Northwestern to Train and Support Chicago’s Top Principals

Northwestern to Train and Support Chicago’s Top Principals

Unique three-year program aims to fortify skills of 60 exceptional principals

In an effort to bolster talented principals, Northwestern University faculty will provide leadership training and executive coaching to top educators from Chicago Public Schools. 

The Chicago Public Schools Principal Fellowship program is a three-year partnership between Chicago Public Schools and Northwestern’s Center for Nonprofit Management at the Kellogg School of Management and School of Education and Social Policy.

The Chicago Public Education Fund (The Fund) will invest $500,000 in the initiative. The Principal Fellowship is also supported by the Crown Family.

James Spillane

Designed to challenge and invigorate already high-performing principals, the year-long program uses cutting-edge leadership development techniques, said SESP professor James Spillane, a key architect of the program and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor of Learning and Organizational Change in the School of Education and Social Policy.

The initiative is unique because Northwestern faculty will provide six days of academic training and a 360-degree assessment, which involves receiving performance feedback from a variety of coworkers, rather than solely relying on a superior. The fellows also will receive group and individual coaching from Northwestern experts.

“The 360 evaluation is a terrifying experience, but those who have had it say it’s the most helpful thing they’ve ever done,” said Jane Hoffman, assistant director of non-profit executive education at Kellogg. “Leaders don’t realize people are watching them all the time.”
CPS officials are committed to recruiting, retaining and developing talented principals, according to Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer of CPS, the third-largest school district in the nation.

Recent data suggest that principal effectiveness improves over time, peaking and stabilizing in the fourth or fifth year a principal is on the job, said Byrd-Bennett. “Yet only 40 percent of principals remain in that role after five years,” she said.

In return for one year of development training, the fellows commit to staying in leadership roles at CPS for the next three years.

Penelope Peterson

“This is a wonderful opportunity for Kellogg to partner with SESP to help outstanding Chicago Public School principals grow their leadership skill set and increase their impact across the district,” said Liz Livingston Howard, director of Nonprofit Executive Education at Kellogg.

In addition to Hoffman and Spillane, the program was also designed by Howard, director of Kellogg’s Nonprofit Management Executive Education programs, and Penelope Peterson, dean of Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

The collaboration between the schools of business and education was natural, Peterson said. “Both programs work to train effective leaders and inspire personal growth.”

Spillane’s research on distributed leadership over the last decade will serve as a central and unifying theme of the program. A distributed leadership perspective involves recognizing that leadership involves many stakeholders in addition to the principal or CEO of a company.

Another key theme centers on the concept of "diagnosis and design," said Spillane, a professor of human development and social policy and an associate at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

“Diagnosis or figuring out the nature or cause of something --  declining enrollment, poor performance, increasing staff absenteeism -- is critical,” Spillane said. “But diagnosis without design is meaningless. Design is about shaping things in our environment to a particular purpose such as formal positions and organizational routines.”

Mary Cunat, one of 21 fellows named to the inaugural class, said she is excited by the program’s collaborative nature and that the content is based on the unique needs of CPS principals.

“It’s a commitment vs. compliance opportunity,” said Cunat, the principal of Wildwood Elementary School. “Here’s a real chance for committed principals to think around corners, get ahead of the curve and be thought leaders. "Hopefully, our work as fellows with Northwestern becomes a lever to support and accelerate overall system improvement." 

Before becoming an elementary school principal, Cunat worked as a classroom teacher, assistant principal and helped develop educational leadership programs, including designing courses for veteran principals in conjunction with the Kellogg School of Management.

“I know the quality of the Kellogg programs and I know they push really great strategic and systems-type thinking,” she said. “They have protocols and processes that help you think through different scenarios.”

“If we really want to be a world-class system, we have to push back on traditional approaches to teaching and learning,” she added. “Having an opportunity to have these conversations with other dedicated principals is invaluable.”

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 11/4/15