Tara Cass jumped the line to become a public school principal—and took with her some tips she learned at a charter school during an unconventional leadership training program.
Cass (pictured) is one of 10 New Haven educators who have finished the Residency Program for School Leadership. The program launched three years ago as an experimental collaboration between New Haven Public Schools and Achievement First charter network, which had previously been locked in bitter disputes. It launched with an ambitious goal of becoming a national model for how charter schools and traditional school districts can work together to share best practices and develop leaders from within teaching ranks.
Cass was one of the first five “residents” to sign up for the program in 2011, when it was just getting started. Residents spent half a year at an Achievement First charter school and the other half under the tutelage of a mentor principal at a traditional New Haven public school. The program aims to address a shortage in high-quality principal candidates—and give talented leaders a way to rise quickly in the district so they don’t get frustrated waiting in line for promotion and skip town instead. Click here and here to follow one resident’s journey through the program.
Teachers who signed up for the program faced skepticism from their peers about associating themselves with charter schools. Critics said they were looking to “jump the line” to become principals, recalled Matt Taylor, who oversees the program on behalf of Achievement First (AF). Taylor spoke at a recent event at Yale School of Management honoring the 25 people who have graduated from the program—including educators from Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven public schools as well as from AF.
Before joining the program, Cass had been teaching at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. She had risen to be the coordinator of the school’s Advanced Placement program. She taught for 11 years, three of them in San Diego, before deciding she wanted to leave the classroom and take on a leadership role.
Cass enrolled in the Summer Principal’s Academy at Columbia University in 2011. That fall, she signed up for New Haven’s nascent training program for aspiring principals.
Cass spent the first half of the school year at Amistad High School, one of the five charter schools Achievement First runs in New Haven. She encountered a different way of doing things. She learned how to “create and monitor systems” that hold kids and adults to standard expectations across the school. That fall, the school was just trying out a new way to track student discipline using software called Kickboard.
Cass encountered some methods she wanted to bring back to New Haven public schools, and some she didn’t.
AF’s behavioral management system “would be impossible to implement in a public school,” she concluded. AF schools are known for holding kids to rigid rules for how to behave and suspending them at higher rates than at traditional public schools.
“You have to be more flexible” in traditional public schools, Cass said. Whereas students at charter schools can leave and join neighborhood schools, neighborhood schools often must accept all comers, including kids expelled mid-year from other schools, she noted.
(Update: Samantha Miller, director of partnership operations at AF, replied that some participants in the residency have adopted “elements of our school culture systems” and used them “to fit their personal leadership styles as they lead traditional district schools.”
“The goal of the Residency Program is to give school leaders a variety of tools and the flexibility to use those tools as they see fit,” she said.)
The way AF trains its teachers, however, struck Cass as worth replicating. At AF schools, every classroom teacher has a “coach” whose job is to observe, support and train him or her. When a classroom teacher wants help with a lesson plan or needs someone to model a method of handling kids’ behavior, the coach is there to help. Coaches also conduct the teacher’s job evaluation.
In New Haven public schools, Cass recalled, “you didn’t necessarily get coached.” Assistant principals have all sorts of duties, including organizing bus dismissals and prom. They “weren’t really coaches.” Teachers have some access to math and literacy coaches. And they have “instructional managers” who are supposed to evaluate them. That division—where coaches do not evaluate the teacher—creates an “us versus them” mentality, Cass reasoned. The AF model—where the coach helps the teacher and also evaluates him or her—was not prevalent in New Haven’s school system.
Another conclusion she reached: Principals and assistant principals in New Haven’s system “have to do everything” in a school, while AF schools have clearly delineated roles for who runs the school’s operations, student culture, and who is the instructional leader.
Cass spent her second half-year at Sound School under the advisement of then-Principal Steve Pynn. She said Pynn “lived” his “core values” and “taught me how to live mine.”
She came up with a vision for a school that is a “safe, supportive and challenging environment,” and a “model lab school for leadership” among students and staff.
Cass didn’t get to create that vision right away: After her residency, she didn’t land an official administrative job. She went to Nathan Hale School, a neighborhood K-8 in the East Shore, as a teacher doing an administrative internship. After a year there, her time came: Her principal, Lucia Paolella, retired.
Last fall, after 13 years as a teacher, Cass became principal of her own school, Nathan Hale.
Cass said some people were skeptical about her quick rise to leadership.
“What makes you think you can skip AP [assistant principal]”? someone asked her during her interview for the principal post, she recalled.
By that time, she had spent two full years developing her values as a leader and her vision for how she would run a school.
When she started the job last fall, she brought what she had learned from Amistad to Nathan Hale: She started coaching teachers. Cass, who doesn’t have any assistant principals, doesn’t have the staff to offer as much coaching as AF schools do. But she said she has started coaching seven teachers on a weekly basis, stopping in to their classrooms and helping them build skills in emotional intelligence. And she is training other teachers to do the same.
Cass said she has also tapped a teacher to become a “dean of students” at her school—a role that’s more typically found at an AF school.
Cass said her year-long residency has taught her that “in order for education to get to the next level, we need to suspend some of our perceptions of charter or [traditional] public schools. Neither is going to work if we stay with the same model.” Both have areas that need improvement, she said, and “there’s great stuff going on in both places.”
The residency program has been a test of whether New Haven and Achievement First could maintain that frame of mind.
“Over the last decade, charter and district schools have been at loggerheads,” Taylor noted. New Haven public schools and AF used to fight bitterly over funding and whether charter schools are serving enough special-needs, English-language and transient kids.
“After a good decade of uneasy cohabitation,” both sides decided to try to work together, Taylor recalled. The partnership, forged under former Mayor John DeStefano, is supported by Mayor Toni Harp, who served as a keynote speaker at last week’s event.
Gemma Joseph-Lumpkin, New Haven schools’ executive manager for district strategy and coordination, said maintaining a working relationship has not been easy.
“We’ve had longstanding disagreements with Achievement First,” she said. “We’ve had a clash of cultures at times. But as a result of those clashes, I think both [organizations] are better off today.”
An initial three-year grant that funded the program has dried up, Joseph-Lumpkin said. But she said New Haven and AF are committed to finding the money to keep the program going. AF pays for the staff to coach and train the aspiring principals. New Haven pays for residents’ salaries during their year of training, she said. She said a grant from First Niagara Bank covered the three New Haven residents’ salaries this year, which amounted to about $225,000.
Seven residents completed the program in its first two years. So far, three—Zakiyyah Baker, Zakia Parrish and Cass—have landed principal jobs. Three others have become assistant principals. The seventh, Jenny Clarino, just got a job last week as an assistant principal at Lincoln-Bassett School.
Three city educators—Stephanie Paris-Cooper, Laura Roblee and Kimberly Danily (pictured above)—just finished the residency last week along with eight counterparts from Hartford, Bridgeport and AF.
None of the three has landed a job yet.
Danily, who taught 6th grade at Celentano before signing up for the residency, said she is hoping for one of the city’s six vacant assistant principal posts. Like Cass, she would be taking a shortcut to leadership: Danily taught for just four years before becoming a resident. She was making a career change after seven combined years working at Anthem Blue Cross and as a management consultant. She said she has learned a lot during the residency, including the AF mantra: “feedback is a gift.”
As she awaits word on her job prospects, Danily has “strong faith” that she will land where she is needed—and take with her some of the lessons she has learned over the past year.