was to work with a small group of my colleagues to revamp the district’s principal mentoring process in a way that both complies with state law and provides necessary support to principal mentors and mentees.

This project was near and dear to my heart because I mentored for various programs, including LIFT, LAUNCH, New Leaders and now the CPS Chicago Leadership Collaborative for the past 15 years. I am proud to count many successful principals, assistant principals and district leaders as my former mentees. As a result, I know the power of an effective mentoring experience, and how this early support can develop and retain great school leaders in our district.

Moreover, as an experienced mentor, I know firsthand the challenges of preparing new principals to meet the expectations of a demanding job. I also know principal mentors traditionally receive little training and few resources to do the job well. Beginning with a new state law in 2014, principal mentors were asked to submit a lot of paperwork about their mentoring relationships but received minimal preparation, making the role even more challenging.

My Fellowship group worked in partnership with Dr. Jackson and Dr. Zipporah Hightower – both former principals themselves – to create a revised mentoring structure, which will launch officially next fall. The new approach provides principal-led professional development throughout the year and “master mentors” as a resource to other mentors. I am optimistic that the changes will better support both principal mentors and their mentees with the result of developing and retaining the district’s best and brightest leaders. Additionally, we will create a premier mentoring model that other districts can emulate.

Opportunities like these, which were a result of my Fellowship, made me feel validated and respected as a professional. The Fellowship reminded me of why I do this work and inspired me to continue leveraging my principal experience to make an impact at McDowell and on all public schools in Chicago.