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‘Aspiring’ program provides DCSD leaders with confidence, support needed to become principals

CASTLE ROCK – A program created by Douglas County School District to strengthen its school leaders and to potentially prepare them to one day become principals, is receiving some national attention.

The Aspiring to the Principalship program, which is in its second year, has provided an opportunity for promising DCSD staff members, including teacher leaders and school administrators, to learn what it takes to lead a building.

Following an intensive interview process, the participants join a cohort which meets monthly to explore the many different issues that a principal might face, and to prepare for command.

“A lot of being a principal is just being able to react quickly to situations, even when you don’t know the answers,” said Marc Schaffer, DCSD’s Director of Middle Schools. 

In one of the activities, the participants randomly draw different situations and must react within 30 seconds or less. 

“It creates a little bit of disequilibrium, intentionally,” Schaffer said. “We want that because as a principal you have no control of what your day looks like.  A lot of times, you are the face of the school.  You are on stage and in front of people. Sometimes that’s micro; it’s one or two people. Sometimes it’s an audience of 500 people. What do you do? How do you respond? What is your public face?”

Over the course of several months, the group is introduced to experts in different fields, so they can learn human resources practices to the intricacies of special education law.

“It is a lot like a think tank. It is an opportunity for our leaders to work together to hear from one another about lessons learned,” Schaffer said. 

“It's at the end of a long school day, but then you go to the class for another three to four hours, but it was always exhilarating. You were always learning something new. Especially, you were always learning something new about yourself as well,” added Christopher Ness, an assistant principal at Highlands Ranch High School.

VIDEO: Meet Christopher Ness, Highlands Ranch H.S. Asst. Principal

Unlike licensure program where the focus is largely on theory, the emphasis of the Aspiring program is the practical knowledge and skills that will be needed, as well as the participants’ capacity to assume leadership. 

“Leadership is 360 degrees. It encompasses a lot, but it is the human quality, that dimension, that intangible that you can’t get in a class or through a reading. It is that human quality that we learn from each other, we draw from our experiences. We recognize it is important to fail in order to learn and to move forward,” explained Schaffer.

The result of the program is easy to see. 

“There has been a growth in confidence,” explained Steve Johnson, DCSD Director of High Schools. “It has given them a clearer sense of themselves as leaders. They carry themselves differently.”

“One of the things that has really helped me with that program, is to build a command presence, build confidence, to where I feel like I can become a principal right now,” said Chris Zimmerman, an assistant principal at Cimarron Middle School.

VIDEO: Meet Christopher Zimmerman, Cimarron M.S. Asst. Principal

“When I very first started out as an assistant principal it was still again very intimidating, even though you're in that role, you don't feel very confortable in just approaching people and talking with them. I think that is one thing that I've really worked on,” said Christopher Ness, an assistant principal at Highlands Ranch High School. “You feel that you can tackle any situation. You can talk to any person. You can deal with any student.”

A handful of participants from the program have become principals, including Kelli Smith of Flagstone Elementary. She says the program taught her how to interview and the importance of creating an “entry plan,” which helped her to successfully transition to the principalship.

“We spent a lot of ground work last year in building what it could be like, so when I did step into the role, we had those relationships built, so we could have those critical conversations about how to move forward,” Smith said.

VIDEO: Meet Principal Kelli Smith, Flagstone Elementary

 Whether or not the others ever plan on taking that next step, the directors say the skills they’ve learned translate into their current positions, making them more effective.

In March, Director of Elementary Schools Patty Hanrahan, Schaffer and Johnson were invited to present the Aspiring to the Principalship program at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development conference.

The interest they saw there proves there is a need for this type of professional development in districts across the country.

“There is undoubtedly a national need for good leadership,” Schaffer said. “There is a need to grow and nurture leaders within an organization.”

The goal in Douglas County is to retain the District’s shining stars, providing them with the skills they’ll need to one day lead our District in one capacity or another.

LEARN MORE: Our Aspiring to the Principalship participants share their experiences on DCSD's YouTube channel:

April 8, 2014 | By rmbarber | Category:

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