How We Retain Our Top Principals

By Dr. Janice K. Jackson

Note from The Fund: Dr. Janice K. Jackson is the Chief Education Officer of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and leads the entire academic arm of the district, which includes 660 schools and 13 Networks. Before this role, Janice was the Chief of Network 9, where she supervised 26 schools, serving 14,000 students. As a principal, she led the Al Raby School for Community and Environment and then became the founding principal of George Westinghouse College Prep. Janice is an alumna of the 2014-15 Cahn Fellows Program.

It’s no secret that great principals are the key to great schools. They hire and retain strong teachers, engage with parents and school communities, and build school budgets that meet the unique needs of every child.

But while this work is rewarding, it also comes with tremendous challenges. As the CEOs of their buildings, principals operate under high-pressure demands around instruction and accountability, being responsible for the success of both the students they serve and the staff members they supervise.

The intensity of the role has led to high principal turnover in Chicago, with 60 percent of our leaders leaving the job before the end of their fifth year. Though this number is consistent with other large urban districts, I know CPS can do better.

So how do we best support our principals and keep them leading our schools longer?  Along with our partners, CPS is attempting to answer this critically-important question. Our Department of Principal Quality coordinates opportunities for distinguished principals to expand their leadership impact – including working groups, mentoring and helping assess our next principals through the CPS Principal Eligibility Process.

When we’ve asked principals for their feedback, they’ve consistently provided us with the same answer – high-quality, differentiated leadership development opportunities that target their unique needs.

Two such opportunities are the Chicago Principals Fellowship and the Cahn Fellows Program, both of which focus on executive and instructional leadership. Both programs were recently expanded to include more of our district’s top-performing principals, and I’m proud to say that after two years, nearly 90 percent of participants in the Chicago Principals Fellowship continue to lead in CPS.

The Chicago Principals Fellowship was designed jointly by Northwestern University, CPS and The Chicago Public Education Fund (The Fund) to improve the skills of strong principals and give them a role in education policy.

In addition to leadership sessions and executive coaching at Northwestern, the fellows meet with me monthly to discuss the CPS policies that directly impact their work. Over the course of the school year, the Fellows conduct due diligence around potential improvements, then provide me with recommendations like a revised principal mentoring structure for the upcoming school year (read more about this improvement to principal mentoring here). The Principal Fellows are a valued resource to our Department of Principal Quality. They attend our meetings, and we gain insightful information from the principals’ experiences that influence the content for our Aspiring Principal, New Principal and Aspiring Assistant Principal courses. It has been my pleasure to work closely with the Principal Fellows, and I consider them to be critical thought partners in our shared work of improving student outcomes.

Equally valuable to our school leaders, the Cahn Fellows Program gathers 30 top-performing principals from Chicago, New York City and Newark, NJ to provide rigorous experiential learning over fifteen months. With a grant from The Fund, eight of the participating principals are from Chicago.

As a former Cahn Fellow, I can attest to the value of this professional development on my leadership, especially in preparing me for my current role.

Supporting principals in the short-term will retain them in the long-term. This is why CPS is providing more principals with increased autonomy through our Independent School Principals (ISP) program, and why I’ve created a Principal Advisory Council to help me evaluate which policies are working and which ones need to go further.

But CPS cannot do this work alone. We must work with our partners to identify and expand opportunities that support our leaders so we can keep them where they are needed most – connecting with families, mentoring teachers and shaping the lives of our city’s future generations.

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