When Lauren Albani started her principal internship at Skinner North Classical School last July, she didn't act like an intern. Instead, she acted like an assistant principal, and that made all the difference. "The parents felt comfortable with Lauren right away, and very quickly she became the first person they would call when they had questions or concerns," said Dayna Fetzer, Skinner North teacher and an instructional leadership team member at the school.
Albani owes much of her confidence on that first day to being well prepared, thanks to her intensive coursework in the competitive Urban Education Leadership program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is earning her Doctor of Education degree. The principal internship is a key part of the program because it provides students with invaluable real-world experience that can be applied when they take the helm at their own schools.
Real-world experience is certainly what she got when she was assigned to Skinner North—Principal Ethan Netterstrom saw to that. "I wanted to make sure Lauren was exposed to a wide range of things right away so she could get an accurate sense of what a principalship is like," he said.
According to Netterstrom, Albani jumped right in starting from day one, and has been working on a number of high-profile projects as a member of Skinner North's instructional leadership team. Among other activities, Albani is leading teachers in analyzing and using Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessment data in their classrooms and in integrating the Common Core State Standards into the school's curriculum. She also is the lead for Skinner North's Response to Intervention team and has helped implement the longer school day in the school, which is one of the 13 "pioneers" in the Longer School Day Pioneer Program.
After teaching for four years in another district, Albani was ready to make a change. "The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) need strong school leaders in order to face the many challenges that being in an urban environment presents," Albani said. "So many kids are not getting the education they deserve. I always knew I wanted to do more to help these students, and this program was the perfect jumping off point."
Albani said that, while her internship at Skinner North entails a lot of long hours, she has enjoyed the many challenging, hands-on experiences it has provided. "One of my favorite parts of my role is the relationship I have built with the teachers here. It's really important to have an atmosphere of trust. Teachers are on the front lines, and it's hard work. So it's really important that we, as school leaders, give them what they need to be successful."
Fetzer confirmed that Albani is well-respected by teachers at the school, and described her as professional, yet easy-going and solution-oriented, yet thoughtful in her decision-making. "Lauren understands that we, the teaching staff, are professionals, and she treats us that way. She puts teachers first. She communicates to everyone, not just certain subsets, and follows through on what she says she is going to do," explained Fetzer. "Lauren attends our grade level meetings, so she knows what goes on in the classroom and what is expected academically of our students—all necessary in order to speak knowledgeably to parents about their children's achievement," she said.
Fetzer added that, in Netterstrom, Albani has a good model to learn from. "She is picking up on a lot of good habits," she said, noting that this real-world exposure to a successful principal like Netterstrom is "really the only way to get experience since there's only so much you can learn in a classroom."
Serving as Skinner North's principal intern, Albani is not only benefitting from the principal's good habits, but also from his positive attitude about his work. "I love it," said Netterstrom, who has been a principal for three years and an assistant principal for the three years before that.
"This is the best job in the world, Netterstrom said. "I can't imagine doing anything else. Gone are the days when principals stayed in their offices, only interacting with students to dole out discipline. There's so much variety in what I do—whether it's coaching teachers, providing social and emotional supports to our students, analyzing achievement data, talking to parents and community leaders, scheduling staff or working on the annual budget—I never get bored."
Albani plans to stay in the district after she earns her graduate degree. Netterstrom, on the other hand, would like her to stay right where she is, at Skinner North as his new assistant principal beginning next fall. "The assistant principal position was vacant when Lauren joined last summer, and now I can't imagine anyone else in that job. But, of course, I'll support her if she gets assigned to her own school. I think she is ready for it."
Whether she formally joins Skinner North next school year or another school is the system, one thing is for certain—through the real-world experiences she is gaining in her internship, Albani is proving herself to be the kind of school leader that CPS needs more of in order to be successful in its mission to ensure that every student has access to a world-class education in every community and graduates college- and career-ready.
CPS supports giving aspiring principals the training and hands-on experience they need, especially regarding the unique challenges of the district and their role as change agents within their schools to do what's necessary to drive student achievement. That's why CPS formed the Chicago Leadership Collaborative as a principal training and support program designed to ensure that every school has a highly effective leader.
As part of this initiative, the district aims to develop deeper and more interactive partnerships with principal preparation programs, like the one at UIC that Albani is a part of. All CLC partners must apply through a Request for Proposal process to ensure that their programs align to the CPS core standards and provide candidates with the supports they need to be successful within high-needs schools throughout the district. Working with these partners, CLC will recruit, train, support and retain effective principals, creating a pipeline of highly qualified and high skilled leaders to meet the district's growing needs.
CPS expects to determine partners by spring 2012. Applicants would be recruited to begin a one-year program with one of several partners in June 2012. An application and screening process will explore each candidate's education and professional abilities. Candidates will be eligible to enter CPS schools as new principals beginning in fall 2013.
Within the CLC program, aspiring principals will receive both instruction and mentoring to help them become effective instructional leaders that can support teachers and help drive student performance. For example, they will learn firsthand how to create time in the day for teachers to talk with each other and share best practices. Aspiring principals will learn the value to spending time within classrooms to identify best practices and determine areas where teachers need coaching, professional development and other supports.
During their residencies, aspiring principals will receive mentoring and coaching from high performing principals and learn how to create a positive school culture by effectively engaging with key audiences—including Local School Councils, parent groups, community organizations, teachers, staff, students and families. By gaining this experience, aspiring principals will be better prepared to work with these groups as a new principal.
"The end goal of this initiative is to improve student achievement by giving our new principals the tools they need to succeed," said Jean-Claude Brizard, CPS chief executive officer. "As I've often said, the best gift we can give a child is a great teacher, and the best gift we can give a teacher is a great principal."
About Skinner North:
The mission of Skinner North Classical School is to become the premier elementary school in Chicago by providing excellent academic, social and emotional learning opportunities for all students. The vision of Skinner North is to provide challenging instruction for academically advanced students. Through effective management practices, we will utilize all available resources to provide quality staff development and foster parental involvement and community partnerships. Skinner is part of the Fullerton Network and the North/Northwest Collaborative.
There are five Classical Schools (Decatur, McDade, Poe, Skinner North, and Skinner West). They begin with full-day kindergarten and continue through the sixth grade, with the exception of Skinner West, which continues through the eighth grade.