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CPS trying to stanch rapid turnover of principals

Students walk through a hallway at Emiliano Zapata Elementary Academy, 2728 S. Kostner Ave. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Students in 119 Chicago Public Schools — serving more than 70,000 of the city’s 380,000 students — started the school year with a new principal.

And at least 37 of those schools started the year with their second or third principal in four years.

Getting those hires right is crucial for kids’ success, the Chicago Public Education Fund said Monday, issuing recommendations to ensure strong leaders take over public schools and stay there. The privately funded organization wants Chicago Public Schools and its 126 charter schools to anticipate leadership needs, cultivate a pipeline of talent and secure the right match when a new principal is needed.

Steve Tozer, the founding head of the principal-preparation Urban Education Leadership program at the University of Chicago at Illinois, lauded Chicago for “getting increasingly aggressive about making sure there’s a strong principal in every school,” calling the principalship “the single most cost effective lever for improving schools.”

Tozer credits principals with the academic progress of CPS students as the district churned through seven CEOs, “a recipe for disaster. This system should be in the toilet right now but it’s not. . . . These folks can buffer a school against this kind of churn at the top that’s normally really detrimental to schools.”

But last year, Chicago had an especially terrible time hanging onto principals, and not just in CPS-run schools, where 84 of 86 new hires happened at existing schools. Thirty charter schools and three other schools also hired a new school leader, the Fund reported.

Heather Anichini, who heads the Fund and its focus on principal improvement, said that “principals in Chicago have more hiring authority, more curriculum authority than other cities, and a lot more budget authority,” which makes finding strong candidates tricky but essential.

Local School Councils have chosen 430 sitting principals. An additional 86 were installed by CPS leadership. Charter schools hire through their governing boards.

A new Chicago Principal Partnership launched by CPS and the Fund that seeks to match eligible principal candidates with school openings aims to help the parents, community members and teachers elected to the LSCs by showing them who’s available, CPS’ Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson said, and “ensuring that we have a core of people on the bench ready to take on those roles and more people to choose from than one or two high quality candidates.”

On average, CPS sees about the same principal turnover than the state as a whole — about two leaders at the same school over six years — but the state has reported about two dozen Chicago schools that that have had at least four. Data for individual charter school campuses is not yet available.

Principals have told the Fund they leave CPS not so much for money but for more autonomy and less paperwork. The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association has said its members complain of being micromanaged.

CPS has freed 49 talented principals from network oversight. Jackson said she’d consider doubling that number.

The Chicago Public Education Fund's 2016 School Leadership Report by Maureen T. Cotter on Scribd